GOVERNMENT INTRUSION OR GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE: AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL AMERICANS

By Paul

It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the main issue in the race for the presidency between Democrats and Republicans ultimately comes down to one thing: what is the role of government in our lives?

We see it played out over and over again.  The flavor of the week this week happens to be healthcare and how it is provided, or not, to people in this country.  The Supreme Court has set aside six hours – an almost unheard of amount of time – to hear oral arguments pro and con in regard to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), derisively referred to as Obamacare by virtually all Republicans.  What will the justices hear during these fabled hours?  The biggest and by far the most contentious part of the law surely has to do with the mandate that everyone has to be enrolled in the plan and pay according to his or her ability.

Not surprisingly, Rick Santorum, that most Tea Baggish of Republicans, has said that allowing government to tell us that we have to sign up for health insurance is nothing less than an “affront to freedom.”  We have to wonder if he feels the same way regarding the requirement that people sign up for car insurance before being able to drive an automobile, and if he thinks that this somehow makes us equally “unfree.”  If so, how might he feel the next time his wife is driving around town to pick up supplies for their home schooled brood of seven and gets into a fender-bender with an uninsured motorist?  Will he think that this is perfectly fine, and that it was simply a legitimate expression of that person’s freedom for him or her not to have bought car insurance?  I have to believe instead that he’d be as annoyed as any of us would under similar circumstances. 

But is there really such a difference between the two situations?  In each case, we have examples of the government requiring that individuals bear responsibility for themselves by purchasing insurance from a private company.  And by the way, I thought that this kind of personal sense of responsibility went to the very core of Republican values!  As it stands now, those of us who do have car insurance pay extra for those who drive without it.  In this situation, at least, the number of uninsured drivers is relatively small, because most of those who drive can afford insurance.  However, when it comes to insuring our health, that is to say, our own bodies, it’s not so easy.  There are currently almost 50 million Americans who are uninsured.  This is not because they do not want the coverage, it’s because they cannot pay for it.  They simply cannot afford it. 

And the future without the Affordable Care Act appears even more bleak.  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently estimated that, without ACA, by the year 2020 the number of uninsured Americans would rise to 60 million!  ACA may not be perfect, and no one – not even Pres. Obama – claims that it is, but at least it would provide an additional 33 million people with needed health insurance.  By contrast, the same CBO estimates that comparable Republican plans to reform healthcare would cover only 3 million, less than 10% of the Democratic plan! 

So, why is it an “affront to (our) freedom” for the government to require people to purchase health insurance (with those who are unable to afford it getting some level of government assistance in order to do so)?  That’s a question that Rick Santorum and the Republicans and Tea Party adherents are going have to answer, because I fail to understand whatever reasoning they may have.

The GOP likes to present itself as the party of fiscal responsibility.  But where is the responsibility the way healthcare currently works, when those without insurance put off medical treatment until the pain is just too great and until they have no choice but to go to the emergency room?  The truly poor then renege on paying the bill, because it is astronomically beyond their means, and the rest of us wind up paying, while others skimp and save as best they can to pay off huge bills, maybe eventually losing homes and going into bankruptcy in the process.

But let’s just forget for the moment all those pesky humanitarian questions about helping people who need assistance, which seem not to even to be part of the discussion these days.  Additionally, we’ll pass over the fact that the Republicans appear to be hell-bent on supporting bigger and bigger government involvement when it comes to intruding into the health lives of women, to say nothing of the legitimate consensual relationships of gay people.    

So, it seems as though there exists something of a discrepancy in how Republicans view big government.  Sometimes it’s apparently very, very good, and sometimes it’s really, really bad, and an “affront to (our) freedom.”  I just wish they’d get their story straight.  Which is it? 

For now, I think I can tell them, at least when it comes to healthcare, and we don’t have to get into all the technical arguments about the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and other such legal niceties that the Supreme Court is considering as we speak.  Why not instead just use our common sense and say that we all need health insurance, we’re all going to pay one way or another, and so why not create a sensible system that works, that covers everyone, and that uses a reasonable payment plan that everybody contributes into in order to make it work?  That would make sense for all Americans, wouldn’t it?  And from what I can see, no matter what certain GOP candidates may say, it doesn’t take away anybody’s freedom in the process either.

 

CAUGHT IN THE TAR SANDS QUAGMIRE

By Paul

I’m not claiming to be highly schooled in such things, but doesn’t it seem maybe a little too obvious that Pres. Obama was photographed not just once, but repeatedly, in front of stacks of ground-ready oil pipes in Cushing, Oklahoma  this past week?  The message was clear, even before he said his first word:  we are with you in your need and your desire for oil.  Oh, and of course let’s not forget that we’ve got to have people to lay those pipes too, which translates into jobs, jobs, jobs! 

 I kept wondering what the president could have been thinking as he stood  there talking about ordering the expedited construction of the southern portion of the XL pipeline down to the Gulf.  I hate to say this because I’m a great fan of Pres. Obama, but my fear is that he was thinking: how many votes will this get me come the fall?  

To be fair, let’s posit that the trip to Cushing was not about grandstanding, or at least not solely, and instead that it was part of the president’s “all of the above” strategy, which is itself inherently flawed.  In case you’re unfamiliar with that strategy, what it references is the notion that we need to use all possible energy sources, clean or not, in order to power our country. 

I suppose that for many people this approach has a certain immediate, almost intuitive appeal to it.  I mean, what’s wrong with saying that we cannot expect to power our houses or our factories, to say nothing of our cars, solely by clean energy in anything like the immediate future, and so in the meantime we’ve got to use all sources of fuel at our disposal, or risk ruining our country economically and falling farther behind competitors like China and India?   

But I believe that this is a false dichotomy; it’s not an either-or proposition.  Of course there is no doubt that we will continue to rely on oil for the foreseeable future.  We may not like it; I may not like it, but it’s the case.  However, it doesn’t follow from this that we have to continue on with a proposition like the XL pipeline, or with drilling in the tar sands of northern Canada.

Claiming that the oil that comes from these tar sands would remain in the US, or that the price of gasoline in the country would come down as a result of drilling in Canada, are both inaccurate and misleading statements.  The selling of oil takes place on the world market, and the price reflects that market.  No amount of drilling in Canada is going to substantially change either its availability to US buyers, or lower its cost to them. 

If we take a closer look at how the price of world oil is set, we see that it reflects and is ultimately determined by its perceived future availability.  That availability in turn fluctuates wildly due to political circumstances.  Markets are notoriously spooked first and foremost by anything that can be conceived of as instability.  Will Israel attack Iran?  Will Iran retaliate? Will Iran attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz?  If so, what will the US do? What will happen in Syria?  Will its current unrest and the atrocities inflicted upon its population by the Assad regime turn into a full-blown civil war, and will the chaos that ensues then spill over into the rest of the Middle East?  All this, along with the other side of the equation, namely demand, are the things that are making a difference in the price of gasoline at the pump, not whether or not Pres. Obama gives the green light to the expedited construction of a pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Republican candidates all know this.  And if they do not, they ought to get out of the race immediately, as they pose an even graver danger to the political and economic well-being of the United States than I currently dare believe.  But it’s politically expedient for them to blame Pres. Obama for “the rise in the cost of oil,” even when they fully understand that he has virtually no control over either its cost or its availability.  Just as none of them would, if they were to become president.  And on top of that, the healthier the US economy gets, the greater the demand for oil. 

But even in discussing these details, I have to think I’m wandering too far from the main point that I began with.  It might even appear that I am buying into the hype that more and more gasoline is needed.  No! What is needed is an energy policy that phases out gasoline, and indeed all bio-fuels, as quickly as possible.  We currently give enormous tax breaks to huge multinational oil companies, which already make profits that register in the billions of dollars every quarter, but by comparison almost nothing is given to those companies, few as they may be, that labor to bring about clean energy usage.  Does that make good sense – or, dare I say, good policy – at a time when the results of global climate change are becoming more and more obvious, and more ominous, every day? 

So, I get it that Pres. Obama has to work in order to be reelected.  And that’s a good thing.  God help us if he is not!  But I have to really hope that, given a second term, he will redouble and even triple his efforts to decrease our dependence on bio-fuels of all kinds.  It’s not just about saving the incalculable beauty of the northern Canadian landscape from the predations of dirty oil drilling in the tar sands there, although that itself is a laudable goal.  But what is much more vital – and I don’t believe this to be too overblown a statement to make – is that we need an energy policy that will ultimately save the planet.  Or to put it another way, as the planet will no doubt go on one way or another in spite of all that humans can do to ruin it, in the end we need a policy that will save the life forms on the planet.  This includes you and me, and your daughters and your sons. 

President Obama’s words last week notwithstanding, producing more oil and gas won’t help with this.  What will help is a plan that gets us off a dependency on oil and gas, and gets us onto a track that promotes a healthy and sustainable future for all of us. 

 

 

SCIENCE AND MYSTICISM, WILL THEY SOMEDAY MEET?

By Paul

“He (Pope John Paul II) told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”  Stephen Hawking writing in “A Brief History of Time.” 

I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” recently, and I have been wondering why it is that the late Pope might have declared it to be forbidden to delve into the Big Bang, in other words, into the beginning of the universe.  I have to say, I see absolutely no reason why it should be forbidden.  

But let me start first of all by saying that I am in no way a physicist, and I possess little or no background or training in science.  Still, the older I get, the more I honor what science can teach us, and I deeply respect the intellect and the profound curiosity about the origins of the universe evidenced by so many scientists today.  Indeed, from what I can see, science has taken up where philosophy once left off.  But just because I have no formal training in science, does not mean that I, or we, or any of us, cannot understand the basic concepts uncovered and elucidated by such thinkers as Stephen Hawking and his many colleagues throughout the world. 

Time began at the Big Bang.  Everyone seems to agree on that.  This is because there was nothing before it, or at least nothing that we can know.  Physicists refer to the Big Bang as a “singularity,” by which is meant a point in space-time at which the curvature of space-time becomes infinite.  Now, infinite is not a word we normally expect to hear from scientists.  We would think to hear it more from theologians.  But there it is, part of the currently accepted definition of the scientific term “singularity.”   The only other known singularities occur within black holes in space.  In each case, all laws of physics dissolve, both those which describe the universe at a macro-level, which is to say, Eisenstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and those which describe it from a micro-level, that is, Quantum Mechanics, which teaches us about all that is smallest in the universe. 

For the longest time now, scientists have been attempting to come up with a theory that would, in a sense, marry these two ways of understanding the universe, the unimaginably big and the unimaginably small.  Much progress has been made, and it seems as though ways have been devised to understand how three of the four basic forces of the universe do interact with one another.  These three forces are electro-magnetism, the strong force, and the weak force.  However, no way has yet been devised of incorporating the fourth force, gravity, into one Theory of All.  String Theory, and its cousin M Theory, have been proposed, but so far there has been no satisfactory way of testing this empirically.  And even then, there are a number of matters about this theory which remain controversial, not the least of which is that it posits eleven different dimensions, seven more than the standard four we currently have (i.e. up, down, across, and time). 

Understanding the Big Bang might unable us to see how all four forces of our universe interact together, thus allowing us to posit something like a One Force of All Theory.  This is because in such a case we could, as it were, peer into a “place” that was infinitely small, yet one which contained all that exists in the universe.  In the infinitude of its smallness, the Big Bang event contained at least in potential all the energy, all the matter, and all the antimatter that ever existed, exists now, or ever will exist in the universe.  Everything, in a sense, came from this infinitely small nothingness, and from there it spread out (at the time of the Big Bang) into what we now know to be our continually expanding universe.  Thus, the macro and the micro were one, bringing together the four great forces of the universe as we know them today. 

However, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle indicates that we cannot predict events with complete certainty (it states that we can measure the speed of a particle with great accuracy, or the location of the particle, but we cannot measure both simultaneously).  What follows from this is that, from the point of view of physics, we will probably never fully be able to predict things.  However, at the same time we know that, once again given a singularity such as the Big Bang, the ordinary laws of physics as we understand them cease to exist, and so within such a singularity, with its infinity of density, all of the basic forces must have merged.  Therefore, who is to say that what seems contradictory today in nature was not once in some way reconciled?  The same might also be true in regard to what is happening even now in black holes.

We may of course never be able to prove what happened in a singularity like the Big Bang, or even in a black hole.  Indeed, if the definition holds, it would seem to be almost contradictory even to try.  However, human beings by their very nature appear to be endlessly curious, even when it comes to those things which otherwise appear irreconcilable. 

So, I say bravo for those scientists who continue searching.  Or will the answer ultimately be found in mysticism, rather than in science?  In other words, maybe in the end science cannot go where its own tools by definition seem to be useless (although that is not the same as saying that it is forbidden to try).  Or maybe another idea is that someday science and what we now call mysticism will in some sense merge, and scientists will become the true seers of the age.  In fact, doesn’t the very definition of the Big Bang sound in certain ways an awful lot like some theologians’ definition of God?  I still remember the prayer we said as Catholics when I was a child, which ended in “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”  Sounds a lot like the singularity of the Big Bang, doesn’t it?  And after all, the very word science is derived etymologically from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge.

So, I say it’s OK – and more than OK – to look into the beginnings of the universe.  It’s actually not only all right, it is perhaps a requirement of being human.  It is maybe the very culmination of being human.  Hindu philosophy, too, talks a lot about the reconciliation in Spirit of all the contradictions of all the pairs of opposites.  And the Tao Te Ching declares: “Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.”  Could it be someday in perhaps the distant future that science-cum-mysticism will finally enlighten us about Infinity? 

 

WE HAD NO WINTER AND SPRING IS A MONTH EARLY…What Does This Mean?

Kevin painted the 2 ft x 4 ft oil landscape above in late summer, 1969, sitting in a field near where he lives now. In 2012, 43 years later, the same landscape will look like this by May.

We Are Enjoying a Very Early Spring

I just returned home from a business trip to Minnesota, March 12 – 15, 2012, where the high temperature on March 14 was near 80 degrees F. My colleagues and I ate dinner outdoors on an unheated patio near Minneapolis, in our shirt sleeves. We stayed outside long after dark, and were quite comfortable. Before that trip Robert and I slept in our new woodland cottage, under construction in snow country, with the windows open all night on March 10 and again last night, March 19. All of our apple, peach, pear and nectarine trees burst into bloom on St. Patrick’s Day, last Saturday. The daffodils and star and classic magnolia trees were in full bloom simultaneously by March 15, whereas they usually bloom weeks apart and a month later. We saw a forsythia bush in full bloom in the last week of February, and we were both amazed to see hundreds of daffodils in glorious flower on our way to our art gallery March 2. Today, March 20, thousands of tree frogs have begun their gloriously beautiful trilling around our pond. We have never before heard them until the end of April, and they are often silent until May. We are enjoying this early spring immensely, of course… It is exquisitely beautiful, and it is an apparent luxury to welcome spring at least a month early — probably a bit earlier, actually.

However, Our Enjoyment Is Mitigated by Some Real Concerns:

  • What does this radical departure from the normal rhythms, timing and balance of nature mean? Will we have 115 or 120 degree days in August? Will the US electrical grid be able to withstand that stress? Will there be gigantic killer tornadoes and hurricanes this summer? The insect population is booming now. What will it be like in a few months? What will that mean for the crops and the food supply?
  • How will such a warm winter affect the melting and seismic instability of Greenland and the polar ice caps? Could they break up and cause sea levels to rise suddenly and dramatically? Will the frozen methane beds in the seas be released?
  • What does it mean that we had no winter in 2012 and our pond never froze over? Our koi did not bury themselves in the mud and sleep with their hearts beating only once a minute. They were swimming around and eating throughout the winter that did not come. Some plants that should have frozen survived the winter. What are the implications? At what point will the plankton base of the food chain be affected?
  • Will there be consequences immediately or will they come later? Have we already passed the tipping point? Is it too late to reverse Global Climate Change? If so, is there any hope that geo-engineering can save life on earth?
  • What will it take for people to start consciously thinking and talking about Global Climate Change and taking action? Will we have to suffer a string of horrific disasters in which millions might die before we all start to acknowledge the gravity of Global Climate Change and its implications for all life on Earth?

Some People Seem Worried about Global Climate Change

Occasionally now one sees some concerned looks on people’s faces – even network TV weather forecasters – when there is talk of our very early spring after such a mild winter. But almost nobody talks about what it means. That has become unfashionable and passé along with Al Gore and his award-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” (Now is a good time to review that.) Most people where I live are simply delighted with all of this. Fully two-thirds of the population in my state do not believe in Global Climate Change caused by human activity. They apparently think that the world’s scientists are engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to deceive them… to what purpose I cannot begin to imagine. My neighbors are very happy that we had no winter and that spring is 4 to 6 weeks early. They hope it will be this way forever. I wish it could be so. I fervently wish we could stop the climate change merry-go-round at this point, but, of course there will be no arresting the momentum now.

Is There Still Hope? What Can We Do?  

Many climatologists’ interpretations of the data suggest that there may still be some time left before the buildup of greenhouse gasses reaches the point of no return and exponential warming, but the entire population of the planet would have to act decisively to take advantage of the remaining small window of opportunity. Other scientists are working on risky experimental geo-engineering strategies to cool the planet. Current unusual weather suggests that major climate-related events may be upon us sooner than many had predicted. I feel fortunate to have lived such a long and full life already. We must all feel very sorry for the young people, the children and all the innocent plants and animals. Previous generations and older people like me have failed them. In our greed and zeal for “progress” and profit we carelessly and tragically allowed ourselves to despoil our home planet, never questioning where we would live when it could no longer support us. I apologize most humbly to the younger generations on behalf of us older folks and our ancestors for squandering their birthright, and I sincerely pray that they will somehow find within themselves the innovative genius to correct our errors and save the Earth for future generations of humans to live more wisely than we have. Meanwhile, let us all savor and enjoy every precious moment of this very early and beautiful spring on our amazing planet.

— Kevin

PAPAL BULLY PULPIT

By Paul

Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI we may well have a new definition for the term “bully pulpit.” Last week, just to make it more clear in case anyone hadn’t gotten the message already, the Pope reiterated his unyielding opposition to gay marriage, and his absolute support of Catholic bishops in the United States who oppose gay unions. In the Pope’s words, traditional families and marriage must be “defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature.” He went on to say that whatever injured the institution of marriage also injured society.  He added that he hoped that the US Midwestern bishops, who were paying him a friendly little visit, would continue their “defense of marriage as a natural institution consisting of a specific communion of persons, essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation.”  Note this relatively new term, by the way, “oriented to procreation.”  I imagine this has emerged out of a series of workshop meetings, wherein the bishops discussed the argument made by pro-gay marriage advocates that not every traditional marriage ends in procreation.  What if, for example, one of the spouses is sterile, or the woman is beyond the child-bearing years, or the couple just decides they don’t want to have children?   So, I’m guessing they figured that “oriented to procreation” was an attempt to ward off this very plausible argument.  I’ll let you be the judge if they succeeded.  Personally, I don’t think they did. 

Bur let’s get back to what we started off with, the term “bully pulpit.”  The original meaning comes from Teddy Roosevelt, who used it in reference to the presidency, and to his ability to use that prestigious post to rally people in support of his point of view.  In those days, bully meant “great” or “wonderful,” as in the expression “bully for you!”  Today, of course, the word has a very different meaning, and has migrated to indicate a person who attempts to harass and harm people whom he perceives to be weaker than he. 

Much has been said recently, and rightly so, about childhood bullying in school yards and on playgrounds,  But what we have here in this case is an example of an eighty-four year old man bullying – or attempting to bully – a whole class of people.  Instead of using the enormous power and prestige of his office for good and to talk about the Divine Spirit, or about the love and acceptance that human beings as reflections of that Spirit ought to have for one another, the Pope squanders the opportunity and gravely misuses his office to berate those who have never done him harm in any way. 

Or does the Pope in fact believe that gay people actually are harmful to him and to his church, merely by existing?   Just a few years ago, for example, he stated (in typical language) that being gay was evidence of a “strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as objectively disordered.”  His advice to gay people was to lead a life of “chastity.”  In essence, this was his way of saying, zip up, shut up, and never have a love relationship that will be fulfilling to you as a human being. 

Let us examine a little more closely some of these words that the Pope uses.  He calls being gay an intrinsic evil.  What could be clearer than that?  Intrinsic means essential to or containing wholly within.  Thus, gay people, in his definition, are evil and corrupted through and through, simply by the fact of their being gay.  What follows from this is that they are “objectively disordered.”  In philosophy (which the Pope has studied deeply) the term “objectivity” relates to something having an inherent reality or truth all its own, independent of anyone’s view of it. And “disordered,” of course, refers to a dysfunction in a normal pattern or system; in medical terms, it means diseased.  Thus, my reading of the otherwise obscure term “objectively disordered” is that the Pope believes gay people to be, by their very nature, dysfunctional and disturbed, in a word sick, no matter who says anything else about them. 

Now it should be noted, I suppose, that he does go on in his kinder, more avuncular persona to sweetly remind us all that, oh by the way, we ought not to harm gay people, since they apparently can’t do much about the way they are.  So, in other words, let’s not kill them!  How nice of him, don’t you think?  This is a lesson, by the way, that could well be taken to heart by the current government of Uganda.  But why, it can be asked, would Ugandans, or anyone else for that matter, not wish to “protect themselves” against people whom the Pope is on record as saying that he believes are disturbed and evil, and whose relationships injure society?  

If Benedict XVI thinks that his words do not have grave consequences, he is not reading the newspaper every day, nor does he see how many gay people are discriminated against, attacked, or even murdered.  His words do have a marked effect.  They give comfort and solace to those who take it upon themselves to harm to gay people.   Is this the behavior that we expect from a “man of peace,” which the Pope declared himself to be upon ascending to the papacy?  Just the opposite, in fact.  His words are words of violence, not peace, and they give cover to violent action against gay people.  They tell those who are bigoted or frightened or merely ignorant that it is OK to discriminate against gay people in their hearts, as well as in their behavior and in their laws.

So, this has now become the new meaning of “bully pulpit”:  a place from which a prelate can attack innocent people, and from where his words can go out to cause grievous harm in the world.  If Benedict XVI meant to be a “man of peace,” he’d better try again.   From what I can see, so far at least, neither has he succeeded in word nor in deed.

 

NO RELIGIOUS TEST SHALL EVER BE REQUIRED

By Paul

“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to an Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI, The Constitution of the United States of America

 It was for good reason that the Founding Fathers of this country decided to include the above passage in the Constitution they created to govern the newly independent United States.  Specifically, it could be said that they did not want the choice of elected officials to be limited to persons of any one particular religion, and they most definitely did not want an “established religion,” such as Great Britain had, which could lord it over other religions. However, on a grander scale we can also read this section of Article VI as saying that they did not want religion of any kind to interfere with the running of the country.  Thus, by definition within the body of the Constitution itself the United States cannot be called a “Christian country.”  Yes, we may have many people of Christian beliefs living here (note the plural form, by the way, beliefs, that is, not just one form of Christianity), but this does not make the country Christian in any legal sense. 

Why am I even concerning myself at this point with something so self-evident?  First of all, there are those who disagree with the statement that the United States is not a Christian country.  Many, in fact, believe that it is.  For this reason, it is my fervent hope that everyone, conservative and liberal alike, would take the time to read the Constitution.  If anyone has not, I highly recommend it as an extremely interesting and enlightening document.  And for those who may be wondering, a law degree is not required in order to understand it.  Indeed, for the most part I should think that a decent high school education would largely suffice, as it is quite straight-forward, even if its English is now almost two hundred and twenty-five years old. 

I was reminded of all this when I read recently about the results of a poll taken just a few days ago among likely GOP voters in Alabama and Mississippi.  In Alabama, for example, only 14% said that they believed Mr. Obama to be a Christian, while 45% said they thought him to be Muslim, and 41% were not sure.  The results in Mississippi were even more stunning.  There only 12% believed him to be Christian, while 52% said they thought he was a Muslim, and 36% were not sure.  If we combine the number of people who believe him to be Muslim with those who are not certain (meaning, surely, that “maybe he is”), we get a whopping 86% and 88% respectively among likely Republican voters in those two states.     

Now, I hope it goes without saying that I am not trying to make a case here for any one religion over another.   Personally, I don’t think much of any organized religion.  In my experience, and again with perhaps a few exceptions here and there, I find most of them to be astoundingly bigoted and closed-minded.  What is perhaps even more interesting about these polls, however, is what I can only assume to be their strong subtext which, as I read it, is first of all that Christians are better than Muslims, and second that the president is not one of us; he is instead “other.” 

Let us leave aside for the moment, if that is even possible, the whole question of race, and continue concentrating instead on that of religion.  It was in fact Rick Santorum who stated not so long ago that he believed that Pres. Obama based his decisions “…on some phony theology.  Oh, on a theology not based on the Bible.”  These are his words.  What theology could he mean?  Etymologically the word theology means “the study of God,” and is associated only with religion.  And while Santorum may have been speaking about global warming, is it too much of a stretch to think that he also wished to tap into the belief, I will even say the fear, of apparently so many Americans that their president is not “one of them” in some very important way? 

And so, in spite of what the president has repeatedly stated regarding his religious affiliation, a sizeable number of people in the country continue to disbelieve him.  And what if he even were a Muslim?  So long as he, or any future president, believed firmly in what John F. Kennedy said about maintaining an absolute wall between church and state, what difference would it make?   Indeed, what difference?   Difference being the operable word here. 

Maybe I was too hasty above in skipping over the whole issue of race.  Maybe Muslim, or at least “not Christian,” is in this context code for “Black”?  And that in spite of the fact that there are so many Black Christians (note, for example, how many Black fundamentalists have crusaded, and continue to crusade, against gay rights).  Maybe in the end we can only say that none of us is free of his or her prejudices.  Surely, many would say that I am prejudiced against people of faith.  For the record here, let me add that I harbor no prejudice whatsoever against people who believe in the Divine Spirit.  I may, however, have my prejudices against organized religion, and for what I consider to be good reason.  

Indeed, I believe that it is just for these very reasons that those who founded this country were so adamant when it came to separating the state from the church.  “No religious test shall ever be required.”  The italics in this case may be mine, but the sentiments are those of the Founding Fathers, and they could not be more true, more appropriate – or more needed – today. 

 

UNCLE SAM NEEDS YOU!.. to contribute your fair share of taxes

Taxes Are a Pain

It’s so hard to pay taxes. I’ve struggled with that April 15th deadline all my adult life. I’m almost never ready, and I usually have to estimate what I owe and file for an extension when I send my check. Tax time often brings a financial crisis for me even though I’ve tried as hard as I could to keep up with quarterly payments throughout the year. But there is something gratifying about it too. The annual creation of my detailed books is a review of my life. It’s surprising how emotionally compelling the lines in a checkbook can be when you really focus on a whole year of them one by one. A checkbook is like a diary. I always feel like I have completed a therapeutic review of my life with my accountant – my financial therapist – when my taxes are finally finished. Then there’s that moment of actually writing the tax checks. It hurts. Sometimes it really hurts a whole lot. But I always feel a sense of pride and satisfaction too. It’s like the feeling of civic pride that swells in my chest when I vote. It’s a moment of thanksgiving and gratitude for everything the Founders and the Constitution, and the country have given me. I know the system isn’t perfect, but I did what I could to help.

There are a whole lot of things that my taxes pay for that I do not believe in or agree with. Doesn’t everybody feel that way? It really frustrates me that such a high percentage of my tax check goes to the military and wars that should never be fought. It infuriates me that some of my hard-earned tax dollars help to comprise huge subsidies for the wealthiest corporations in the history of the earth – the oil companies. That’s just wrong. And it angers me that many multi-millionaires and billionaires pay only 13% to 15% of their enormous incomes in taxes, while I have to pay 30% to 35% and often have a very hard time scraping it together. But my overarching emotion when writing that tax check is patriotic pride and gratitude. I want to help support my country. I like thinking that some of my tax money helps educate our children and feed and house those who are down and out. It feels good to know that a few of my dollars are funding libraries and infrastructure improvements and even the arts. I think a few pennies still go to the arts. It should be a whole lot more. I’d certainly pay more taxes to help fund the arts.

I’d Pay More Taxes

I’m not just a liberal. I’m one of those famous “tax and spend liberals” you’ve heard so much about. I’d pay more taxes for all kinds of programs, benefits and services that advanced democracies around the globe have proven can be efficiently and effectively provided by government – education, healthcare, transportation, research and development, support for the poor and elderly, the democratic process, and (yes) the arts.

  •  Education – I’d pay higher taxes to guarantee that every American who wants technical training or a college education after high school would get it from well-paid educators.
  • Healthcare – A lot of us would be willing to pay more in taxes for a real single-payer public healthcare system that would cover all our medical needs from cradle to grave.
  • Transportation – With Global Climate Change and the price of gas, isn’t it time we all paid a few more dollars in taxes to build real mass transit systems across this nation?
  • Research & Development – When did Americans stop believing in the power of science? We need to fund research in medicine, alternative energy sources, and thousands of projects.
  • Support for the Poor and Elderly – We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. A civilized society would not allow 40% of its children to struggle in poverty and abandon its elderly.
  • The Democratic Process – Let’s pay more taxes for government-funded campaigns, and get rid of these PACs that are ruining our free and fair electoral system. No, corporations are not people, but they should do their patriotic duty to help government fund democratic elections.
  • And (yes) The Arts – An advanced democracy that wants to be the leader of the free world must do what it can to advance culture and the arts – the soul and conscience of any society.

Responsible Citizenship

My parents are hard-working, service-minded, solid middle class Americans in their mid-80s who also happen to be some of the most progressive people I have ever known. They taught me to strive to be a responsible citizen and do my fair share to help society work for all of us. When neighboring towns were flooded, they loaded all of us in the station wagon to offer our clean-up help and labor. When our church called our family to lead a service project for a profoundly poor village in Mexico, we piled into that station wagon again and drove thousands of miles to dig wells, start a school and petition the Mexican government for electrical service. I was the official translator for that project, with only two years of high school Spanish. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. My parents believe in being responsible citizens of theU.S.and the world, and they act upon their beliefs. I have never once heard them complain about paying taxes or tithing for that matter. That’s what responsible citizens do. They carry their fair share of the load gladly and enthusiastically. They do whatever they can to help make society the best it can be and to lift everyone up.

It’s Time to Pay Your Fair Share, Wealthy Americans and Corporations!

I wish the extremely wealthy citizens and corporations among us would feel some of that civic duty and patriotic pride in supporting Uncle Sam and become willing to pay their fair share. At a time when middle class families are struggling to keep their jobs and homes and feed and educate their children, does it seem fair that they should also have to pay two or three times more as a percentage of their incomes in taxes than do the wealthiest Americans? Is it fair that some enormously wealthy corporations, now sitting on more cash reserves than they have ever had inU.S.history, should pay almost no taxes, let alone receive subsidies of tax money from the struggling middle class? No. These things are not fair, and they are certainly not practical in our current national economic condition.

Uncle Sam needs you to contribute your fair share of taxes, wealthy Americans and corporations! It is your patriotic duty to do so at this time in the history of the United States, when the interest on our national debt is threatening to engulf us and our economy is struggling so valiantly to get back on its feet. The middle class is doing everything it can to fight the good fight – and succeeding! — but having a very tough time. It is your turn, wealthy citizens and corporations, to express your gratitude for the opportunities this great nation has given you. You have worked hard and benefited enormously. You have realized the American dream and become the most fortunate among us. Now it is time for you to help save the nation and lift us all up. Dig deep into your pockets and contribute at least the same percentage in taxes as the middle class pays Uncle Sam. He will deeply appreciate it, and so will all the rest of us. Most importantly, it will be good for your souls to know that you have done your part to save the nation and put us all back on the path to greatness and prosperity.

— Kevin

THE FUTURE OF WORK, OR HOW DO I GET A JOB WITHOUT A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?

By Paul

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 I’ve been thinking recently about a fascinating show I saw last week on PBS about the Amish.  There are many things about them to admire, including their insistence on living a simple life and their finding spiritual strength in the land, and then there are some things about them that both puzzle and disturb me.  One of the most puzzling things has to do with their take on education, which is that children are only allowed to go to school up to the 8th grade. 

At a real stretch, I guess that could possibly make some measure of sense, however dubious, if little Josiah or Esther are going to inherit the family farm and live like their great grandparents did.  But is that really feasible anymore?  Not only do the Amish tend to have lots of kids, and therefore dad’s farm is getting subdivided into lots of smaller and smaller parcels, but many already have no farm at all.  Instead, they work in local factories owned by “English” (i.e. non-Amish) people. 

This in turn got me thinking about lots of other kids, not just the Amish, who may be looking for factory jobs in the future.  When I was a teenager, back in the 50’s, there were plenty of these kinds of jobs around, and I could easily have gotten one myself after high school, if I’d chosen that route, just as my brother did, in fact.  He went on to make a decent living working at the Ford Company factory near where we grew up in upstate New York.  They produced springs and radiators there.  But even he eventually had to move to Detroit for a while, once the factory he worked in got shut down.  And both my father and my mother, too, worked in factories before him making sandpaper, even if they got a lot less money for it than he did.

The scene that sticks in my mind from the show is the shots of the Amish men running around as fast as they could, pretty much literally, from place to place in the factory, all the while piecing together what looked like small vacation trailers.  What kept going through my mind was one simple question:  how much longer would the owner of that factory even need these guys?  It’s hard for me to imagine that sooner or later robotic devices aren’t going to be cheap enough for the owner of that factory to say to himself, why am I doing this?  Why am I paying Josiah’s wages, and his healthcare (if he even gets that), all the while worrying about whether or not he might get injured, or discouraged, or come to work drunk some day (not that any Amish would do that!).  But why not instead bite the bullet, splurge up front for the robots, and then never have to think twice again about paying wages or benefits, or having to deal with somebody’s messy emotional life?  And I can work these things 24/7, if I’ve got the orders.  One thing is definitely for sure: robots do not complain about overwork, and they don’t demand double or triple time either! 

I don’t think that day may be so far off for this particular vacation trailer maker, or for thousands of other large and small manufacturers throughout the country, and the world, for that matter.  So the real question that this comes back to once again has to do with education.  How are we going to provide Josiah and Esther, and Jack and Jane, and Manuel and Maria, and millions like them with the needed education to get them ready for what’s coming round the bend?  How do we even convince them that something is coming?  Leave aside for the moment the Amish and the question of their life-style choices, and just think about those kids in Los Angeles, let’s say, or Dayton, or Dubuque, who don’t finish, or just barely finish high school.  What kind of a job can they expect to get, and I’m not just talking about next month, but 20 or 30 years from now? 

Sure, there will always be a need for plumbers and carpenters and other skilled craftsmen, but that takes training, too.  And not everyone is interested in college; neither does everybody get to go there, even if they are interested.  But what we’ve got to think through right now is how to help those young people who are about to be displaced by technology.  What are they going to do?  They want and deserve a good life too, but they need the skills that are going to be required for the jobs of the 21st century.  So, yes, let’s definitely support Pres. Obama’s call for more training after high school, and at the same time by the way, why not urge companies to take on young interns who, with a solid enough educational background, can be trained on the job for the way work is going to be done in the future?  The Germans do it already, and we can maybe learn some pretty good lessons from them about how to run an economy. 

My father and my mother, and my brother too, were all part of the old style factory model, but even they knew that the way it had been for them couldn’t last forever.  And if that time hasn’t already come, it’s not far off.  I just hope that Josiah and his friends, as well as others who for whatever reason don’t go to college, will see the handwriting on the wall, and see what it’s going to take to get ahead from this point on.  Every human being deserves a good life, and yet that good life is not guaranteed.  It’s up to us to guide young people and to provide them with opportunities, and then it’s up to them to take advantage of those opportunities.  Without both sides of that equation, farm and factory alike are going to be outside of their reach.    

 

GAY MARRIAGE: PUTTING PREJUDICE ON TRIAL

By Paul

It’s well worth your time to spend the hour and a half or so it takes to view the online broadcast of the dramatic reading of a distillation of the transcript of the trial that ultimately found California’s Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional.  The reading of the documentary play, put together by Dustin Lance Black, took place on Saturday, March 3rd, 2012 here in Los Angeles, and featured a host of Hollywood celebrities.  You can see it by going to www.afer.org.

There you will witness prejudice put on trial.  And it isn’t pretty, at least not for the prejudiced.  All of the usual tired nostrums are trotted out by the defenders of Prop. 8, though to no avail.  Indeed, their main arguments, that marriage between two individuals of the same sex is somehow corrosive and harmful to traditional marriage, and that children will in some way be harmed, are not only laid to rest, but a stake is driven through the very heart of these arguments.  No wonder the backers of Prop. 8 did not want you to see this trial.

The defense of Proposition 8 is, in fact, so weak, so flimsy, so unsubstantial, so lacking in rational basis, in a word so prejudiced, that you almost – almost – wind up feeling sorry for Charles Cooper, the defending attorney.  He comes across in Kevin Bacon’s reading as a man on the edge.  It is clear that he fervently believes what he is saying, namely, that allowing gay people to marry will in some way be harmful to society and to the rearing of children.  Unfortunately, for him at least, and for his cause, he cannot say why.  All he can do is assert that this is what he believes.  And by the end, it is clear enough that the mere assertion of a belief is not reason enough for the government to deny basic legal rights to gay citizens of the United States. 

The defendants of the proposition were able to bring very few expert witnesses to the trial, and those who did show, David Blankenhorn in particular, the founder of the Institute for American Values, give testimony which it would be almost kind to call bumbling and maladroit.  On the other hand, the words of the defendants, the two couples themselves who brought suit in the first place (Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo, and Kristin Perry and Sandra Steir and their children) are moving and eloquent testimonials to the power of love and to the enduring desire on the part of human beings to be able to share their lives with a partner in marriage.   

The legal team of David Boies and Theodore Olson, played movingly by George Clooney and Martin Sheen respectively, are eminent attorneys who are clearly at the top of their field.  They cross-examine and they disclaim, they argue and question, and they speak with the force not just of the law, but of truth and justice. 

I will admit that when the trial was originally announced, I wondered if it was wise to risk so great a prize by bringing it to a courtroom, where prejudice might win out.  Better perhaps, I thought, to wait and try again at the ballot box some time in the future, once public opinion had evolved.  But I was wrong.  This trial brings out the weakness, the rank animus, and the ignorance of those who are against gay marriage in a way that I never could have dreamed.  And this play – this dramatic reading called simply “8” – refines and condenses those arguments, which took place over the course of weeks, into a riveting ninety minutes. 

But again, don’t just take my word for it.  Go to the website of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), and see for yourself.  You won’t regret the time you spent, and you will come away feeling heartened and uplifted that, in the end, truth and justice will win out. 

And who knows?  Maybe someday, after 32 wonderful years of living together, when equity and equality will have won out over bigotry and ignorance, my partner and I may even decide to someday get married.  We’ll keep you posted.  But for now, and despite all that has been said and demonstrated, it seems as though the debate still rages on.

 

CONTRA CONTRA-CONTRACEPTION

By Paul

OK, so maybe the above title is a little much.  What I’m referring to, though, is the recent debate between the Obama Administration and Republicans regarding birth control. 

 First of all, who knew that birth control was even an issue in the 21st century?  Yes, the Catholic Church has always been against it, for reasons which baffle me, but the vast majority of Catholic women, some 98%, have used one form or another of birth control.  And then there was the kerfuffle a few weeks back about the requirement that Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools should have to follow the law and provide contraception to those who work for them as part of their medical benefits package. 

Now as an aside, and maybe before I go any further, in terms of full disclosure it might be best if I’m upfront about a couple of things:  first, I’m writing as what is sometimes called an ex-Catholic, and second, I’m also writing as an ex-monk (more about that another time). 

But getting back to the insurance fuss, the argument the church made was that religiously affiliated institutions should be given a pass when it comes to obeying the law, because providing contraceptive aids as part of their medical coverage for employees goes against the teaching of the church and its sense of morality.  I hope that’s fairly put.  I am trying to be balanced here.  And I suppose that the way these institutions might have framed it to the people who work for them would go something like this: if you don’t like our rules, fine, go find another job!  And we all know how easy that is these days!

In the ensuing days and weeks, the Obama Administration made what I thought was a very reasonable compromise, namely, to exempt these affiliated institutions from paying for contraception as part of a healthcare package, and instead have the insurers themselves pay.  Sounds eminently reasonable to me!  I’ll pass over the fact (as Cicero used to say in his Orations) that my personal take on it was to say that Catholic-affiliated institutions are not the Catholic Church, and as such should not have been given an exemption from the law.  They are hospitals, or schools, or social service organizations, not churches.  But, OK, I try to be a reasonable person, and I am willing to engage in a little give and take.  So, with this compromise solution, I figured everybody would be happy, right?  But, no, that’s not the case!

Amazingly, the Catholic bishops are still highly disturbed, as are Republicans generally. The Republican presidential aspirants in particular, too, have all jumped on this same rickety bandwagon, and some Congressional Republicans are even making noises about how contraception itself ought to be outlawed.  Really?  I thought we fought that battle decades ago!

Now, I hope that there are lots of women out there who take this very personally.  Even I take it personally, as much as maybe I shouldn’t.  But for me, the whole scenario harkens back to a conversation I had way back in 1967 when I was twenty-two years old.  I had just left the monastery, and my sainted and now sadly departed mother and I had a deeply personal talk.  She told me that for years our local parish priest had refused her absolution in the confessional, because she and my father had decided to use contraceptives.  The background here is that, when I was growing up, we were poor, pretty much by about anybody’s standards, and my parents had decided that they could not afford more than three children.  They couldn’t even afford the three of us, from what I could see!  But the priest told my mother that she would “burn in the fires of everlasting hell,” if she continued on with this practice, and that if she did not wish to have more children, there was one good way to do so: she and her husband could stop “having relations.” 

Let me remind you that this conversation took place forty-five years ago now, but things don’t seem to have changed much with the Catholic Church of today.  They’re still telling people how to conduct their sex lives, and they’re still telling folks that, if they don’t want kids, they should just damn well stop having sexual relations.  Because that, in effect, is what their argument comes down to.  Can’t afford kids? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!  Young and not married yet, but horny all the time?  Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!  Can’t stop being gay? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!  

Now, again, I want to be fair about things, and emphasize that I am talking here about the “official Catholic Church,” specifically as represented by its bishops and archbishops.  And I should add that I understand that many rank and file Catholics do not necessarily agree with, or follow, the dictates of the bishops.  Still, the fact remains that it is the position of “The Church,” and that’s what I’m making reference to. 

It seems to me that what the question really boils down to is, how do we understand it when we read that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  I don’t have to say that this is a direct quote from the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.  Of course, reasonable people can and do disagree on how to interpret this, and they have disagreed ever since the Bill of Rights was first promulgated.  Maybe this issue will someday come before the Supreme Court for resolution.  But for now, pretty much all we’ve got to go on is, what do you think, and what do I think?  The official Catholic Church continues to preach against sex, as do many other churches, except as they narrowly define it.  And that surely is their First Amendment right, which I uphold absolutely.  But it does not mean that institutions, which are NOT churches, ought to be exempt from following the law, just as that law applies to all other similar, but non-religious institutions.  Everyone in fact has to obey the law, including church affiliated businesses, a thing which, in my view, can in no way be construed as prohibiting the free exercise of religion.          

There are many who say that the Republicans have already achieved victory with the Administration’s compromise on the issue, so why go on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?  But no less a figure than Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has written recently in an Op-Ed piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader (and quoted in the LA Times in an article by Lisa Mascaro): “Government cannot tell someone whether their religion is worth believing.  It doesn’t matter whether the president thinks your beliefs are antiquated; your right to practice them is protected.” 

What I want to know is how does Mr. McConnell get there from the compromise that was offered?  But that’s what the Catholic bishops believe, too. And that is where we seem to be for the moment.  Republicans are hell-bent on passing a law that does away with the provision that insurers must provide free birth control for their members, and the priest who heard my mother’s confession would surely be delighted.  So much for the progress women have made in regard to when and how often they – and their partners – decide to have children. I’ve heard it said that this issue of requiring Catholic-affiliated institutions to provide contraceptives as part of their health insurance package is one thing that unites both conservative and liberal Catholics.  I have to say I really hope that is not the case.  I hope that liberal Catholics – and, well, conservative ones too, for that matter – can see how important it is to treat all people fairly, even those who may have jobs at church affiliated hospitals or schools or social agencies.  I don’t see how that can impinge on the free exercise of religion, but I can see how it keeps Congress from making laws respecting the establishment thereof.