Nel's New Day

December 20, 2013

Stop War By Doing Nothing

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:23 PM
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Congress has given us a great gift this year. The segment of government designed to make law for the nation managed only 58 public laws during the past twelve months—public laws being measures of broad impact. This year is only half the 113th Congress, but if the number of laws passed would triple in the second year of this Congress, it would still be at the bottom. Yet Congress has kept the United States, at least temporarily, out of war. And they did this by doing nothing.

Congress bills

Ten years ago, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney drove Congress into a hawkish frenzy by spreading lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Ten years later, the reasonable people of the U.S. know that there were no WMD, and many members of Congress who voted to give Bush carte blanche to declare war in the Middle East have regretted their votes. To most people in the United States, another war is anathema.

This year, Iran has been the potential war zone, and, much to the dismay of the war hawks, Secretary of State and President Obama have agreed to a six-month agreement in which the International Atomic Energy Agency will increase inspections to daily ones from the past bimonthly checks and halt the installation of any additional centrifuges used to enrich uranium. It will also dilute the country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent and stop construction at the heavy water reactor in Arak while will produce plutonium if operational.

In an international exchange, six countries—United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia—will provide “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible” relief from sanctions to Iran. Approximately $4.2 billion of Iranian funds will be released as well as $1.5 billion worth of sanctions on “gold and precious metals, Iran’s auto sector, and Iran’s petro-chemical exports.” During the six-month period, embargoes against Iranian oil, banking institutions, and other financial sanctions will remain in place, but there will be no new sanctions.

In typical snarky manner, GOP members complained about the possibility of avoiding war. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) tweeted, “It’s amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care.” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) issued a statement that the deal “appears to provide the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with billions of dollars in exchange for cosmetic concessions that neither fully freeze nor significantly roll back its nuclear infrastructure.”

Sen. Marco Rubio said:

“I think this is a big win, I hate to say it, for Iran. I think they’ve taken a step forward in solidifying their position. And I think we’ve seen this play out before. This is very, very similar to what the North Koreans did at the end of the Bush presidency, and we’re seeing repeating again the playbook we’ve seen before.”

As usual, GOP members of Congress are on the opposite side of public opinion. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll released last month showed that a large majority of people approve of the agreement with Iran. Only 30 percent of the respondents disagree with the agreement.

One cause of the opposition may be that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used strong language against the agreement, “wigging out” about it to quote Tufts University professor Dan Drezner on his Foreign Policy blog. Yet some current and former high level Israeli officials disagree with Netanyahu’s anti-agreement rhetoric.

A bipartisan group of 79 U.S. national security experts have praised the diplomatic efforts, including two former National Security Advisers to U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. They wrote:

“We support President Obama’s decision to seek a first phase understanding with Iran to limit Iran’s nuclear program now. The agreement under discussion would slow crucial elements of the Iran program, make it more transparent and allow time to reach a more comprehensive agreement in the coming year.”

There still is the slightest possibility that Congress could start a war in Iran this year. Twenty-six senators—13 of each party—introduced legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran if the country breaks the deal to curb its nuclear program. But the bill will take weeks for a vote and then go to the House before the president vetoes the bill. Despite Iran’s declaration that passing this bill would destroy the negotiations among the world powers, these 26 senators are determined to move forward while the agreement is successful. The initiators of the bill refuse to wait until there are problems with the agreement.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a Time interview that “the entire deal is dead” if Congress passes new sanctions, even if these would be triggered only by the failure of the talks. He explained:

“We do not like to negotiate under duress. And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere.”

Fortunately, ten chairs of the 16 standing Senate committees are taking action against the attempt of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to start a war with Iran. They  have written a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asking him to reject Menendez’s efforts to tighten sanctions against Iran. In their letter, they state that “at this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”

MoveOn Executive Director Anna Galland wrote:

“Democrats like Senators Schumer and Menendez should stop supporting Republican efforts to undermine President Obama’s diplomacy. The last thing our country needs right now is another war. It is shameful and wrong for Senators to intentionally undermine the potential for a negotiated, diplomatic solution. We urge all Senators to avoid action that heightens the risk of conflict.”

A major argument to support the agreement with Iran is that former Vice President Dick Cheney hates it. He hates it so much that he can’t even be coherent in his arguments. In his appearance on the Fox network, he argued that the agreement is bad because of health care issues:

 “We don’t follow through and Iran we’ve got a very serious problem going forward and a deal now been cut. The same people that brought us ‘you can keep your insurance if you want’ are telling us they’ve got a great deal in Iran with respect to their nuclear program. I don’t believe it…. I don’t think that Barack Obama believes that the U.S. is an exceptional nation.”

Cheney is the man who led our country for eight years into two wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in deficit.

For his part, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this year that the best way to evaluate Congress isn’t by legislation it passes, but rather, Congress “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.” They fail on this basis, too, as they focus the repeal on only one law—the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps Boehner meant that the best way to evaluate Congress is by the number of times that it repeals one law.

Let’s hope that Congress continues to do nothing and keep us out of war.

December 18, 2013

Affluenza in the U.S.

Have you ever had a case of affluenza? If you aren’t wealthy, chances are that you escaped this disorder. But 16-year-old Ethan Couch suffers from this horrible problem. In a recent Texas case, psychologist Gary Miller testified that the teenager who killed four pedestrians while driving drunk—three times the legal limit for adults in the state—should be excused for his behavior because of his affluenza. Couch and several of his seven passengers in a pickup truck got the alcohol by stealing two cases of beer from a local Wal-Mart. In addition to the alcohol, Couch’s blood test noted valium.

According to the psychologist, Couch’s condition is caused by a child’s sense of entitlement that make them irresponsible because parents, usually wealthy ones, fail to set appropriate boundaries. Miller told the story of Couch’s dysfunctional life with neglectful, divorced parents who failed to discipline him for driving when he was 13 or being found two years later in a pickup with a naked unconscious 14-year-old girl. “This kid has been in a system that’s sick,” Miller said. “If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”

Fortunately for Couch,  Judge Jean Boyd understood the terrifying disorder and gave Couch ten years of probation for the deaths although prosecutors asked for the maximum 20-year prison sentence. The parents are sending their son to a rehab facility in California that costs $450,000 a year. During his year there, he’ll participate in horseback riding, yoga, and art therapy. Miller’s justification for the ten years of probation was that Couch always got everything he wanted. Miller has succeeded in reinforcing Couch’s “anything-I-want” lifestyle.

The concept of affluenza is not new. Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter of a former president of General Motors, popularized the term in the late 1990s in her book, The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.  Over a decade ago, documentary filmmaker John de Graaf and Duke Economics Professor Thomas Naylor explain in Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, “It’s as if we Americans, despite our intentions, suffer from some kind of Willpower Deficiency Syndrome, a breakdown in affluenza immunity.” But only Miller seems to be exonerating Couch’s crime because of the disorder.

Last year, Judge Boyd sentenced a 14-year-old black male to ten years in juvenile detention after he punched a man who died after fallingl and hitting his head on the pavement. It’s obvious that this teenager didn’t suffer from affluenza. According to the judge, he needed punishment and personal responsibility for his action. He also didn’t have the money for an expensive attorney.

Both the teenagers pled guilty to their acts; they just went in different directions. One of them is white, and the other black. Nationwide, blacks represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of detained youth, 46 percent of youth judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of youth in state prisons. Minorities receive harsher treatment in the juvenile justice system from arrest and detention through adjudication and incarceration even if they allegedly committed the same crime as white youth.

For all youth, however, the increasing prevalence of privatized prisons means greater overcrowding and violence toward the incarcerated. Putting delinquent youth together makes them more deviant and more of a threat to themselves and others in a situation called “peer delinquency training.” At the same time, being in prison aggravates mental illness.

Couch may benefit from his mandated rehabilitation, but the 14-year-old black teenager sentenced to ten years won’t have any of this benefit. Like other kids in prison, he will face greater risk of self-injury and suicide—two to four times more than the general youth population. Threats of suicide create greater danger to the youth by putting them in solitary confinement.

Even if prisoners survive, they will lack education and training when they get out. About 43 percent of them won’t return to school after they are released, and two-thirds to three-quarters of those who enroll will drop out within a year. The result is high unemployment, poor health, shorter life spans, low income, and threats to public safety. Those imprisoned for delinquency are less likely to grow out of this than those who “age out” through maturation and experience.

Prison may be one answer for violent or high-risk youth, but up to 70 percent of young people in prisons, jails and detention centers are serving time for nonviolent offenses.

Blacks constitute almost one million of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States and are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of whites. Although the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. If blacks and Hispanics were imprisoned at the same rate as whites, the country’s prison and jail population would decrease by 50 percent. Current trends, however, indicate that one in three black males born today will spend time in prison.

About 14 million whites and 2.6 million blacks report using an illicit drug. Although five times as many whites as blacks admit using drugs, ten times as many blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses as whites. Blacks represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users but 59 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses. In addition, blacks serve almost as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites to for a violent offense (61.7 months).

In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80 percent of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites. Yet more than two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic.

A recent study by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. shows that juvenile detention is a highly counterproductive. The United States spends about $6 billion on juvenile corrections each year (about $88,000 per bed), despite evidence that other strategies might be more effective. Illinois, for instance, is using electronic monitoring and well-enforced curfews as alternatives to detention for a number of nonviolent crimes. While these types of alternative punishments can often do just as much to deter crime, they don’t do nearly as much long-term damage to the kids involved.

Eleven states passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons, and eight states passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Laws in four other states enabled juvenile courts to take cases in which juveniles would automatically been tried as adults.  Twelve other states have made it more likely that juveniles won’t be transferred into the adult system. 

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In the last few decades, the number of girls confined to youth prisons has been rising, and many of them are subjected to sexual assault from guards and other prisoners. The number of women in prison, disproportionately women of color, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. Again they face gendered violence.

The good news is that youth incarceration is declining—41 percent from its peak in 1995. In 2010, 70,792 young people were behind bars, compared to 107,637 fifteen years earlier. The sharpest decline came in the last five years. The bad news is that the decline is mostly with white youth. That’s affluenza.

December 17, 2013

Walker: The Big-Time ‘No’ Guy

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:54 PM
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Scott Walker, GOP governor of Wisconsin, tells people that he “loves being governor” when he’s asked if he plans to aim for the presidency in 2016. He also said that he might not finish his next term as governor. It’s pretty obvious that, although he has only 4 percent of support from Republicans, he’s aiming for the White House.

He’s published a book (written “with” Republican pundit Marc Thiessen, a Washington Post columnist and former President George W. Bush speechwriter), Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, and he’s giving speeches across the country. This is what presidential candidates do, not candidates for governor.

Walker’s theme is that the GOP needs to stop being the party of “no.” The debt and deficit are “moral issues,” according to Walker. The GOP needs to frame the debate as wanting “a better life for our children and grandchildren and to get there, we’re about reforming things.”

People who live in Wisconsin, however, know that “no” is Walker’s favorite word:

Women’s reproductive rights: Walker passed bills that cut state funding for Planned Parenthood, tighten requirements for abortion providers that eliminated half of them in the state, and require women seeking abortions to first get medically-unnecessary ultrasounds. Walker says “no” to rights for women and “no” to doctors making medical decisions for women.

Recalls: Less than a month ago, Walker headed up new restrictions on recalling elected officials. A proposed constitutional amendment passed by the Assembly would limit the recall power that has been part of the state constitution for eighty years to only felony or ethics violation charges. Fortunately, a constitutional amendment must pass the full legislature two consecutive sessions and then be approved by a statewide vote.

Walker did manage to pass a similar restriction on recall for municipal and school officials because only the Senate needs to pass this bill. If Wisconsin had had this law in 2002, they could have stopped the recall that led to Walker’s rise: Walker was aligned then with an attempted recall against then-Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament, who hadn’t been convicted of a felony or ethics violation. Ament resigned, and Walker was elected County Executive.

Education: Walker instituted severe cuts in the education budget while giving the money for corporations. “No” to funding for kids.

Judicial system: Walker is also pushing a constitutional amendment that would oust Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, an independent in the midst of corporate-supported judges. The amendment would change the selection process from seniority to peer selection. Out-of-state money has moved the state supreme court to the right in recent years.

Public access: Another Walker “no” is to limit public access to a proposed iron ore mine site in northern Wisconsin tourist areas.

Organized labor: Walker’s Act 10 took healthcare and pensions from collective bargaining for most public employees allowing local governments and schools to impose cost-sharing for those benefits instead of negotiating with labor leaders. Public employees also lost some of their wages because of mandated increased donations to pensions and health care.

Economic development: Walker claimed that taking money from taxpayers to give to corporations was to create jobs. Within six months, Wisconsin ranked 49th out of 50 in job creation, going up to 44th now. The year before Walker took office, Wisconsin was 10th in the nation. He promised 250,000 new jobs during his first term. Two-thirds of the way through the term, he still has two-thirds of the jobs to find—170,000. Now he says that his goal wasn’t actually a “magic number.” Walker continued, “I said, ‘it’s not really about jobs.’” So “no” to jobs.

Singing: Dozens of people were arrested in Wisconsin’s state capitol for singing. “No” to singing. Sometimes, Walker wouldn’t let people in the capitol. “No”  to entry. His “no” to singing got pulled back after tourists in the state capitol were arrested.

Nursing home abuse: Walker passed the Wisconsin Omnibus Tort Reform Act, making any state records of abuse and/or neglect in the state’s nursing homes declared inadmissable and unavailable to attorneys seeking damages on behalf of the victims of this abuse and/or neglect. The state also says no to enough investigators for these facilities.

Voter Suppression: After President Obama won Wisconsin in the last election, Walker decided that a Democrat wouldn’t win the state again. He has said no to same-day voter registration law to keep the voter turnout down. The 2011 voter ID law that would have disenfranchised more than 300,000 voters was struck down by two separate state courts. The law is also being challenged in federal court. Another Walker bill limits early voting. Thus Walker’s “no” is three for three in popular voter suppression laws: restrict registration, restriction voting, and restrict voters.

Marriage equality: Walker said: “I don’t talk about it at all. I don’t talk about anything but fiscal and economic issues in the state.” I think that means “no.”

Audience: When Walker tours the state to get opinions, he limits the crowd to invited guests. He says “no” to many of his constituents because they might not agree with him.

Unfortunately for Walker, Politifact examined Walker’s book for veracity of his claims:

Property taxes would not have gone up without Walker’s “reforms,” the way he claimed. His radical changes did save the average homeowner $20 for the first two years. Walker again said that taxpayers would save $680 over four years, but again the bill lacked that impact.

Walker used the excuse that the state is broke to do whatever he wanted, such as refusing $810 million in federal money to build a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison and forcing state employees to pay more for health care and pensions. Wisconsin was not broke and not $3 billion in debt.

The claim that 94 percent of employers now think that Wisconsin is heading in the right direction used a small non-representative survey that oversampled large employers and manufacturers.

An amusing episode from the Wisconsin 2011 labor battles was a prank call from journalist Ian Murphy who pretended to be conservative billionaire David Koch. Murphy asked if Walker would plant “some troublemakers” in the peaceful crowds protesting the anti-union legislation. Walker responded that his office had “thought about that.” In the book, Walker claims that they had never considered such an act, despite his having admitted he actually did consider the option in a press conference the day after the call. “God had a plan for me with that episode,” Walker wrote in the book in an attempt to spin away his lies.

Walker sometimes says yes. He said yes to new specialty license plates that read “In God We Trust” and “Choose Life.” He also says yes to the Koch brothers because of the money they give him for his campaigns.

He also scores high in cronyism, scandal, mismanagement and excessive partisanship. He said yes in his mismanagement of the national mortgage settlement funds and creation of the privatized and highly dysfunctional Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which lost track of some $12 million in taxpayer funds.

Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) used his office to promote donors’ interests, illegally used state troopers to track down his political opponents, and is being investigated for his aides’ illegal activity.

From the Walker campaign came this email:

“This year, we are celebrating the Holiday Season with a Black Friday special that is better than any deal found in stores. Instead of electronics or toys that will undoubtedly be outdated, broken, or lost by the next Holiday Season, help give your children the gift of a Wisconsin that we can all be proud of.”

The aide who wrote the email has been fired for demeaning Hispanics, but his message remains: Give up everything and give it to the GOP.

Walker is a prime example of the GOP “party of no” and a frightening symbol of future events with Republican leadership.

December 16, 2013

The Direction of Responsible Gun Legislation

The lobby to Sen. Manchin’s (D-WV) office has a bronze statue of an Old West lawman holding a gun, an award from NRA after his TV ad in which he fired a bullet through President Obama’s cap-and-trade bill. Always a “gun guy,” Manchin changed after the Sandy Hook massacre one year ago and introduced legislation requiring background sales for commercial sales of weapons. Support for this bill proliferated until the NRA killed it.

Wayne LaPierre, the 64-year-old face of the NRA, was paid $831,709 in 2011 for his success in keeping guns on the streets of the United States. One week after Sandy Hook, he attacked the news media, the movie industry, and video-game manufacturers with the NRA war cry of “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Starting in 1871 as a benign group teaching marksmanship to former Union soldiers, today’s NRA was formed gun-loving legislators such as senior Rep. John Dingell (R-MI) after the Gun Control Act of 1968. Two years after the lobbying group was created in 1975, the ousting of existing NRA executives led to the reign of today’s extremist Second Amendment absolutists.

By 1986, Dingell and friends passed the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, restoring gun rights outlawed 18 years earlier. The ban on assault weapons during President Clinton’s early years led to NRA’s targeting of Congressional members who voted for reason in gun control and then lost to Republicans in the next election.

Even the 1999 Columbine shootings with guns bought at shows with no background checks didn’t stop the NRA. By the 2007 Virginia Tech murders, politicians knew that they didn’t dare vote for any legislation that the NRA opposed. The horror of Sandy Hook led to over a million new members for the NRA.

The media repeatedly published the popularity among almost everyone in the United States—including NRA members—for universal background checks, but NRA panicked constituents by saying that Democrats, who faced difficult re-elections, supported a national registry of gun owners. The organization offered to help a watered-down background check pass before two more extremist groups, Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights, forced the NRA to back out of its agreement. Senators bailed on the bill after the NRA made paid calls to  its members.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told several relatives of slaughtered Sandy Hook children, “You know, I have an A rating from the N.R.A., so I’m probably not going to support this.”

A victim’s brother, 13-year-old James Barden, asked, “Senator, there’s over a thousand deaths from gun violence in Ohio every year. I’m here on behalf of my little brother, Daniel. Do you think that this bill would save some of those lives?”

Portman said, “It could. It could.” The senators who voted against background gun checks knew that the law could save lives but voting for it wouldn’t save their own re-election.

The attrition of gun owners may eliminate the NRA’s control. Between 1977 and 2012, 36 percent fewer households in the United States had guns. Currently the NRA is recruiting young military veterans and Boy Scouts while fomenting the fear that President Obama and his administration will not rest “until they’ve banned, confiscated and destroyed our guns, just like they did in England and Australia.” As with the Tea Party, the rabid rhetoric hurts the GOP among young people and Hispanics, and mainstream gun owners are more concerned with jobs and college tuition than a national registry.

A growing gun-control organization is Moms Demand Action, created by Shannon Watts, a 42-year-old Indiana-based public-relations veteran and mother of five. She said, “I think what’s been missing are the voices of mothers.” Most gun-control organizations “have been run by men,” she said.

“Women are the caretakers of the family, and the ones who make most of the spending decisions. Most of us don’t realize — I certainly didn’t — that it’s easier to buy ammunition than Sudafed. But the massacre of innocent children in the sanctity of their schools woke us up.”

Watts continues her activism, despite the fact that men show up her group’s events with semiautomatic weapons and she receives threatening phone messages against her and her children.

Two other gun-responsible organizations are Mayors against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions, co-founded by Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. With her husband, Giffords, the former representative from Arizona who was shot in the head while holding a meeting in a shopping mall, tours rural regions and meets with gun owners to build consensus on addressing the eminent killings.

The NFL, which keeps its football on the pulse of popular culture and acceptability, has rejected an ad for an assault rifle in the upcoming Super Bowl. Last year, sports commentator Bob Costas told the millions at halftime of a Sunday Night Football game that the “gun culture” was responsible for Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shooting and killing his girlfriend before killing himself. Costas also pointed out that “handguns don’t save lives.” In 2011 when Wisconsin let people with gun permits carry concealed weapons in public, the Green Bay Packers refused to allow these guns into Lambeau Field.

Extremist gun-lovers accused President Obama of using the Super Bowl for his personal propaganda as Adolph Hitler with the 1936 Olympics and called for a boycott of NFL games. They failed to consider that football is more popular than guns.

One recent federal achievement was the ten-year extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act, continuing the ban on sales or possession of firearms, including 3-D printed guns, that X-ray machines and metal detectors cannot detect. These guns are required to have a metal strip to make them visible in detectors. The NRA and GOP members of Congress opposed a Democrat proposal to require permanent metal components on 3-D printed guns.

Cody Wilson, a promoter of 3-D printed guns, estimates that 3-D gun blueprints have been downloaded at least one million times on file-sharing sites such as the Pirate Bay after the U.S. government banned Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, from downloading the file. Ladd Everitt, director of communications for The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he is more concerned about the organization’s ideology than printing the guns.  Wilson has been upfront in his intention to “foment insurrectionism,” Everitt said, “to send a message to our government and other governments around the world that you cannot regulate firearms because we can print our own if necessary, and if you go too far, we can use them.”

During the past year, state legislatures passed 109 gun bills out of the 1,500 that were introduced. Seventy laws loosen gun restrictions while 39 tighten them. Although unconstitutional, 136 bills nullifying federal gun regulations were also sponsored in 40 states. In the past year, 20 states have passed tighter gun restrictions, but 27 states have loosened existing gun laws. Some states have done both.

Gun control contributions were just 6.5 percent of what gun-rights advocates raised from 1989 through the 2012 elections. Gun rights candidates and causes raised $29.4 million in direct contributions to candidates, parties, and PACs at the federal and state level, whereas gun control causes raised just $1.9 million. Seven states–Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming—had no contributions to support gun control.

More than one million people in America have been killed by guns since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. That’s equivalent to the population of Austin, or San Francisco, or Columbus, or Indianapolis, or Charlotte, or Memphis, or Boston, or Nashville. If the number of children slaughtered with guns were killed by cars or medications, the country would change. MADD shifted the culture because drunk drivers were killing children. People didn’t say that laws couldn’t be made to lower the acceptable alcohol level for driving; they just did it.

According to the NRA and other people opposed to reasonable gun legislation, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Would the same people say, “Guns don’t kill children, children kill children”? In 2010, nearly three times more children and teens were injured by guns than U.S. soldiers wounded in the Afghanistan war; 83 children under five died from guns compared to 55 law enforcement officers killed in the line in duty. U.S. children and teens are 17 times more likely to die from a gun than their peers in 25 other high-income countries combined.

States with background checks have 16-percent lower gun fatality rates. Child access prevention laws reduce accidental shootings by as much as 23 percent. Australia passed a strict assault weapons ban and mandatory buy-back program and hasn’t had a single mass shooting since.

A year ago the NRA and GOP members refused to attend a panel on Face the Nation.  One person who showed up talked about restrictions on the First Amendment, such as not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Joking in line at the airport about bombs may put a person on the no-fly list.

What has saved almost totally unfettered gun rights for gun-lovers in the United States is that the mass killers have been almost 100 percent white and Christian. If Sandy Hook’s killer, Adam Lanza, had been a Muslim, gun laws during the past year would most likely have taken a different turn.

December 15, 2013

Fundamentalist Christians Go Too Far

Fundamentalist Christians have taken great umbrage regarding the proposed memorial that the Satanic Temple plans to put on the grounds of the Oklahoma statehouse (last Sunday’s blog). Not a great surprise! Bryan Fischer has used at least two segments on his radio show to explain that freedom of religion in the U.S. Constitution means only freedom of Christianity. No other religion need apply. Therefore Oklahoma can legally reject any non-Christian memorial:

“Our Constitution protects the free exercise of the Christian religion; yours is not a Christian expression, we’re not going to have that monument. If we don’t understand the word ‘religion’ to mean Christianity as the founders intended it, then we have no way to stop Islam, we have no way to stop Satanism, we have no way to stop any other sort of sinister religion practice that might creep onto the fruited plains.”

Fischer joins the religious lawmakers in Oklahoma who claim that they can reject the Satanic memorial because they live in a faith-based state. Again, their faith is almost certainly Christian.

Another religious memorial may be removed from federal land after a 24-year-old case. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ordered that a 43-foot cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego be taken down within 90 days. The ruling, however, would be put on hold if it is appealed. Two years ago the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The Supreme Court declined review, and the case went back to Burns to consider possible alternatives.

Charles LiMandri, an attorney for the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, said Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has signaled that the group backing the cross could return directly to the nation’s high court if it disapproved of Burns’ ruling. “Unless the U.S. Supreme Court denies review or takes it and finds it unconstitutional, that cross isn’t going anywhere,” LiMandri said. “At that point, we’ll go to Congress. We’re not giving up.”

ACLU represented the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and several local residents to challenge display of the cross. Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said, “We should honor all of our heroes under one flag, not just one particular religious symbol.”

Ohio wants to put pictures of Jesus back into public schools with its proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Rep. Tim Derickson says he plans to block further encroachment on expression of religious freedom such as prohibition of prayer in schools and public places, zoning issues for churches, and public expression of religious faith, such as wearing crosses and displaying Nativity scenes.

Patrick Elliott of Freedom from Religion explained, “The proposal creates special exemptions from state laws for those who claim any religious burden.” Anyone could complain about a mythical burden.

Seventeen other states already have such a law on their books. In DC, firefighters claimed they wore beards for religious expression, and two Chicago churches used the law to oppose land acquisition for an airport runway expansion. Ohio’s proposed law is similar to a 1993 federal religious freedom act that restored a “strict scrutiny” standard in religious freedom cases after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the scrutiny standard in a 1990 ruling.

religious cohabitation

Meri Brown, Christine Brown, Janelle Brown, Kody Brown and Robyn Sullivan of TLC’s The Sister Wives may now legally live together in Utah thanks to a court ruling. U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups struck down the state law preventing cohabitation between a married person and another person not his or her spouse. Although Clark didn’t use the word “polygamy,” he did refer to “religious cohabitation.”

According to the judge, Utah’s law violated the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment because the point of that provision in the statute is “to infringe upon or restrict” people practicing religious cohabitation “because of their religious motivation.” He used the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas that struck down sodomy laws when he noted, “Consensual sexual privacy is the touchstone of the rational basis review analysis in this case, as in Lawrence.”

Another change in Utah last week came from the Mormon leadership. Thirty-five years after the Mormon Church allowed black males to become priests in their church, they decided that brown skin is no longer a punishment of God.  In the Book of Mormon, dark skin is a sign of God’s curse because of the conflict of the two lost tribes of Israel who came to the New World.

The verses about the curse were to explain the dark skin of Native Americans. The blackness of Africans came from the stain of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. In 1960, Church apostle Spencer W. Kimball was delighted that Native Americans who converted to Mormonism were gradually becoming lighter skinned.

Friday’s document removing the stigma of dark skin in the Mormon religion blamed the nation’s prejudicial attitudes in 1830 when the religion was created. It didn’t explain why the discrimination stayed 150 years after the slaves were freed.

People lamenting the ignorance of children in the United States need look no farther than Christian education. Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), a fundamentalist curriculum founded in Texas in 1970, is commonly used with conservative home schoolers and in private Christian schools and government-funded voucher programs around the world. Jonny Scaramanga wrote:

“I went to an ACE school for almost four years. By the time I left, I was certain that it was against God’s will for governments to provide healthcare, evolution was a conspiracy to destroy Christianity, parents were morally required to spank their children, and science could prove that homosexuality was wrong. But worst of all was the feeling uneducated; I still struggle with self-conscious fears about gaps in my learning. ACE workbooks consist of simplistic fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice questions. And these questions are often hilariously, spectacularly bad.”

The article lists 33 of these questions. Here are a few:

wiscom: The pastor spoke with great wisdom.

 

  •  Wisdom means (a) a test  (b) Godly thinking  (c) tasty milk
  •  (Sports coaches, Piano tutors, Librarians) can touch the lives of their students. [Scaramanga explained that “piano tutors” is the right answer because that sentence had appeared earlier in the material and students were supposed to remember the sentence.] 
  •  The word alphabet comes from the Greek Letters ____________  and _____________.  Alpha and Iota    Beta and Gamma  Alpha and Beta   [Question for ages 15-16]

 

If you want to shake your head, go to the article for another 30 of these questions.

While ignorance grows among fundamentalist Christians, so does sex abuse. Christa Brown of Stop Baptist Predators is now asking for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like the South African group that put apartheid behind them. Veteran religion reporter Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal has also noted the attempts at accountability and reform moving through the Southern Baptist society after the lawsuit against C.J. Mahaney, leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson and a Liberty University law professor who investigates abuse, said that evangelicals are worse than Catholics and that too many evangelicals had “sacrificed the souls” of young victims. Mission agencies, “where abuse is most prevalent,” often don’t report abuse because they fear being barred from working in foreign countries, he said. Abusers will get sent home and might join another agency. Of known data from abuse cases, 25 percent are repeat cases, he said.

Georgia pastor Peter Lumpkins sponsored a resolution at this year’s Southern Baptist annual meeting urging urging denominational leaders “to utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliating with groups and or individuals that possess questionable policies and practices in protecting our children from criminal abuse.” His reference was to the way that SBC was ignoring their own resolution calling for “a zero-tolerance policy toward the sexual abuse of children in churches.”

Ken Starr, ruler of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial after his affair with a consenting adult named Monica Lewinsky, may have to take a few lumps because he thinks Christopher Kloman, a teacher who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing several female students should not have to do time.  Starr is President and Chancellor of Baylor University in Waco (TX)–the largest Baptist university in the world.  Christa Brown wrote: “Why should parents of high-school students feel any trust in sending their kids off to a university whose president writes a letter urging leniency for a man who molested teens?”

A huge travesty of the sex abuse crisis is that mainstream media fails to report it, instead choosing to protect the fundamentalist Christians. Perhaps, however, embarrassed religious leaders and bigots have reached the tipping point.

December 14, 2013

Protect Capitalism

The term “unfettered capitalism” has been frequently heard since Pope Francis said this practice is destroying our culture through rapidly increasing income inequality. Yet the practice of uncontrolled capitalism is highly popular with politicians whose campaigns are supported by the wealthiest, the CEOs who make hundreds of times more than their workers, and the wannabe wealthy who have this dream that they become richer because of capitalism. The other 99.9 percent of the population knows that unfettered capitalism is unsustainable.

Currently global capitalism—also called growth capitalism—is based on economic growth into perpetuity, one that consumes all possible resources. The planet on which we live, however, is finite and cannot support infinite growth. This has been obvious for several decades through climate change, increasing inequity with its extreme poverty, resource scarcity with food and water shortages, species extinctions, and the ever frequent financial crises. A high degree of dysfunction comes from the perpetual growth in consumption spurring a corresponding growth in public and private debt to fuel that consumption, roiling financial markets and sovereign finances across the globe.

At the same time, the current economic system fails to distinguish between investments that support the earth and the general welfare and those that increase income inequality, destroy the environment and earth, and damage public health. Unfettered capitalism cares only for the short-term effects and profits with no regard for long-term consequences. The mantra is “more and more stuff.” Even the country’s economic growth is based on people buying more and more things that they cannot afford. Politics is based on wealthy people and corporations buying politicians.

An alternative to unfettered capitalism is sustainable capitalism. Joe Keefe, president and CEO of Pax World Management, writes:

“Sustainable capitalism may be thought of as a market system where the quality of output replaces the quantity of output as the measure of economic well-being. Sustainable Capitalism ‘explicitly integrates environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into strategy, the measurement of outputs, and the assessment of both risks and opportunities…. encourages us to generate financial returns in a long-term and responsible manner, and calls for internalizing negative externalities through appropriate pricing.’ (“Sustainable Capitalism,” Generation Investment Management LLP, 2012, p. 2).

“Essentially, business corporations and markets alter their focus from maximizing short-term profit to maximizing long-term value, and long-term value expressly includes the societal benefits associated with or derived from economic activity. The connections between economic output and ecological/societal health are no longer obscured but are expressly linked.”

During the 1960s, environmental and social justice movements addressed the problems of unfettered capitalism. Slowly some of the worst pollution was cleaned up, and the civil rights movement began integrating racial minorities into the mainstream. Without regulations, industrial economies would have continued to degrade the earth. The costs in protecting the environment and enfranchising people were rejected in the early 1980s, and the country has been in denial about its reversal for the past three decades. Today’s economic chaos began 30 years ago.

The bursting of the dot.com bubble in the late 1900s led to Wall Street’s unethical financial house of cards in the 2000s, when people still ignored reality. Irresponsible borrowing and spending led to the economy’s collapse, and the lack of renewable energy sources development contributed to the global climate change caused by fossil fuel reliance. The income inequality is now the worst in a century. Even former Fed Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan, said that the income gap may  “threaten the stability of democratic capitalism itself.” A democracy based on exploitation is not sustainable.

As John Ikerd wrote:

“Capitalism was conceived during a time when the resources of nature seemed inexhaustible and society seemed invincible. We know now that both are finite and limited in their capacity to generate economic value. A sustainable economy must renew and regenerate as least as much as it extracts and exploits. We ultimately must confront the disquieting reality that an unbridled capitalist economy is not sustainable.”

“Spreading the wealth” is not to punish the wealthy but to keep society productive and stable. The wealthy depend on such a society.

The basis of sustainable capitalism requires a shift in thinking. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Economic development in the last two centuries has depended on a mechanistic view with humans the cogs in a machine. A continuation of our society depends on the concept that humans are interconnected with the world as a natural living ecosystem.

Even the writers of the constitution understood the importance of people working together for the benefit of all when they wrote “promote the general Welfare.” Classical economists understood an economy must function within the social and ethical bounds of an equitable and just society. If people lack sufficient food, housing, health care, education, and a healthy environment, they cannot contribute to a healthy society.

With sustainable capitalism, competitive markets guide the use of natural and human resources in the pursuit of individual self interests without diminishing the well-being of society or humanity. If this is not achieved, a society will lose all capitalism. With no regulations, capitalism lacks ethics and morality, becoming self-destructive.

Instead of the goal of maximum linear growth in GDP, sustainable capitalism considers the maximum wellbeing for minimal planetary input. Businesses are challenged to go beyond efficiency gains and redesign their business models. For example, businesses might move from selling products to leasing them.

Joe Keefe wrote that “that the greatest impediment to sustainable development across the globe is gender inequality. Advancing and empowering women and girls is not only a moral imperative but can unleash enormous potential that is now locked up in our patriarchal global economy.” For that reason, Pax World has developed the Global Women’s Equality Fund that supports the belief that gender equality needs to be a pillar of Sustainable Capitalism.

Another way to support sustainable capitalism is the public funding of federal elections. As long as lawmakers are held prisoners by the interests that they were elected to regulate, they will continue to support the wealthy. Third, asset management firms like Pax World, with $2.5 billion in assets, need to craft persuasive messages, launch new products, form new partnerships, and fashion distribution strategies and alliances to raise the industry.

The problem with a shift to sustainable capitalism is that businesses get caught in the rut of temporary success without thinking about their impacts. New developments are looked upon with suspicion. One company, Kingfisher/B&Q, began considering the sources of wood in its garden furniture during the 1980s and then moved on to peat-free compost, cleaner paint, and helping customers “ecovate” their homes. That led to partnerships with other corporations believing in sustainable capitalism.

In Maryvale, Conscious Venture Lab is searching for companies practicing sustainable—or responsible—capitalism, businesses with aims that include but aren’t limited to profits. Howard County funded the group with $750,000 for two years, one of many efforts to “prod corporations to do good while doing well.”

Unilever CEO Paul Polman, a top sustainable company among the multinationals, said one result of gridlocked governments is that “the need for change increasingly has to come from responsible business.” Companies that stop focusing on short-term profits to the exclusion of all else actually make more money.

A recent study by business professors from Harvard University and the London Business School concluded that “high sustainability” companies “significantly outperform their counterparts over the long-term.” Authors wrote:

“A more engaged workforce, a more secure license to operate, a more loyal and satisfied customer base, better relationships with stakeholders, greater transparency, a more collaborative community, and a better ability to innovate may all be contributing factors to this potentially persistent superior performance.”

In 2010, Maryland became the first state in the country to allow companies to form as “benefit corporations,” protected from lawsuits over decisions that put workers, customers or similar interests before profits. Much of the country has followed Maryland’s suit, either passing or considering such legislation.

It’s a start.

December 13, 2013

Push Back at Monsanto

The island of Hawaii has emerged victorious over a monster corporation: Mayor Billy Kenoi signed a bill last week that prevents biotech companies from operating on the island and bans any new genetically-altered crops other than papaya. In October Mexico banned, on an interim basis, planting genetically-engineered corn; last July Italy became the ninth European country to ban Monsanto’s GMO corn.

Europe is so unwelcoming that Monsanto has pulled eight of its nine pending applications with the European Commission. The company plans to continue its conventional seed business there and will try to renew approval to cultivate the one GM corn variety commercially grown in Europe. Its original application, approved in 1998, was the last one to be accepted there.

Millions of small-scale farmers in Africa have repeatedly objected to using GMO crops and want their governments to ban them. Traditional African farming systems developed a diversity of seed varieties to deal with farming challenges. Seeds have been bred for flavor and nutrition as well as adaptation to different soils and weather patterns, a far better system than GMOs. Another problem for African farmers is that saving Monsanto’s GMO seed is illegal while 80 percent of African farmers save seed that they have bred.

Monsanto, the producer of the killer defoliant Agent Orange with annual overall sales of $14.86 billion, claims that the corporation is “a sustainable agriculture company,” but Southeast Asia disagrees. Genetically-modified seeds destroy the soil while demanding repurchasing because of the renewable traits. Since 1995, 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide after insurmountable debt derived from Monsanto’s cotton. Many farmers killed themselves from pesticides intended for their crops. Part of the debt came from Monsanto’s unbelievable increase for a kilogram of cotton seeds from 7 to 17,000 rupees in just the year 2009.

GMO cotton cannot be intercropped with food crops, requires irrigation instead of being rain-fed, creates new pests demanding 13 times more pesticides than the traditional cotton, and fails to meet the claims of 1500/kg/year when farmers were able to harvest only 300-400/kg/year.

Another problem waiting to happen is the “golden rice,” a genetically-engineered variety designed to produce pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). Millions of dollars have been spent to develop this instead of solutions such as food supplements and fortification. “Golden rice” can easily contaminate non-GE rice, and traditional and organic rice farmers will lose their markets, especially export markets. Any unexpected hazardous effects could put people and food security at risk in countries around the world. For example, a diet based solely on rice could make malnutrition worse. When researchers fed the experimental “golden rice” to children in China, they failed to tell parents what their children were eating.

Europe is denying the applications with good cause. More and more evidence is emerging that Roundup, Monsanto’s top-selling pesticide destroys vital human intestinal bacteria and contributes to rapid increase of food allergies and serious human diseases including cancer, autism, neurological disorders , Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), dementia, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Children and elderly people are most susceptible to this poisoning.

Pigs fed GMO corn and soy feed had a notably higher rate of severe stomach inflammation, according to a recent study. Rats fed GMO corn died prematurely after developing tumors. A 2012 French study regarding these tumors, an investigation into the “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” was published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

As soon as the study was published, Monsanto raised concerns of bias and choice of rats. Although the researchers stand by their study, Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of the publishing journal retracted the study. An exhaustive investigation of the study resulted in no findings of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of data, but that the study was inconclusive. It is to be noted that the journal that retracted the study had recently appointed biologist Richard Goodman as associate editor. Goodman worked for Monsanto for seven years and has a history of supporting GMOs.

In the late 1990s, the scientist Marc Lappé, found that Monsanto’s claims that the increase of yields from their technology was highly overstated. After he wrote Against the Grain, Monsanto threated the publishers if they were to release the book. A year ago Monsanto bought out Beeologics, which had been concerned with studying and protecting bees from “colony collapse disorder.”

Insects are becoming far more resistant to GMOs, requiring the use of more and more pesticides. Sales of corn insecticide doubled in 2012 because of the rootworm resistance in the U.S.  The EPA recently raised the permitted levels of Roundup residue on grains and vegetables to more dangerous levels because of the growing resistance.

Last summer the World Food Prize Foundation awarded a Monsanto executive the “Nobel Price of food” for creating GMOs. The award is given to “outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.” In 2008 Monsanto gave $5 million to the foundation making the award, which favors industrial agricultural. Maintaining seed diversity and promoting healthy soil ecology are essential to “real food security” and a strategy more than worthy of recognition.

Farmers achieved a victory against Monsanto last summer after a court ordered the corporation to not sue farmers for patent infringement as they discover GE contamination. With that decision, farmers can now sue Monsanto for damages in a contamination problem without being concerned about a countersuit of patent infringement. A possible case is the discovers of Monsanto wheat in a crop, wheat that was discontinued several years ago.

Maine, along with Connecticut, has passed a GMO labeling law. There isn’t much chance of these laws going into effect, though, because they have three caveats:

  • Four other Northeastern states must enact legislation.
  • One must border Connecticut/Maine (respectively).
  • The four Northeastern states must have a combined population of at least 20 million.

Maine’s law requires one from New Hampshire; Connecticut can use Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts (which contains one of the world’s leading biotechnology hubs), and Rhode Island. All these states must pass the same law to reach the population unless New York decides to opt in.

Between 60 and 70 percent of all food sold in the United States is genetically engineered, but none of these foods is labeled as such. In last November’s election, Washington state came close to passing a law that would require food labeling of GMO products. Although 93 percent of the people in the United States support food labeling, the $22 million for anti-labeling advertising swung the vote in Washington at the last minute. Sixty-four nations, including all of Europe, have labeling requirements. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) is now planning to block labeling across the United States through federal law.

Much has been written about secret surveillance since Edward Snowden released records from the National Security Agency. Most people don’t know that corporations such as Monsanto and Wal-Mart also spy on activists and non-profit groups with little fear of retribution. These companies employ former CIA, NSA, FBI, military, and police officers to monitor and infiltrate groups critical of the corporations. According to a report from Essential Information:

“Many different types of nonprofits have been targeted with espionage, including environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing-home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups.”

Monsanto has purchased many members of Congress who try to pass amendments preventing state labeling laws and anti-lawsuit measures regarding Monsanto to the farm bill. Earlier this year under the guidance of former Monsanto lawyer Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO, the House passed the Monsanto Protection Act that allowed crops with GMO seeds to be planted and sold, regardless of a judicial order.

Fortunately, Congress seems incapable of passing almost any laws. Sending the budget bill to the Senate, once pro forma, was considered a miracle this past week. Let’s hope that Congress continues its pattern of  “first, do no harm.”

December 12, 2013

How George W. Bush Failed the GOP – Rachel Maddow

Meet the Press - Season 65Rachel Maddow is expanding her job responsibilities: she now has a monthly column in the Washington Post with a six-month contract.  I don’t read the Post regularly and wondered if I would come across her first column. No problem! Reprints popped up today in two of my favorite online news services, Truthout and Reader Supported News (RSN).

The mission of Truthout, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, reads: “Truthout works to spark action by revealing systemic injustice and providing a platform for transformative ideas, through in-depth investigative reporting and critical analysis. With a powerful, independent voice, we will spur the revolution in consciousness and inspire the direct action that is necessary to save the planet and humanity.”

Both sites provide writings from the greatest progressive thinkers of our time, and both come from Marc Ash. Truthout donations are tax-deductible; contributions to RSN are not. Ash wrote, “This is a new experiment: can an organization serve the community and still pay its taxes? The answer should be yes.” In neither case, however, do corporations control the content.

Ash started Truthout in 2001 after George W. Bush stole the presidency; RSN came along in 2009. Scott Galindez joined Ash at RSN the next year. Like many of us, he is “angry, and believe[s] that one way to take our government back is to inform the public of the truth.” What he asks from the readers is “to spread the news we provide.”

Sister site of RSN is Writing for Godot where readers can post their own essays. In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, Godot never comes, but many others do. Galindez writes that the “God” for which people wait can “be equated with social justice and order, tolerance and compassion.” These have not come for Galindez for the past nine years, but perhaps tomorrow …. And that’s why we follow progressive websites—reading about social justice and order, tolerance and compassion.

Since Jeff Bezos, the $33 billionaire founder/CEO of amazon.com, purchased The Washington Post, he has kept a low profile. Hiring Rachel Maddow to write a column speaks well of his intentions. In no way would I presume to paraphrase Rachel Maddow. Here is her column, verbatim, about how George W. Bush failed the GOP. You can go to the original to find links to more information about her subject. Thank you, RSN.

 

After a presidency, what comes next? Not just for the president but also for the members of the administration, the president’s allies in Congress, his or her political party?

In the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, no hearty saplings were ever able to take root in the shade of that big tree. No one expected Vice President Dick Cheney to ever be a contender for the presidency – part of his effectiveness was his willingness to say and do very unpopular things. When he snapped at ABC’s Martha Raddatz, “So?” as she questioned him about public disapproval of the Iraq war, he wrote the perfect epitaph for his vice presidency.

But by the time the Bush era was winding down, the whole administration, including the president, was stewed in terrible, Cheney-level disapproval ratings. And now, almost no one who played a significant role in that administration is anywhere to be found in electoral politics, beyond the tertiary orbits of Punch-and-Judy cable news and the remains of what used to be the conservative “think tank” circuit.

That’s true even for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who had no formal role in his brother’s administration but will probably always find the familial association an insurmountable obstacle to his own presidential hopes.

Unlike the Reagan administration, the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, the George W. Bush presidency elevated precisely no one to the ranks of national leadership who wasn’t there before. The 2008 Republican presidential primaries were like some odd eight-year cicada hatch in which the candidates went underground in 2000 and then birthed themselves after Bush and Cheney were gone, as if the intervening years had never happened.

The 2000 second-place finisher, Sen. John McCain? You’re next in line for 2008! And four years later: second-place Mitt Romney? You’re next in line for 2012!

The unpopular presidency of George W. Bush has proved to be a blackball on the résumés of a generation of Republican leaders. Maybe Cheney’s daughter Liz will break the pattern next year with a successful Senate bid in Wyoming, but if you made it through that sentence without spitting coffee out your nose, you’re in rare company.

The fascinating turmoil in the Republican Party since 2008 is not just a personnel problem – it’s also ideological. If you were putting together a legacy to inspire the next generation of conservatives, you wouldn’t pick the Bush administration’s trailing ends of land wars, budget deficits, torture, a crusade against gay rights and a financial collapse to rival the Great Depression. The isolationism and libertarian iconography of the Ron Paul wing of the party really does appeal to young people more than Bush-Cheney Republicanism. Social conservatives really do feel backed into a corner and ready to fight against a country that is turning against them faster than most pollsters can keep up. There really is something ripe for renewal in Republicans’ self-conception as fiscal conservatives, when the clear pattern is that budget deficits grow under Republicans and shrink under Democrats. The Republican Party is a churning swirl of conflicting ideological currents, and that’s going to take some time to work out.

But part of the reason it may be taking so long already is those lost years: the period from 2000 to 2008 that effectively obviated the authority and the leadership potential of all of Washington’s Republican elites. The George W. Bush administration didn’t just cast too much shade on the next generation of leadership – it also apparently poisoned the ground.

The Obama administration’s ability to nurture and support the next round of national leadership in the Democratic Party is going to be a big part of its long-term legacy. Unless Vice President Biden’s presidential hinting suddenly takes a turn for the serious, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the obvious inheritor of the party’s mantle. But, as in 2008, the Beltway may be overstating her inevitability. The grass roots aren’t all with her, frankly, and it’s yet to be seen if she’s interested in trying to win them over. Mainstream press may buy big-dollar donors (and more mainstream press), but it can’t buy the passionate volunteers and activists and excitement that are the oxygen for a winning campaign and sustained, effective leadership.

The collapse of national leadership prospects for the Republican Party is one of the greatest political failures and most important legacies of George W. Bush. Barack Obama looks less likely to repeat that fate, but it depends on a strong grove of nationally viable Democrats starting to grow now. The crescendo of attention to Elizabeth Warren is a healthy part of that process, as is the growing national interest in such diverse Democrats as Sherrod Brown, Claire McCaskill, Cory Booker, Wendy Davis, Martin O’Malley, Deval Patrick, Andrew Cuomo and Amy Klobuchar.

Inside the White House, the task of growing one’s own successors must seem like one of the less pressing items on the president’s long daily to-do list. But the previous administration’s trail of scorched earth and exiles has curtailed the prospects for the Republican Party and governing conservatism more profoundly than almost anything that administration pursued in terms of policy. It is a cautionary tale that Democrats and the Obama White House should heed sooner rather than later. Grow your successors, nurture your legacy.

December 11, 2013

The Volcker Rule?

If you’re anything like me, you avoid complicated financial situations created by the government. I’ve heard about “the Volcker Rule” for a long time and knew it was important, but nothing I read about it made any sense to me. Heidi Moore changed all that in her Guardian article. Below are quotes from the article. Thanks, Ms. Moore!

Who is “Volcker”?

Paul Volcker is … the 86-year-old former chairman of the Federal Reserve and all-around wise man in finance who believes the financial system is not working the way it should be. Three years ago, when Congress was talking about Dodd-Frank financial reform, he started worrying about something: banks were taking big risks by investing their money in stocks, bonds, commodities and other risky assets. That was called proprietary trading, and it was kept hidden from the public.

Volcker envisioned a day when a bank would make a big, secret stupid bet with its own money, and then it would lose so much money that it would hurt the rest of us: either the bank would be in so much trouble that our deposits would be at risk, or the bank would require a bailout, or both. Volcker wanted to find a way to prevent that. So he (and hundreds of other people) started writing the Volcker Rule.

What is the Volcker Rule news this week?

After three years and many big fights, five big regulatory agencies have voted to pass the rule: the Federal Reserve, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Why did it take so long?

It’s worse than that, actually. Volcker first started talking about the rule in 2009, so it’s really more like four years. And the rules don’t really go into effect until July 21, 2015 for banks overseen by the Federal Reserve. Midsize banks, with less than $50 billion in assets, have until 2016. Small banks–the ones with less than $10 billion in assets–don’t have to start fully cooperating until 2017. So we’re talking about an eight-year gestation period in some cases.

Eight years! Why is it taking so long?

A few reasons. The biggest one is that … banks didn’t like it and spammed regulators with nearly 20,000 comment letters, not to mention all the money they spent on lobbyists to fight it. Another reason is that all the agencies insisted on passing the same exact version of the rule, and that took ages of back and forth. It’s amazing it got this far. Even now, a lot of people expect it to get watered down.

What’s wrong with banks investing in things? 

Theoretically, nothing’s wrong with investing, except that banks are bad at it and, as we saw in 2008, when they make bad decisions we have to bail them out. Banks lose absurd amounts of money on proprietary bets all the time; $1 billion isn’t unusual, and some, like the London Whale trade, lose $6 billion.

Between 2006 and 2011, banks made $15.6 billion on proprietary bets and they lost $15.8 billion. So they came up short, with $221 million in losses. You’d be better off flipping a coin in many cases than betting the way a bank does.

That sounds like … not a smart business model.

Yeah, but there’s a reason banks stay in that business. When they hit the jackpot, they really hit it. Like a gambler, that chance of a win keeps them in the game, even if it’s only a temporary profit. And anyway, when banks lose money, their executives don’t lose their personal fortunes for the most part. So there’s really no incentive for those executives to stop allowing stupid trading decisions.

Has any bank lost money for its shareholders by using deposits to make bad bets?

I’m so glad you asked. Do you remember the London Whale scandal? It’s all explained here, if you want to revisit it. The bank had a $350 billion “chief investment office” that was fueled purely by “excess customer deposits.” That bet went bad and JP Morgan lost $6 billion. The bank is so profitable that it could absorb the loss–that time. That kind of thing would be a violation of the Volcker Rule now.

I’m not sure I really understand proprietary trading and why it’s a problem. Can we go over that again?

Sure. Think about it this way: for years, banks were middlemen, buying and selling things for other people. They’d find a good price, and then broker a deal. They were in the moving business, shuffling securities like stocks, bonds, commodities, and derivatives out the door as fast as they came in, from this guy to that guy. That is called “market making.”

Sometimes their customers would want to take big risks, say, that General Motors stock would go down. But any bet can go wrong. So the banks would find a way to help the companies hedge their bets: if they bet that one stock or bond would go up, the bank would help them find another one that would go down. That way, the company wouldn’t lose all its money on a single bet. That’s called “hedging.”

Here’s the twist: in both market-making and hedging, banks hold on to the stocks or bonds or derivatives temporarily until they find a buyer on the other side. But you can’t see that temporary money in your account, watching all that money passing by you, walking through the building, and not want a cut, right? So more and more banks have been stepping into the center of trades, looking at what customers are doing and then taking a chunk of those deals for themselves to make a profit on the side.

Is there a more tangible way to see it?

Okay, here’s another way to see it:

“It might be easier if you think of stocks and bonds like rugs, and think of the banks like rug merchants. So what is the job of a rug merchant? He buys rugs from the makers, and sells them to other people. But he also keeps some of the inventory for himself–the rugs that he thinks will be valuable one day. Banks are exactly like that. They buy and sell stocks for their clients, and then there’s some stuff off to the side that they are holding onto–that they think is the really good stuff.

“The Volcker Rule wants the banks to stop hoarding rugs, because sometimes, those rugs don’t turn out to be really valuable. They turn out to be junk. And then, when the rug merchant – or the bank – has too many worthless rugs, the government tends to come in and as we know, bail them out.”

Buying and selling those rugs on the side is how banks do proprietary trading. Investment banks like to make investments with “their own money” in things like stocks, bonds, real estate, and commodities.

Why did you put “their own money” in scare quotes? Isn’t it their money?

Well, banks don’t really have their “own money” any more. A long time ago, investment banks used to be partnerships owned by small families or groups of rich men, all Rothschilds and Lazards and such, and they actually did put their own money, from their own bank accounts, into things like oil wells in Nigeria and Russia. They still made stupid bets often, but they lost only their own money if they did.

And now?

Banks now almost purely consist of other people’s money. Almost all the big banks are public companies, listed on major stock exchanges. JP Morgan, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley–all public companies, just like Apple or GM. Their owners are not rich bankers; their owners are anyone who buys their stock. The benefit of being public is that banks have a lot more money to play with–all those delicious billions from shareholders! It’s a nice little cushion for stupid bets.

Plus, all the big banks get the privilege of borrowing money really cheaply from the Federal Reserve. So that’s already a subsidy for them to help them make profits. The idea that banks have their “own money” is a convenient illusion. If JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon or Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein or Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat allow bad trades, they don’t lose any of their personal fortunes.

But isn’t that what banks do? They take our deposits and take risks with them. They take those stupid risks to make more profits, probably. And when banks are profitable, isn’t that better for everyone? It’s better than bailing them out all the time.

That’s right about taking risks with deposits. But it’s not just making a profit that counts–it’s how they make a profit. It’s about taking manageable risks. Usually, things like loans are manageable risks; the math on them isn’t too hard, and you can generally predict the losses. Things like complex mortgage securities are not because almost no one is smart enough to know what they’re worth. When banks take risks and make money, it’s great. When they lose money, taxpayers have to step in to bail them out.

The Volcker Rule is, for some, a way to bring back some order in the markets, a kind of nostalgia for a simpler time.

The Glass-Steagall Act, right? That was a big deal for Occupy Wall Street.

Exactly. Investment banks and commercial banks were kept separated between the 1930s and 2000 by a law called Glass-Steagall. The purpose of Glass-Steagall was to prevent banks from taking stupid bets with customer money.

What was the difference between investment banks and commercial banks?

Investment banks mostly existed to handle the markets–stocks, bonds, commodities, derivatives, advising companies on mergers, or bankruptcies. They were risky, so they weren’t allowed to get bailouts or special lending rates from the government. Now all the big investment banks are gone. Bear Stearns and Lehman collapsed, and Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs were forced to become commercial banks in 2008 during the financial crisis so the government could bail them out.

And commercial banks?

Then we had banks that existed to take care of our deposits, and they weren’t making bets on the markets; they were called commercial banks. Those banks took our deposits and made loans to people and companies. That kept money moving through the country and the financial system. You’re part of it. Whenever you put your paycheck in your savings account, you get an interest rate, right? That interest rate is actually a rental payment from the bank to keep your money with them.

In turn, by depositing the money, you’re giving the bank permission to take the money in your savings account and rent it out to other people in the form of loans and mortgages. The banks make their profits by taking the difference between the low interest rate they pay you on savings, and the slightly higher interest rate they charge other people to borrow money.

Okay. I think I get it. All our banks are now commercial banks that hold our deposits and Paul Volcker doesn’t want them to do stupid gambling things with our money.

Exactly.

Good luck with that.

December 10, 2013

The Poor on Human Rights Day

Sixty-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; its drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt because of her expertise. The document, celebrated every December 10’s Human Rights Day, defines the world’s commitment to human rights as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Human rights standards for everyone include “the right to life, liberty and nationality, to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to work, to be educated, [and] to take part in government.”

From the beginning of years of the 21st century, the United States has been increasingly negligent about human rights as the government supported torture, unjustified imprisonment, and other unethical and illegal violence. Within this country, however, the government has failed millions of people in poverty as Congress has increasingly failed to support a safety net while creating an economy that promotes this poverty.

Because of  bad or nonexistent legislation and a president who struggled to compromise with recalcitrant, extortionist lawmakers in the House, the poor are in the midst of a losing game. The sequester that further puts the screws to the poor digs deeper on January 1, one week after the Christian holiday that celebrates a compassionate Jesus. Here are a few experiences, the poor can expect, thanks to GOP House members:

Homelessness: Budget cuts from increased sequestration will take rental assistance vouchers away from 140,000 low-income families by the beginning of next year, making housing more expensive as agencies raise costs to offset the budget cuts. About three million disabled seniors and families will be affected to save the $2 billion that the government shutdown cost in back-pay to federal workers.

Cold: Those who can stay in their homes may not be able to heat it. Sequester cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) meant that 300,000 low-income families in 2013 were denied government support for energy costs. 

Hunger: The recent reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, affecting more than 47 million Americans, is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964. Those cuts were made on November 1, but the House isn’t satisfied. Their goal is to take $39 billion from SNAP during the next decade. The result is loss of benefits for 3.8 million low-income people in the upcoming year. An additional 2.8 million will lose benefits each year. Last year alone, SNAP kept 4 million people out of poverty.

Cutting SNAP is just a start in creating more hunger. Cuts to Meals on Wheels will cost poor seniors 4 to 18 million meals next year.  The Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides health care referrals and nutrition to poor pregnant and postpartum women and children up to age five, took cuts of $500 million this year with far more next year.

Lack of Education: Head Start started to take children out of its program last March and removed 57,000 children from their classrooms in September. More than half of the public schools fired personnel because of cuts. Forty percent of children who don’t receive early childhood education are more likely to become a parent as a teenager, 25 percent are more likely to drop out of school, and 70 percent are more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Joblessness: The unemployment program in the United States is one of the worst in the developed world, and it’s getting worse. People out of work for 27 weeks or more–40 percent of the unemployed –have already begun and will continue to lose a large portion of their benefits between January and March. Eight percent of this year’s sequestration cuts are coming from unemployment insurance.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has given the party line that the GOP is doing unemployed people a favor by taking away their benefits because that will force them to get jobs. Evidence shows that government assistance helps the job searches of 4.4 million people. On January 1, 1.3 million will lose the extended jobless benefits if Congress doesn’t take action—which looks highly unlikely. Cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, or welfare) means even less of safety net.

A proposed shift in Social Security would keep fewer jobs available for the unemployed. President Obama proposes cuts in this program for 2014 through a new formula called Chained CPI. Instead of building an economy that contributes more taxes to the Social Security program, the government plans to keep more money out of circulation, causing more joblessness from fewer consumers.

Sickness: In the 25 states where GOP governors have refused to accept federal funding for Medicaid, a gap between the state’s version of Medicaid and the level for exchanges leaves more than 5 million people in poverty without health insurance. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the part of the Affordable Care Act requiring all states to extend Medicaid to people with household income up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level despite the federal government picking up the entire tab for the first three years and then gradually phased back to 90 percent.

The law states that people over 100 percent of the poverty line can go to exchanges, but those under 100 percent are ineligible. It was assumed that Medicaid would take care of them. The GOP governors changed all that. Coverage in Texas is almost non-existent for the poor: Medicaid is available to only these making less than 25 percent of the poverty level. A family of three cannot participate on the exchange if they make over $4,000, the state’s level for Medicaid, and $19,500, 100 percent poverty level.

Today, a bipartisan Congressional committee chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) released a two-year budget plan that they hope will pass both chambers. The poor is sure to not benefit from Paul’s work. He continues to believe that poverty can be cured by “spiritual redemption” as he again said in a speech last week at the Heritage Foundation. There were no specifics of how religion will put food on the table.

A missing part of the budget deal is any tax reform. Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s low tax rate is a prime example of the nation’s tax abuses. The “carried-interest loophole” allows investors to have their entire income taxed as if they were capital gains, saving them 19.6 percent on income over $400,000. Using the 20-percent capital gain tax rate instead of the 39.9-percent income rate takes $25 billion from the government and lowers the percentage of taxes paid by the wealthy below those in the middle class.

The refusal of 25 GOP governors to accept federal Medicaid funding is both driving up rates in their own states’ exchanges by 15 percent and returning billions of dollars back to the federal government. That means that everyone on exchanges have to pay much more, and the state doesn’t have the jobs resulting from improved economy that the federal infusion would provide. Just 15 of these states, including Texas, have turned down $8.4 billion in assistance.

The estimate of reduction to the deficit from the ACA has increased since the original projections. In 2020, Medicare spending will be $137 billion lower than thought in 2010, and Medicaid spending will be 16 percent, $85 billion, lower. Private health insurance premiums are expected to be about 9 percent lower. These projections are assuming a temporary slowdown, but the savings could actually be $750 billion over a decade.

The proposed deal is split between revenues through fees and spending cuts. Travelers will pay higher prices on airline tickets, and federal workers will have to contribute more to pensions. Millionaires and billionaires are safe from higher taxes. Defense spending takes half reduction of sequestration for 2014 of $45 billion, and non-defense discretionary spending takes the rest. The sequester’s cuts to mandatory spending are not affected. There is no chance of an extension for unemployment benefits.

As of today, the House plans to vote on Friday to pass the budget deal and delay the SGR’s cuts to Medicare’s doctor pay. There are no changes to Social Security and Medicare in the deal, but amendments can always change that. If conservatives have their way there will be another “continuing resolution” for a few days so that Republicans can avoid talking about issues such as jobs.

 

The struggle will be between the Republicans who are afraid that they will lose their next elections because the country knows they are unreasonable and the extremists who believe that no one can defeat. Three years ago, the mainstream Republicans thought the Tea Party would save them. Now they see them as a menace.

cartoon snake tea party

Later this week, the fight begins as conservative Republicans push to inflict the poor with more homelessness, cold, hunger, lack of education and jobs, and sickness because they think the poor deserve to suffer. Even if today is Human Rights Day.

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