LET’S GET ON WITH THE BUSINESS OF GOVERNING, AND OF SAVING THE PLANET

By Paul

Now that election 2012 is over, and the results are so promising, it’s time to get on with the business of exactly why we elect people in the first place, namely, to govern. 

Not so much governing has taken place for quite some time in this interminable run up to November 6th.   It seems as though that run up by itself has lasted for at least a couple of years.  So, it’s definitely time to get back in the saddle again.  It’s obvious that the first order of business has to be the so-called Fiscal Cliff, those automatic spending cuts and tax hikes which will go into effect in January of 2013.  In my view, it would be a complete disaster if they happen, as it would probably trigger at least a “mild recession,” according to any number of economists.   But even a mild recession, in the wake of the Major Recession we have just gone through, could be devastating.  In fact, it brings to mind the latest nor’easter to hit New York and New Jersey on the heels of Hurricane Sandy.  Ask the folks there, who were without power and literally under water, and who are again going through a similar ordeal, if another blow is an easy thing to take.  I think you’ll get an earful.  It would be the same thing if the President and Congress are unable to work out some sort of compromise to prevent us from heading over this fiscal precipice.

But that’s just the beginning.  There is a whole host of things on everybody’s plate that needs to be attended to.  It’s almost as if things have been on hold for two years, and now finally it’s time to get a move on.  The President has already said that Immigration Reform will be high on his list, and that is surely a good thing.  This country has actually always had a love-hate relationship with its immigrants, in spite of the comforting old myth of the melting pot.  Very few of the established Anglos wanted those damned Irish, or the Italians either for that matter, back at the end of the nineteenth century, just as many don’t want the Mexicans, or other Latinos, today.  And just as with the Europeans, so too with Hispanics, epithets such as “lazy” and “free loaders” are thrown around with nothing to back them up.  We won’t get to a truly fair and comprehensive immigration reform package, I believe, until we come to terms with how we really want to perceive, and therefore how we treat, new arrivals to this country.

Another major problem that has to be fixed is the economic one.  I am nothing if not a liberal, and I hope a progressive, but I do agree with conservatives that something has to be done about balancing the fiscal books.  We cannot go on spending so much more than we take in, and we most definitely cannot go on simply borrowing money from China and elsewhere in order to cover the gap between spending and income.  Toward that end, we have to be upfront and transparent about how we spend the money we do have.  One of the most despicable things about the administration of George W. Bush was how they hid the cost of two wars.  These military incursions were utterly unfunded; they never even made it to the budget talks.  And this is aside from the fact that, in my view anyway, they were both totally unnecessary in the first place.  But that’s another question entirely.

The only way to balance the books is some combination of reasonable spending cuts and equally reasonable tax hikes.  It also assumes that we will come up with a way to handle so-called entitlements, although personally I hate that word.  It always comes off to my ear as sounding as though people are getting something for nothing, something they don’t really deserve.  That is not the case in regard to Social Security, which those of us who receive it (myself included) have paid into for upwards of forty years, or however long a person has worked.  The same is true for Medicare, although in regard to medical costs in general the country has also got to have a very serious conversation about what is actually appropriate, and in the end, what we can afford.  This will not be an easy discussion, inasmuch as it concerns both ourselves and the lives of those whom we love, and just how much care is enough care.  But the topic has to be on the table.  These are things that adults talk about, and that we need to talk about.

Beyond these things, education looms high on the list, too.  For far too long we have been putting off decisions about comprehensive funding that will get our children – all of our children – ready for the highly competitive world of the 21st century.  It will have to be a discussion that takes place at the national, the state, and the local levels, since funding for education and decisions regarding how kids are educated happen at all three levels.  But when a baseball player (nothing against baseball, as much as I find it one of the most boring sports on the planet), or a football player, or a movie actor, or a CEO of a company that rapes the planet, earns millions of dollars, and educators are paid a pittance, it seems to me that there is something seriously wrong with our value system as a society.  And remember that politicians are really only reflections of ourselves.  We hire political leaders in the first place by voting them into office, and by keeping them in office (or not) once we’ve seen how they perform.  So, if we continue to elect people who do not value the things we say we value, then in the end we have to examine ourselves, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. 

 I could go on with a long list of things that have to be dealt with, and no doubt anyone who reads this could add others, equally as important.  Clearly, the economy and jobs go hand in hand, and you do not fix one without the other.  And this includes jobs for everyone, including people who have been traditionally shunted out of the good life of the American middle class, people of color in particular who have suffered more profoundly than anyone else during the years of the Great Recession.  Other things come to mind, as well, things like the infrastructure of the country, which is crumbling, care for the sick and the indigent and those who cannot care for themselves, always a bell weather in terms of what a society considers important, and so-called energy independence, a silly pipe dream in itself unless and until we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.  Which leads me to the final point that is on my mind in regard to the new administration, and the Republicans in Congress as well, because the latter can block almost anything they want with the majority they have in the House of Representatives.  And that topic is the eighteen thousand pound gorilla in the room, namely, climate change. 

Now here is a topic for the ages!  And not many more ages, in fact, if we do not somehow come to grips with its disastrous implications.  I have to say that I was appalled at both candidates during the presidential campaign that the words climate change or global warming almost never passed their lips.  It is, though, a topic that in the final analysis trumps all others.  And I do mean all.  Because we can do whatever we want to fix the economy, to create wonderful jobs for people, to educate our children, to care for those who cannot care for themselves, to grant equal rights to minorities, pay down the debt, and on and on, but if the planet rebels – in ways that I think we have only begun to see – then none of these other things matter.  If we do not have a hospitable planet on which to live and to raise our children, and even, God help us, to play baseball on, then everything else is for naught.

The old Republican adage of “drill, baby, drill” sounds almost like a hateful curse to my ears.  It is at very least the cry, and maybe the last cry, of the utterly deluded.  There are surely things that all of us can, and must, do in order to help play our part.  We can and should conserve and not be wasteful, find alternate sources of energy, recycle, and we absolutely have got to stop having so many children. At seven billion people and counting, the world already has far too great of a population for the planet to sustain.  And we must find a way to satisfy our need for power that does not, as a byproduct, pollute the air, the water, and the earth itself.       

All of this is necessary, and some of it can be done on the personal and the local level.  Even so, that will not be enough.  Governments, and whole associations of governments, absolutely must take this on as a priority – no, as THE major priority – because the ravages of catastrophic global climate change will not respect race or ethnicity, wealth or poverty, one economic system over another, or anyone’s arbitrarily drawn political boundaries.  It will get us all, if we do not take steps now to make a difference. 

So, I admire and appreciate President Barack Obama very much.  I also feel for him, and hope and pray that he will have the strength and the wisdom and the determination to take on these problems we are all faced with.  If we do not assist him in this task, then we are all to blame.  It is time now to act and to stop playing politics.  And if we do not, there is no doubt in my mind that we will all suffer the most dire of consequences.

WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES? AND WHY DO YOU HOLD THEM?

By Paul

Can’t we all just get along?  These are the now famous words of Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police was the spark that ignited the 1992 riots/civil unrest (choose your term), which engulfed the city for three days.  The answer to that iconic question may unfortunately be, apparently not. 

Now twenty years later, Los Angeles is surely a calmer place than it was back then, but one that is nonetheless still divided.  Just as the country is, and the world, for that matter.  Rick Santorum rails against all manner of evil abortion and gay rights activists, Mitt Romney and Republicans generally seem to believe that nothing the president has done could ever possibly have been for the good, the Supreme Court justices appear to be split along ideological lines over healthcare reform, and all this reflects a country where the overall division between Red and Blue reflects an almost even 50-50 split. 

But let’s not stop there.  The reforms of the Arab Spring, so hard-fought and so hoped for, now seem to be devolving into a series of sectarian struggles between those who want western style democracy and those who favor Sharia law. Egypt, for example, centuries ago a paragon of peace and stability and learning in the Arab world, is struggling these days over how to define itself.  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who might just become the next Egyptian president, believes that women should be veiled and segregated from men in the work place, that adulterers ought to be stoned to death, and thieves have their hands cut off.  Similar struggles are happening in places like Morocco and Yemen, and who even knows what will take place in Syria, once its current bloody dictator finally gets his well deserved comeuppance?  The St. Petersburg, Russia, city council has just passed a law making any open positive reference to homosexuality illegal, and in Uganda they are deciding whether gay people ought to be jailed, or simply put to death. 

The world over, religious leaders from the Pope in Rome to the Ayatollah in Iran to any number of fulminating right-wing preachers here in the United States inveigh against the destructive evils of secularism.  God will in the end win, we are told, and the godless shall reap their just deserts.  Meanwhile, liberals too often think that those who disagree with them are either sadly misinformed or, well let’s admit it, just plain dumb!  Which, to be sure, probably does not help matters much (as tempting as it may seem), and in the end it drives a bigger wedge between us. 

So, the question in my mind is whether or not there is any way to bring us together.  And the stakes, by the way, are not small.  Leave aside for now the whole question of religion, or of hand-cutting, or of condemnation of homosexuality, bad enough – God knows (does God know?) in itself – and let’s focus for a moment on the very fate of the planet.  ExxonMobil, the archconservative oil company that made more than 40 billion dollars in profits last year (yes, billions, with a “b”), has an “enemies list” of Washington politicians who do not agree with its policies.  Like the religious right, they have now become an almost exclusive backer of Republican politicians, and want desperately to get Obama out.  Mitt Romney will be much more pliable, they conclude, and friendlier to their needs, and he has in fact promised that he would be delighted to cooperate.

All of the above may seem a little disparate and disconnected, but I believe the theme that holds the whole mishmash together comes down to one simple word: values.  Religious people like to think of themselves as those who “vote their values,” but as a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone does.  You do not have to be religious to have values.  Indeed, it is virtually impossible to live in the world without having some sort of value system.  Even criminals have values.  They may not be yours, or mine, but they have values. 

What are values, after all?  You don’t need to be a philosopher to answer that question.  Values are very simply those ideas, those ideals if you will, which each of us considers to be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, fitting or unfitting, seemly or unseemly, proper or improper.  Values are a kind of internalized ruler, a yardstick that we all carry around within us against which we measure the world, the people in it, and their actions, as well as our own.  Whenever we say “That guy was a jerk,” what we are saying is that he did or said or espoused something that is contrary to my value system.  And I damn well don’t like it! 

That’s the thing about values, in fact.  They really mean something to us.  We very much believe them, despite the fact that too often they may be held at an unconscious level.  One way or another though, whether we are fully aware of them or not, they are deeply, profoundly imbedded in our consciousness.  This is not a game or a mere academic exercise.  These are the very “rules according to which people live their lives,” and you’d better watch out if you cross those rules.  At one end of the spectrum, people kill each other because they have different values.  They stone dissenters, or they cut off their hands, or they imprison them.  At a somewhat milder, though still dangerous enough level, they just call each other names, or put those names on “enemies lists.”  All because what the other guy did or said is not right; it’s improper, it’s inappropriate, it’s unseemly, it’s sinful, it’s – well – it’s downright wrong

What follows from our values is not just how we lead our individual lives, but how we believe that society ought to organize itself.  In my own value system, for example, while the individual reigns supreme, we also ought to mitigate our more selfish instincts, treat each other politely and with respect, and give one another some space.  But not everyone puts individuals at the top of the heap.  There are lots of societies in the world where the collective is far more important than any individual’s needs.  That may come off as sounding too abstract.  What I mean, for example, is that maybe the family, or the tribe, or the religious group is what ought to call the shots, and it’s incumbent on each individual person to bend him or herself to the will of that group. Let’s say that Abu Ismail does get to be president of Egypt some day, and you happen to be gay.  Well you’d better hide that fact and not espouse all those western (individual) style desires to express who you are.  Best just shut up, marry a woman, and have kids, because religion and “the family” (read: one man and one woman) are the things that are valued here – or else! 

And who’s to say that I am right, and that Abu Ismail is wrong?  This very question, in fact, takes us right back to the issue of values once again.  As soon as you see those words “right” or “wrong,” you know immediately what territory you have strayed into.  Which is why I’m glad that I live in the United States after all, because in theory at least this is where all men, and women, too, presumably (note we are talking about individuals here) are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And if that’s not a statement of values, I don’t know what else it might be. 

Unfortunately or not, each person also believes firmly and beyond any shred of doubt that his or her values are the best values that there are.  Otherwise, after all, we wouldn’t hold them in the first place!  Which in the end is the reason why it may not be so easy to get along.  Of course, the opposite side of the proposition is, what other choice do we have?  We can wage war, we can cut people’s hands off, we can imprison them, or we can try to come to some kind of compromise whereby I’ll let you live by your values, if you’ll let me live by mine.  That’s what I thought we were trying to do here in this country, by the way.  That’s what I thought they meant when they said that we were all created equal.  That’s what I thought was meant by the rule of law. 

And maybe it is.  Maybe it’s as simple and as uncomplicated as live and let live.  Except this too comes down to a statement of values.  What it means is that it’s proper to give individuals their space.  After all, I have my rights, don’t I?  If Abu Ismail would only listen to reason, if ExxonMibil would only see how destructive their policies are, if the Supreme Court would only recognize that each of us has a right to healthcare, if the St. Petersburg city council would only let people live their lives.  It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?  Anyway, I think so.  And, God help us, let’s just hope that I’m not wrong!

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. 

 

 

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.

 

SO WHO PAYS?

When my partner’s dad was still living, and we would sometimes go out to dinner with him and his wife, there was never any question of who paid.  He would always contrive to grab the check first and plunk down his cash (he didn’t much care for credit cards, as that meant going into debt), no matter how fast we might have tried to get at it before him.  That’s the kind of man he was, a former navy commander, upright, honest, no-nonsense, and the very definition of responsible.   A Republican all his life in that old-fashioned, now almost quaint, fiscally responsible take-care-of-yourself-and-those-you-love sort of way, he was a man I greatly admired. 

So, I’m left to wonder about Republicans these days and how they treat fiscal responsibility.  Yes, I know, they talk a lot about it, but what does it really come down to?  There’s a report in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times that lists some very interesting facts.  First of all, the way that economists measure debt is, in a sense, not so terribly different from the way you and I might in terms of the family budget.  If you borrow money because you spend more than you take in, you go into debt.  Pretty straight forward stuff. And that’s exactly what happens with the US debt, too.  If we spend more than we “make” – and what we make is measured in a general way by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – and borrow to cover the shortfall, then we’re in debt.  Another thing to understand is that virtually all nations carry some measure of debt.  That’s just the way the world seems to do business. 

What the big question really comes down to is: how much debt is too much debt?  Another way to put that is: how much debt is sustainable in the long run?   According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget, about 60% of GDP is what most countries consider a reasonable and sustainable debt load to carry.  OK, I’m willing to accept that, as much as I wouldn’t want that kind of debt for our household budget.  Still, I get it that countries are not the same as families when it comes to economics.  Now, for a simple guy like me, there are only a couple of ways to handle debt.  You can either a) make more money to cover your expenses, or b) you can spend less money, or there’s c), which is some combination of a) and b). 

It appears as though the Republicans pretty much favor b) by a long shot over a).  Spend less, spend less, spend less!  Reduce the amount of money the government pays out, and all will be well.  But that can only go so far, and like all budgeting, it comes down to a matter of priorities, that is, what to cut and what to keep?  On the other side of the equation, and to be fair about things, maybe the Democrats sometimes do lean too heavily on the a) part of our proposition above.  You can’t only take in more.  So, when it comes right down to it, I guess I’m a c) kind of guy.  Why not spend less AND take more in? 

It’s true that this means that we would have to agree on where and what and how much to cut.  That’s not an easy question, I know, since my priorities may not be your priorities, but in the end we have to come to some agreement.  Another contentious question may be the biggest of all: how do we raise GDP?  How do we make ourselves more productive?  The Republican answer is always to get the damn government out of the way and let the market do its thing, while the Democrats advocate for both increased taxes (especially on the wealthy) and for some measure of government oversight and assistance. These are maybe simplistic ways of putting it, but in the aggregate I think it’s not too far from the truth. 

Now, from what I’ve seen, especially in the free-wheeling Bush era of unhappy memory, when the cat was away, the mice just loved to play.  Government got out of the way, fiscally anyway, if not when it came to social, so-called “values” issues, and look what happened.  The rich got richer and richer, and the rest of us got a recession! So it doesn’t look to me as though that worked so well.  And what’s so unfair about asking those who earn a lot more to pay at least the same percentage in taxes as you and I?

Right now, again according to the Committee for a Responsible Budget, the country’s current debt load is at 70% of GDP, which is maybe shaky at best.  And Pres. Obama’s plan would push us to about 80% in the next decade.  That sounds pretty damning, until we look further and find out where the proposals of the current Republican nominees would take us.  With Romney’s, we’d reach between 85% and 96%; with Santorum’s proposals, we’d get to a dizzying 104%, and with Gingrich’s, we’d hit an astronomical 114% of GDP!  The only guy whose economics seem to work is Ron Paul’s, and even with his we’d still be at 76%.  But remember that his proposals mostly use cuts, and he thinks that raising taxes is another word for jihad

So, the question of who pays still remains.  You can’t go on forever borrowing from people.  Sooner or later, in my experience anyway, they want you to pay them back — with interest!  Again, that’s why, for now anyway, the only choice we may have is to make whatever cuts in spending we can agree on, AND to raise taxes, especially on those who can afford to pay them.  Maybe someday the economy will come roaring back so strong that we can actually lower individual and corporate taxes, but for the moment I’m not counting on it.  And the above numbers don’t lie.  What’s happening now in the economy is unsustainable.  Just ask the Greeks, and maybe the Italians and the Spanish, as well.   

The good commander, my partner’s dad, always picked up the tab.  And we were grateful, as much as we wanted to take them out to dinner once in a while, too.  But let’s not wait until there’s nobody left to pay the bill.  Let’s make the hard decisions now that will set us on the road to fiscal solvency.  And let’s not get duped by a bunch of Republican blather about how responsible they are, when their numbers just don’t add up – or to put it another way – when those numbers add up to just way too much.

Paul

G.O.P. Panic!

REPUBLICANS PANIC OVER THE 2012 GENERAL ELECTION

Backed into deep, dangerous right wing waters by the Tea Party coup, and weighed down with four unelectable candidates left swimming in their presidential primaries, the G.O.P. is descending into an ever more intense state of panic over the 2012 general elections.

The Deep, Dangerous Waters of Extreme Right Wing Positions and Policies:

  1. Foreign Policies and Wars – The G.O.P. exhibits a strange bipolar split between isolationism / withdrawal from the world, and constant threats of military build-up, escalation of hostilities and threats of war. They make fun of their own candidates who are so recklessly international in their interests to learn and speak French (Romney) or Mandarin Chinese (Huntsman.) They threaten to bomb Iran and the current G.O.P. presidential crop makes G. W. Bush look like a global darling.
  2. Birth Control and Women’s Rights – Today’s G.O.P. appears to stand to the extreme right of mainstream Americans with its position against birth control and a woman’s right to choice and control over her own body, health, and reproductive processes. There are even strong indications of Republican opposition to other basic human rights for women in their homes and in society at large. Women vote… right?
  3. Taxing the Poor and Giving the Rich a Big Break – Tea Party manipulated Republicans have clearly demonstrated that they really want to deny tax cuts and a minimum wage to the 99% of us who live in the middle and lower classes and pay 25% to 35% income tax. But they stridently demand tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of Americans who make over $1 million per year and now pay only 13% to 16% tax. Is this a good strategy for winning votes from financially struggling Americans?
  4. Subsidies for Rich Corporations – Republicans monolithically support subsidies for hedge fund managers and for the richest corporations in human history – oil companies that exacerbate climate change, rape the environment, and gouge consumers and our economy. Meanwhile our infrastructure is disintegrating.
  5. Working against Economic Recovery – Doesn’t it seem crystal clear that Republicans do not want the economy to recover, because they’d rather have a failed economy to use as a bludgeon against President Obama? They have worked against all of his efforts and expressed unified condemnation of all the successful policies started under G. W. Bush and continued in the present administration, to save the U.S. and the world from deep global depression. They demand a return to ruinous deregulatory policies that produce smoke-and-mirrors financial products like the credit default swaps and poisoned derivatives that very nearly brought this nation down and the rest of the world with us. Their four remaining presidential candidates are even unanimous in condemning the completely successful auto industry recovery strategy that saved Michigan and the U.S. economy.
  6. Anti-Labor Efforts – Since their midterm election success (and long before that, of course) the G.O.P. has waged an all-out war on labor unions, collective bargaining rights, fair wages, and pensions, for salt-of-the-earth public servants, like firefighters, police, teachers and other public service workers who are the core of the middle class work force, many of them Republicans. Is this any way to win friends, influence people and get votes? Watch what happens to Gov. Walker in Wisconsin to gauge the wages of this sin. He will be recalled and the workers will win their rights.
  7. Head-in-the-Oil-Sands, All-Out, Suicidal Denial of Global Climate Change – Virtually 100% of the world’s climatologists and other scientists urgently warn us of extremely dire consequences if we do not immediately take major steps to stop and reverse Global Climate Change. But most Republicans spend their time denying that it exists at all, as if they had more data and expertise than climatologists. They instead support a suicidal policy of rapid development and consumption of fossil fuels, while working against investment in alternative clean energy sources and ridiculing hybrid and electric cars. They are unanimous in supporting the Keystone Oil Sands Pipeline – a powerfully destructive endgame plan for Earth’s environment.
  8. Racist Immigration Positions – Tea Party members, Republicans, and extreme right wing conservatives exhibit jingoistic, racist fears and reactionary responses to “the browning of America.” They want to stop and harass people of color, deport them, and prevent them from voting. They refuse to recognize the ways in which immigrants have built our country and serve as a pillar of labor in our economy.
  9. Making Education a Privilege Only the Rich Can Afford – Republicans have long advocated closing down the Department of Education. Now they want to remove all Federal and state money from public education, effectively ending the right of the masses to educate ourselves and climb the ladder to better conditions. Republicans prefer the idea of an America in which education is a privilege that only the rich can afford. They want to deny education to our increasingly brown populace, because they don’t want more people of color like President Obama aspiring to power. Accordingly, they are slashing and burning education budgets.
  10. Gay Civil Rights – The most conservative and right wing elements now in control of the Republican Party oppose gay marriage, GLBT civil rights in general, and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But Rick Santorum, the current leader of the pack among their presidential contenders, has pushed the G.O.P. even farther to the right on gay issues, about which he seems to be unnaturally obsessed. Years ago he famously compared gay orientation to incest, bestiality and polygamy. His extreme homophobia is bringing out the worst in Republicans as he urges them toward questioning the goodness and morality of gay citizens who may represent about 10% of the American electorate. Will any GLBT people vote Republican in 2012?
  11. Religion, Dogma and Bigotry – Republicans no longer seem to believe in our Constitutional separation of church and state, as long as it is THEIR Church of Fundamentalist Christian Dogma and Bigotry that controls the state. They clearly believe that Islamic citizens and non-Christian Americans are actually un-American and should not be allowed to vote or hold office… In fact, they shouldn’t be here.
  12. Obstruction of Government – A large part of this problem is due to growing Tea Party and Republican belief that any government and all government activities are bad for America. They seem to be moving dangerously close to proposing anarchy, but it would be a kind of anarchy in which right wing ideologues would run society. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have achieved a nadir in popularity ratings by opposing anything and everything that the Democrats and the Obama Administration propose, even if the Republicans had originally proposed and supported it themselves… and even if it is supported by their own Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell. They have made government so dysfunctional that Congress would be more effective if it closed its doors and went home: anarchy.
  13. Extreme Right Wing Takeover – Ever since the ascendancy of the Tea Party and its ability to hold the Republican establishment hostage, the extreme right wing of the G.O.P. has hijacked their processes and positions and thwarted  the more mainstream agendas of Republican Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell. It has become almost impossible to find a moderate Republican anymore, as mainstream Republicans are forced to parrot Tea Party positions so outrageously and radically right wing that they cannot possibly prevail in the 2012 general election…. Or, if they do, it will be the end of America as we have known and loved it.The 13 deadly sins above are just the short list. There are a lot more. What do all of these positions and policies have in common? They represent a full-out attack on the people – the 99% of Americans – the vast majority of voters. Is it any wonder that the G.O.P. is in a panic about the 2012 election when they can’t stop themselves from alienating a big majority of the electorate? And people are catching on. Many conservatives are worried about guilt by association with the Tea Party extremists.

The Four Remaining G.O.P. Candidates for the Presidential Nomination

Republicans are in a panic about the 2012 general election partly because they have been painted into an extreme right wing corner by the Tea Party. But their panic is even more compellingly fueled by their disenchantment with the four remaining G.O.P. candidates left standing in their presidential primary process, because all of them look like sure losers against the mighty Obama re-election effort:

  • Rick Santorum is now a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination – a fact that seems so unlikely as to be downright surreal. But he is riding a strong wave of momentum because the G.O.P. is so disenchanted with their other three candidates and they have nowhere else to go. (Tim Pawlenty, you dropped out way too soon. You could have been the frontrunner now.) Senator Santorum may have trouble in Pennsylvania, though, where the voters eventually realized how radically right wing and out of bounds his views are. They voted him out by an 18% margin. However, Nixon proved long ago that anyone can come back from a devastating loss and win the presidency. Nobody thinks Santorum can take the White House, but everyone should be very concerned if he wins the nomination, because such a right wing radical extremist should never be allowed to get that close to the presidency.
  • Mitt Romney seems to have been running for the presidency all his life. He and his family look like they were designed for the White House by central casting in  Hollywood. But the Republican electorate does not like him. “The sins of the father are visited upon the son,” and George Romney was a liberal to moderate Republican – a political animal that does not exist anymore. Mitt’s genuine impulses are a lot like his father’s, and Republicans can smell that. They do not believe his conversion to “severe conservatism.” They don’t like the fact that he is a moderate, but worse than that, he is a super rich Massachusetts elitist intellectual who speaks French!
  • Newt Gingrich is universally hated by the Republican establishment. He rose to the top of the polls briefly and had a second surge a bit later, but recently he has fallen like a stone to the bottom of the pile. To know him is to reject him as a mean, scary little man with megalomaniac aspirations. Republicans do not trust him because he is the ultimate Washington insider. And yet, almost nobody who worked with him will support him. The story of his three marriages does not help him. Moreover his intelligence and sharp, articulate, witty attacks do not serve him well in the long run. Again, American voters do not like intellectuals. Ask Adlai Stevenson and John Kerry.
  • Ron Paul himself publicly admitted that he had no chance of winning the Republican nomination or the presidency. He has a relatively small but ardent cadre of supporters and contributors, but the Republican Party has never taken him seriously. This year they snub him at their peril, because if he were to run as a third party candidate for the presidency, he would surely split off enough conservative votes to insure President Obama’s re-election, just as Ross Perot managed to make the first Bush a one-term president and put Bill Clinton in the White House.

So… What’s going to happen?

There are a number of interesting potential scenarios both emanating from and exacerbating the Republican panic over the 2012 general election:

  • Open, brokered convention – An increasing number of Republicans and political commentators are talking about the possibility of an open, brokered convention. It is hard to see how a return to the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear could happen under the Republican Rules, but then, when it comes to elections, Republicans have never been very big on following the rules anyway. Maybe they’ll just change them and say, “Sorry, all you candidates who invested years of your life running for this nomination, and sorry, all of you billionaires and smaller donors who gave lots of money to them, but we are going to throw open this nomination process and draft Jeb Bush as our winning presidential candidate.”
  • Last-minute, Fifth Candidate – Is there any chance of a Johnny-come-lately, last minute candidate entering the race before the Super Tuesday Primaries? Could Tim Pawlenty somehow be resurrected? Mitch Daniels seems to be issuing “non-denial denials” regarding his interest in becoming a late entry, according to Chuck Todd.
  • Dreaded Third Party Candidacy – “Americans Elect” is already mounting a third party challenge for the presidency. They claim that three million people have expressed interest in their website, and they will narrow their list of candidates in May and choose one to run in June. They promise to put that candidate on all 50 ballots. This year anything could happen. We could see a fourth and fifth party, too. Donald Trump could decide that it would be good for his celebrity status and TV show to run on an independent ticket. So could Sarah Palin. Ron Paul might feel badly enough treated at the Republican Convention to spoil their soup and run as an independent. Many of these scenarios would spell re-election for President Obama.
  • Or… Maybe the G.O.P. Will Just Lose – If they continue on their current path, articulating extreme right wing positions and putting forward losing candidates, they may lose more than the presidency in the general election. They might just lose SO BIG that the Democrats would retake control of the House, bolster their position in the Senate, and replace a lot of Republican governors in the states.

 What’s going to happen?… A lot of rough and roiling water will have to pass under the November Election Bridge, along with a floundering G.O.P. elephant before we will know the answer to that question. But it is clear that the elephant is indeed floundering and in danger of drowning in those deep, dangerous extreme right wing waters. And the poor old pachyderm has fallen prey to a profound state of panic. No swimmer was ever saved from peril by giving in to panic. If the Republicans are going to survive this crisis, they are must analyze the needs of the electorate with a clear head and decide how to serve the vast majority of voters and stop alienating and insulting them. Then they need to nominate a mainstream moderate conservative candidate who can articulate a solid case for genuine service to the nation – in fact, service to the planet, and all its people.

— Kevin

POLITICS, PEOPLE, AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE

In the summer of 1971 I was twenty-six years old.  The previous November my mother, whom I was very close to, had just died at the young age of fifty, and I was feeling lost and hopeless.  As a high school teacher at the time, I had summers off, and I decided it would take my mind off things if I learned another language.  I had long been interested  in Russia, its culture, its people, and its literature, so I enrolled in an intensive summer language course at SUNY New Paltz. The first six weeks of it took place on that verdant and inviting campus, but the really exciting part was the second six weeks, when we went to what was then known as the Soviet Union.  We took an Aeroflot flight to Moscow in July of that year, and – believe it or not – when I arrived, I felt like kneeling down and kissing the Russian earth.  Luckily, I refrained, and did not make such a complete ass of myself

 Having grown up in relative poverty, I wanted to visit the Soviet Union because I thought that communism might provide a possible answer to the unequal distribution of wealth that I felt so keenly in this country.  The whole set up, then, seemed to me like a good way to kill several birds with one stone.  I would get to visit Russia, see communism first hand, learn some of the language, and then – well, unfortunately, that’s about where any clarity of thinking on my part ended.  After that, I guess I thought I’d just somehow figure things out later. 

 I should maybe hasten to say that things did not turn out as I had planned.  Not so much in terms of the language.  Although Russian is complex and difficult for foreigners to learn, I worked hard and began to gain a little fluency.  That part was fine, and I was pleased with my progress.  However, once I arrived in the country, along with my professor and the class I was part of, it began to dawn very quickly on me that communism wasn’t what I had hoped it might be.  People seemed depressed and downtrodden, and although I met more ordinary Russians than I had expected, most of them did not seem at all happy with their government.  Anything built at least since the war had a shoddy look too it, and people seemed somehow disappointed.  I remember one person telling me, frankly to my surprise, that he didn’t think much of communism, and he added: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” 

 I started to question all of the premises I had previously held, and by the time I left the country six weeks later, I was depressing aware that communism was pretty paltry as an economic system.  And what was worse, I had also witnessed enough of its totalitarian governance system to know that I did not at all like what I saw. 

 So, I came back to the United States in late August of that year, a little sadder, maybe a little wiser, and just in time to begin my teaching assignment in a rural high school in upstate New York. The point of all this reminiscence is that I felt adrift, morally and politically.  Communism was clearly not going to be the answer, and capitalism had always seemed cruel and greedy to me. 

 Things eventually changed in my life, and I left upstate New York, heading west, settling after a few years in California.  There I decided that you  can’t stay disappointed with life forever, so I plunged in headlong.  Later still, I ended up working at a large public university.  I ultimately rose to hold a relatively responsible position there, in charge of the university’s international programs. 

 But the question remained in my mind, had I ever figured out what was the best way to live?  In the end, there was no getting around the fact that I had embraced capitalism.  I was not a rich capitalist, mind you, but it’s almost impossible to live in this country without taking on the trappings of the system.  I eventually earned a decent wage, not huge, but enough, with my partner’s salary, to live not too uncomfortably.  Now, I’m a pensioner, and although in my heart I often still feel like the shanty Irish stock I come from, I’d have to say that things are okay.

 But I think a lot about other people, right here in this country, those who have not been as fortunate.  I think about the millions who do not have jobs, young people who haven’t been able to start their careers, people who can’t feed their families, or who have to choose between buying food and buying medicine, of those who are serving long prison terms for minor drug offences, those who are sick but have no insurance, or just so depressed they don’t feel like they can go on much longer.  Has capitalism served them well?  Probably not has to be the answer, I think.  Would communism have been a better choice?  Again, I doubt that very much, especially if Cuba and North Korea are any models from which to learn. 

 Contemplating these questions is, in a way, a lot like facing the issues related to global climate change.  You often feel pretty helpless about doing anything that seems all that meaningful.  I guess what I have ultimately decided is that I can at least write about my concerns, and I can give what’s possible to the charities I believe in, and I can vote for politicians who seem better to me than their opposites.  That pretty much comes down to voting for all the Democrats I can.  Not that Democrats are universally wonderful, but they’re a whole hell of a lot better than most Republicans, who cynically use wedge cultural issues to get the working class poor to vote for them, even though it goes contrary to people’s own economic interests.

 So, I’ll vote for Pres. Obama in the fall, and for as many liberal politicians as I can find.  All the while, knowing that the system is awfully far from perfect, that I in some ways contribute to it by accepting it and living according to its rules, and just by leading as happy a life as I can.  But maybe in the end that’s the answer, if there is one: live as intensely and as fully as you know how to, help others whenever possible, do what you can to find the answers to the Big Questions, however you define them, and leave the rest up to whatever Divine Power is beyond the thrust of your everyday routine.  It’s not a political dogma, that’s for sure, at least not like capitalism or communism, but it’s probably the best we can do.   And that, after all, is maybe all that’s expected of us.

Paul