Monday
Sep162019

Choosing The Life We Want

Because we are a democracy, in America we can choose the government, have a voice in its policies, insure that it works for the benefit of us and those around us, and that it reflects our values. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Studies such as the Gilens and Page, 2014, Princeton study have shown that our government mostly enacts policies that benefit the interests of the wealthy and the large corporations, not the average citizen. I think most of us could feel that already. But once again, with an election coming around, we have a chance to assert our will as citizens. We don’t have a direct democracy in America, we have a representative government in which we elect representatives who are supposed to carry out our will in passing laws and determining policies that will reflect our interests. If this isn’t happening, then we theoretically have the power to recall our representatives who aren’t following our wishes and elect new ones at the next election cycle. It’s hard to figure out who will best represent us and not the wealthy and corporate world because after someone gets elected, the system itself exerts pressure on them to please that world of wealth in order to secure the funds and backing to get reelected. Even further, those who do the bidding of their financial backers are often promised a job if they are not reelected or if they retire, often as a lobbyist for the people whose programs they favored during their tenure in congress. 

So it’s an uphill battle to take control of our government and insure that it does what it is supposed to do, which is to represent us. Be that as it may, we need to try, and in recent years, many candidates have at least presented themselves as independent of the moneyed interests that control our government. 

If we can elect independent representatives who will do what the citizens who elect them want them to do, then we need to know what we want. That means we need to have a vision of what kind of country we want to live in. It also means that we may need to convince our fellow citizens that what we want is right for them, too. Our representatives need to represent all of us. This is made easier by our representatives being somewhat local. They represent our congressional district, which is people who live near us, or our state, which is a bigger group, but nevertheless a geographically limited one with people with lots of similar interests.

In my mind, I want government to do two main things: First, I want it to provide services that insure a minimum livable quality of life for both me and for everyone else around me. This means providing laws and law enforcement that keeps me safe, providing quality education to my children and those of other members of my community, providing healthcare that is achievable for all members of my community regardless of their medical status, their age, their employment status or their zip code, and insuring that everyone has a minimum, livable income for themselves and their family throughout their lifespan. I also want government to protect me from hostile foreign entities and to protect the environment so that our planet and its resources survive for future generations.

The second thing I want government to do is to allow me the maximum amount of freedom to live, think, speak and do as I please, so long as I am not harming my fellow citizens.

We all know that my two wishes for government can come in conflict at times. In order to insure safety and to pay for all the services I think should be guaranteed to me and my fellow citizens, the government must restrict some of my behaviors and tax me to pay not just for my services but for everyone’s. I can look around and see that reducing taxes and allowing a free market to prevail has failed to insure healthcare for everyone, including some of those people closest to me. I can see that there are many who don’t have livable incomes, including hardworking people who are elder citizens and young people who are poorly educated. I can see that many of our safety programs such as police and fire are understaffed. Our education system is failing many of our young people and many teachers don’t make livable wages. 

Some people will claim that those who come up lacking in our society have no one to blame but themselves, but I simply don’t agree. A variety of factors combine to make it difficult for some people to have an even chance to gain a satisfying or sometimes even livable life. Many countries, including Canada and the Scandinavian countries as well as many other European countries, have done a better job of guaranteeing a higher quality of life to all their citizens than we have here in America. They do so because they have a national will to do so, and they value education and social network programs that protect their sick and elderly more than we do. They also pay more taxes. And it isn’t just the rich who pay more taxes in those countries, it’s everyone. That’s the price they agree to pay to give them what they want.

The quality of my life is inextricably entwined with that of the lives of everyone else in my community. If many people are homeless, if many are faced with bankruptcy because of medical bills, if young people in my community are poorly educated, if crime is prevalent, if natural disasters caused by climate change are on the rise, if young people and elderly people on pensions or social security can’t afford to rent a home, or if whole segments of my community are underserved because of their race or ethnicity, then I can’t have a satisfying quality of life for myself. I need to do what I can to help those who need help and I need to elect officials who will do what needs to be done to serve everyone, not just their rich donors. And I need to give up some things, mostly by paying more taxes, to afford my vision for my community.

Do we need to radically change the system for me to achieve the kind of life that I want and the kind of community that I want? Yes, we do, but I still believe we can do that within the framework of our representative system of government. We need to find the candidates who share our values and will carry through with implementing them. These will be people who challenge the system, people who are willing to fight against moneyed interests, not succumb to them. They need to be people who can inspire my fellow citizens to do the hard things that need to be done to achieve a better country.

I think we can figure out who those people are. We need to work to get them elected.

 

Monday
Aug192019

Has Progressivism Become Too Narrow?

I used to be a liberal—before that label became a synonym for moderate—and then I called myself a progressive. I might change back to calling myself a liberal. I’m for universal health care paid for by the government out of people’s taxes, but I assume that,  just like in every other Western developed country that has universal health care, there will be a private insurance option alongside of it. I’m for free public college and university, but I would accept having it only extend to those with low and middle-class income. I want a smaller defense budget and a smaller armed forces, as well as a continually shrinking nuclear arsenal. I want to regulate banks so their own greed doesn’t lead to another economic crisis. I want to heavily regulate industry to protect the environment, curb C02 and methane emissions and rejoin the Paris Agreement and extend it further. And I want a more even-handed approach to the Middle East, including reducing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, perhaps even sanctioning them for killing a reporter and wanton killing of civilians in Yemen. I want a friendlier outreach to Iran and a resumption of the nuclear deal and also more pressure put on Israel to actively pursue a two-state solution with the Palestinians and reducing Israeli settlement development and some of their policies restricting imports and rights for Palestinians. I want some workable solution to the difficulties faced by African-Americans in terms of how they are treated by the criminal justice system, addressing factors that result in de-facto segregation in housing  and schools, and improving their health outcomes, and I want to find a way to improve their economic outcomes. I want a revision of our election campaign financing and our lobbying procedures so that legislative actions and policy decisions reflect the will of the people, not the wishes of the corporations and the wealthy.  I want our tax system to stop favoring the wealthy and corporations, and I see all of us paying more taxes as the way to raise money to increase our social safety net programs. I want women to have the same pay and the same opportunities as men in our economic system. I want asylum seekers on our borders to be treated humanely and undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. long enough to establish stable lives to have a way to become citizens. I’d like to see more immigration, not less, into the U.S. with as much attention to those in distress and fleeing danger, poverty or famine, as those who bring money, education and job skills.

I consider all of the above points to be mainstream liberal ones, since my views about them have changed little over  the last twenty years or more. I’m not sure if I’m a progressive, in the modern use of the term, because I’m unsure about the wisdom and motives of BDS, I can't understand why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren insist on Medicare-for-All plans that eliminate private insurance. I think America needs more immigrants because of our aging population, which is not replacing itself, and I don’t think asylum seekers should be treated as criminals, but I don’t want to decriminalize all border crossings.  I want right-wing extremists to be treated as domestic terrorists if they threaten or carry-out terror attacks, but I want even White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis to have the right to speak and march. I want all points of view to have the opportunity to speak on our college campuses, not just those that favor the sentiments of the faculty and students.

I suspect a lot of Democrats and Independents, maybe even a few Republicans, want most of what I want. The problem is that the most vocal and progressive wing of the Democratic Party is viewed as only supporting the most narrow versions of these positions: This view says, private insurance must be illegal because it is predatory. Speaking out against BDS is disloyal to Palestinians. Treating any border crossers as criminals is inhumane. The only taxes that can be raised are those of the rich. Programs such as free college tuition must have no means testing or financial strings attached. Those who espouse malignant views must not be allowed to speak.

I’m not really sure if there is a large enough core of the kind of true extreme progressives that I describe to really control Democratic primaries. The goal of most Democrats is to beat Donald Trump, not be purists. It’s unclear if Joe Biden’s middle-of-the-road policies and positions will address the issues I’m concerned about. Sanders, Warren, Harris, maybe even Booker and Buttigieg, want most of what I want, but the insistence of some of them  on adhering to the nuances demanded by extremists will probably alienate more voters than it attracts. Maybe they need to reframe progressivism so that it pleases old-time liberals,  like myself, who, after all, are the heart of the Democratic Party.

Wednesday
Jul312019

Progressive Democrats: Fix Your Message

After watching the first of the two recent Democratic debates on CNN, I was dismayed by the inability of progressive senators, Sanders and Warren, to present a clear and palatable version of their Medicare for All program or their stand on decriminalizing illegal border crossings as well as a few of their other proposals. These are the two Democrats who currently lead the progressive wing of the party and, in Warren’s words, are both “bold” enough in their calls for badly needed “structural change” to our country.

With regard to healthcare, during the debates both Warren and Sanders refused to deny that their proposals would make private insurance illegal in the U.S., and would remove the private insurance millions of Americans now have. This makes their position both vulnerable to criticism and unpopular. Their answers, which focused on the inadequacies of some private insurance policies and the malignant and greedy practices of private insurers, never addressed the issue of those people who are perfectly happy with their present insurance, particularly if it is employment-based.

Medicare for all would, indeed, reduce overall expenses for health insurance for most Americans. For some, whose insurance is fully covered by their employers and who have very small co-pays and zero or almost zero deductibles, it would not be cheaper, especially since they would probably be paying an increased tax for everyone else’s Medicare coverage. Warren claims this is not the case and that raising taxes on the rich and closing loopholes would cover Medicare costs, but that is unlikely. Sanders has said that everyone would pay higher taxes to pay for the program, but that would be offset for most people by their not having to pay insurance premiums, co-pays or deductibles. Sanders’ answer is probably closer to the truth.

A Medicare for All program that was paid for by increasing everyone’s taxes would not have to be mandatory and private insurance would not have to be illegal. Medicaid recipients would still have Medicaid and earn so little that their taxes would not be affected. Lower-middle class recipients of government subsidies through Obamacare would lose those subsidies (reducing government costs), and pay marginally more taxes, but get Medicare coverage and not have to pay premiums. Many Obamacare recipients are saddled with very high deductible policies and Medicare would replace those. Anyone else could either keep their current insurance or switch to Medicare, but they would be paying for Medicare through their taxes and most would probably switch unless they had free, no co-pays, no deductible insurance through their employer. As long as enough taxes were raised to pay for the program, and everyone paid the tax, there would be no reason to eliminate the option of private insurance. This would be similar to Canada and the U.K.

With regard to immigration, the whole controversy over de-criminalizing border crossing is a red-herring. The United States is a signatory to the 1967 revision of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Treatment of Refugees, which makes it illegal to prosecute border crossers who present themselves for asylum. Because of this, crossing the border illegally is not a criminal offense so long as the person presents himself or herself to an authority and asks for asylum. Only if they have a criminal record or do not present themselves to an authority as an asylum-seeker, can they be prosecuted. In the case of the criminal record, they can be immediately deported. 

When Sanders and Warren answered questions about decriminalization of border crossing, they always gave examples of asylum-seekers. But those people are not subject to criminal prosecution anyway, unless they fail to apply for asylum after crossing the border or remain in the country after a judge turns down their asylum claim. It’s a false argument, which gains a lot of progressive support while alienating moderate voters, and it is totally unnecessary.

Warren and Sanders and other progressives can clarify their positions and lay out a reasonable plan in the case of Medicare for All and asylum-seekers, and it need not be one that loses them moderate votes. I wish they would.

Thursday
Jul182019

Where Trump is Vulnerable

I, and I believe a majority of Americans, have been appalled by President Trump’s recent attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color. I’ve detailed my feelings about this in a previous commentary ("Our President is a Disgrace"). But not all Americans are as horrified as I am. Yesterday, in North Carolina, the president gave a speech in which he said that representative Ilhan Omar praised al Qaida, a claim that has been refuted by numerous media sites and deemed “false” by Politico. His audience of supporters began shouting, “Send her back,” referring to the president’s earlier statement that Omar and three other progressive congresswomen of color should  “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” I was as horrified by the crowd’s reaction as by the president’s words.

President Trump is building his 2020 campaign around the theme that America is under siege by progressive extremists who are aligned with our enemies, who want to turn the country into a socialist nation, and who hate the United States. He says he is defending the country from becoming socialist—a goal, he says, of the Democratic Party, which is controlled by its progressive wing. A lot of people believe him. Senator Lindsay Graham has claimed that the four women are communists. The president is fear-mongering, and he is an effective enough speaker and classic populist demagogue to drive his supporters' emotions to a fever pitch so that they believe they are in a life and death struggle to save America.

The four women, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are some of the most progressive members of congress. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are members of the Democratic Socialists of America. Bernie Sanders also refers to himself as Democratic Socialist. None of them have ever claimed to be communists, nor have any of them offered approval of communism. 

None of the Democrats such as Sanders and the two congresswomen who label themselves Democratic Socialists favor the kind of government ownership and management of everything that has characterized truly socialist countries. They do favor government ownership or management of what are considered vital public services, such as healthcare. They praise Scandinavian countries, such as Norway and Sweden, which, in fact, are not Democratic Socialist countries, but Social Democracies. In a Social Democracy, the government works within a capitalist economy to provide, guarantee or manage such services as healthcare, retirement, welfare programs for low-income citizens, etc. The social democracies of Scandinavia are among the most entrepreneurial and capitalistic in the world, but provide a much broader social safety net for their citizens than does the United States.

President Trump’s bogeyman (or woman) is a false fear, focusing on four new members of congress, none of which has much power beyond the large public following of AOC, their most prominent member. They hardly control the Democratic Party. Of the twenty or so Democratic presidential candidates, only Bernie Sanders refers to himself as a Democratic Socialist. By narrowing his target to the labels that provoke the most fear in his base, the president is vulnerable to any Democratic candidate that does not fit that mold. That leaves at least 19 others, and, truth be told, Bernie Sanders poses no threat to capitalism except to try to rid our country of the influence of the super rich individuals and businesses that now determine many of our government policies via their campaign contributions, lobbying, and revolving door of politicians and administration officials moving from big business to government and back to big business again after they leave government. These are all goals that a thinking American should support and have nothing to do with Socialism.

President Trump is vulnerable because he is narrowing his campaign to focus on ideas that don’t characterize anyone he will run against and are far from the issues that concern most Americans. However, it is up to the Democrats to demonstrate that the president’s claims are wrong. They are most vulnerable in this regard with calls for ending all private insurance in their Medicare for All proposals. Americans are afraid of any proposal that allows the government to restrict their freedom. Even in instances where such proposals might make sense, they run up against the view of rugged individualism that we all grew up with as part of the American mystique. In fact, there are no European countries that prohibit private insurance, even when they offer universal healthcare to their citizens. Finland, which has the most comprehensive government health insurance program, also has a small private insurance industry alongside of it. Other countries such as Canada, Australia, UK, France and Denmark, have substantial private insurance programs alongside their public insurance. Israel and the Netherlands rely exclusively on private insurance carriers, which are highly regulated by the government and everyone is required to have health insurance (similar to Obamacare). 

Trump is vulnerable but Democrats need to clarify what they are proposing and make sure that it does not scare voters away. A recent LA Times in-depth study found that nearly half (48%) of workers with employer-provided health insurance who had high deductibles (which was much more common among lower wage workers) were dissatisfied with their insurance and thought that having Medicaid would be better. People aren’t happy with the current situation, even those who have insurance provided by their employer, but they are frightened by talk of government takeovers and having their options narrowed by government policies.

Healthcare isn’t the only place where Democrats need to be careful to not scare voters away.  Mostly, this means avoiding incendiary trigger-statements that invoke visions of a powerful government removing freedom of choice from its citizens. By avoiding inflammatory proposals, and discussing real change that addresses the same issues in a way that understands people’s fears as well as their needs, the Democrats can defeat a president whose main message is one that preys on voters’ fears.

 

Tuesday
Jul162019

Our President is a Disgrace

I was stunned to read President Trump’s words about the four female Democratic Congresswomen about whom he said, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Although he did not mention them by name, everyone knew that he was referring to Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.  Of these four, only Ilhan Omar was born outside of the United States. She immigrated with her family from Somalia when she was a child. The president went on to say that the congresswomen were “now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” Of course, being congresswomen, it is their job to determine how our government is to be run. That’s exactly why they were elected.

Trump’s ignorance about the origins of the four congresswomen of color and their official role in our government aside, his attacks are an echo of the racist and xenophobic attacks on immigrants and people of color of the past. He is trying to portray them as immigrants, although three out of four of them are not. He portrays them as anti-Israel, because three of the four have been critical of Israel in its treatment of Palestinians. One of them, Ayanna Pressley doesn’t even fit this category, and is supportive of Israel, opposed to BDS and endorsed by J Street, the pro-Israel lobby. Two of them, Tlaib and Omar, are Muslim, and the president’s criticism is a not-so-subtle message that to be Muslim is to be anti-Israel and perhaps also anti-Semitic. He said llhan Omar “says horrible things about Israel, hates Israel, hates Jews.” Omar has criticized politicians for catering to Israeli lobbyists’ agendas and is highly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, as are many Americans, including former President Jimmy Carter, who once accused Israel of “apartheid.”

One of the main points about America is that Americans are free to criticize whomever they wish to criticize. To go along with everything our country does without criticizing those things that are wrong is not patriotic, it is ill-informed blindness. Every advance our country has made has been in response to criticism of the status quo—even sometimes shame. Can American CIA interference in Chile, resulting in the death of their elected president be defended? Or the CIA’s role in the assassination of President Diem of Vietnam? And what about Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq or CIA secret detention and torture as detailed in congressional hearings? What if abolitionists had not criticized slavery, which our government permitted until after the Civil War? What if Abraham Lincoln had not ranted against it in his debates against Stephen Douglas? And what about the women who criticized their institutionalized lack of voting rights until 1919? Or segregation, which was allowed until the 1960s; was criticism of a country that allowed segregation un-American? Can anyone honestly look at the way our criminal justice system treats Black Americans and not criticize it? What about America selling the planes and guns and providing the logistical support for Saudi Arabia’s horrific attacks on civilian targets in Yemen? Should that be applauded or criticized?

I protested the Vietnam war and the Iraq war, two ill-conceived wars which resulted in terrible consequences for the United States and which were fought for misguided reasons. I remember the slogans, “America—Love it or Leave it” that were thrown at protesters.

President Trump’s comments are an effort to play to his lowest level of supporters, those who are prone to hate, who dislike and are afraid of immigrants, and those who find it easy to despise people of color. Demagogues have always played to this type of audience. Unfortunately, media such as Fox television, particularly Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Newt Gingrich have praised the president’s words. Senator Lindsay Graham has jumped on the bandwagon, saying ( On Fox) “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists. They hate Israel, they hate our own country… they’re anti-semitic, they’re anti-American.”

The president is fear-mongering and inciting racism in an effort to distract us from the real problems he’s having dealing with illegal immigration and foreign policy. He is hoping for his supporters’ anger to overcome their common sense. He is being aided and abetted by Fox News and politicians like Lindsay Graham. Remember, this is a president, who himself, has said that "Have you ever seen our country look weaker or more pathetic..." Who once claimed "How stupid has our once respected country become!" Who said, "Did you ever think our country would become an economic basket case?"

This is the man who, in his inauguration speech described our cities and our education system as “American carnage.” This is the man who said that Barack Obama stole the presidency because he was born in Kenya, not the United States. Trump was both critical and wrong.

If criticizing America is equal to hating it, then President Trump is more guilty of it than any of the congresswomen he berates.

The president’s words are a national disgrace. That some people will listen and agree with him, or even cheer him on, is a national tragedy. To reelect such a pitiful character would be a national disaster.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday
Jul082019

The Solution to Our Housing Crisis is More Housing

The New York Times Editorial Board recently focused on Democratic presidential candidates’ proposals for addressing the housing crisis in America. Here in California, this crisis is acute and those of us with children or grandchildren trying to find affordable housing or with our own incomes stagnating while rents soar, are very aware that rental costs are getting out of control. A whole segment of our population lives in the garages or spare rooms of other people’s houses, often crowded into such small spaces with other family members. Those even less fortunate live on the streets. Subsidized housing is difficult to find and existing lists of those who qualify but are still waiting to find a place to live are years long in most communities. The main reason for exhorbitant rental costs is the shortage of rental units. It's a simple case of supply and demand.

A recent study by the New York Times revealed that in Los Angeles, 70% of the land is zoned for single family, detached homes, in San Jose, the figure is 94%. Up the coast, the situation is similar: Portland has 77% of its land zoned for single-family detached housing and Seattle has 81%. The situation is similar across the U.S., with Minneapolis, Arlington, TX, Sandy Springs GA, and Charlotte, NC all zoned at 70% or greater for single-family detached homes. Some major cities, such as New York, at 10% of such zoning and Washington, DC with 36% are different, but the problem remains that a huge part of our current housing crisis is caused by local zoning restrictions. 

California has been trying to address this issue through legislation that would mandate relaxation of restrictions on height and parking facilities in urban areas near transportation hubs, but these efforts have failed. Some of the bills, such as the most well-known, SB-50 have been poorly written and ended up being opposed by renters groups as well as local governments, but overall, it’s the reluctance of citizens and their government to give up what they have in terms of pristine low-rise neighborhoods, a fear of losing property values if tall apartments are built next door, and a fear of the “kind of people”  (often a racist and/or classist sentiment) that will move into areas dominated by home owners or high-priced rental units.

Tokyo is one of the developed world’s few major cities that have not seen a rise in rental costs over the last 25 years. That is because Tokyo allows property owners to replace exiting buildings with new, taller, multi-family buildings with almost not government interference. In 2014, Tokyo, with a population less than a third of California and less than a fourth of England, and virtually no unbuilt-upon land, had more housing starts than either of those two others. Despite relaxed zoning restrictions, Tokyo maintains extremely strict building codes, primarily because of its susceptibility to earthquakes.

Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker, to name three presidential candidates, have proposed either regulations or incentives for cities to relax zoning restrictions and build more multi-family units. Tying federal infrastructure funding to land-use rezoning, as proposed by Castro, makes sense.  So does some variant of SB-50 in California.

I live in a city dominated by single-family, detached homes. A few new apartments are being built, but they are “luxury apartments” with rents beginning at well over $2000 per month and a median nearer $3000. Only 11% of new housing being built in the Los Angeles-Orange County region is classified as “affordable,” which means limited to low and moderate-income tenants. The average for this type of housing is $1850/month.

It’s time for us to address the housing shortage directly, especially for those with low to moderate incomes, by building more affordable housing. To do so, we need to change our zoning restrictions. We need more multi-family houses, especially for low and moderate income families. We need to relax height restrictions on apartment and condominium buildings. Multi-story apartments are no less safe than multi-story commercial buildings and hotels, which are being built every day. We must bite the bullet and stop protecting the single-family neighborhoods we live in, and make room for our children, grandchildren and fellow citizens.

The proposals of presidential candidates who are offering solutions need to be considered in our choice of our next president.

 

Monday
Jul012019

Intolerance Threatens Democracy

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote a column he titled, “Stop the Knee-jerk Liberalism that Hurts its Own Cause.” He described several cases of liberal student intolerance, often supported by university administrations, such as the removal of a Harvard Law professor from his secondary job as House Dean, because he provided legal representation to Harvey Weinstein. Kristof mentioned the case of Canadian psychologist and university professor Jordan Peterson, who is critical of political correctness, particularly with regard to gender, and who was given a fellowship at Cambridge University, which was later rescinded after student protests, and a bakery in Oberlin, Ohio where a black man stole a bottle of wine and was pursued by a white clerk, who was then attacked by a mob of students who called the clerk and the store “racist,” and afterward mounted student protests against the bakery. Oberlin College then suspended purchases from the bakery. Later the black man pleaded guilty to the theft and the bakery won a $44 million lawsuit against the university. 

Kristof was cherry-picking cases, but the pattern he examined is real. Data from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, on campus attempted “disinvitations” to speak, when student or faculty protest threatened to disinvite a speaker or candidate for a teaching position from speaking or teaching over the last two and one half years substantiates that pattern. FIRE lists 71 such attempted disinvitations in from 2017 to mid 2019, 39 of which were successful (the speaker was not allowed to speak) and 32 of which were not. Fifty-five (77%) of those disinvitations were instigated by students on the left and 16 (23%) by students on the right. Students attempted to prevent 5 commencement speakers from speaking, 62 speakers from engaging in a debate or giving a speech, three faculty members from teaching and one  speaker from an undisclosed, “other” activity. Thirty of the attempted disinvitations occurred at public universities, and 41 at private colleges or universities. 

Universities used to be bastions of free speech and the locations of lively political and social debate. This is no longer the case. Students seem to feel that speakers who don’t share their point of view have no right to speak, teach, or participate in debate at their schools. This is demonstrably truer of left-leaning students than right-leaning students and it bodes ill for free speech and open minds in our younger generation.

Over this last weekend, Antifa again reared its ugly head in Portland, Oregon and attacked “Patriot Prayer” marchers, who included some “Proud Boy” members and beat up a right-wing blogger who was reporting on the march, sending him to the hospital with multiple injuries. The right-wing marchers, numbering about 30, did not have a permit and many of them came prepared for a confrontation. The Antifa members, who wore black clothing, facemasks and sometimes helmets, some carrying shields and bats, claimed that they were “combating hatred” and “stopping violence,” which they said was being promoted by the far-right marchers. The anti-protest group, of which the Antifa were a small number of the members, numbered in the hundreds.

Far-right groups, which are similar to or include neo-Nazis, preach an evil message. But in America, everyone, even those whose message is evil, is allowed to speak. Silencing one’s opponents with violence is something that our country was founded on stopping. We can agree with the sentiment of Antifa regarding the evil of those it opposes, despite its message of stopping hatred and violence by attacking those who speak it being hypocritical, but anyone who decides that he or she will use force to stop another from exercising free speech is a danger to our democracy.

All attempts to silence those we disagree with are a threat to our democracy. The modern claim that some comments are too dangerous or too hurtful to others and can’t be allowed to be spoken is basically a suppression of free speech. The judge of what is too dangerous or hurtful is popular opinion, which differs depending on whose opinion is being expressed. If the principle of silencing those whose speech we think is harmful becomes the norm, then when a majority dislikes what any of us are saying, including in essays such as this one, then we are in danger of being silenced. That is not what America is about, and, in fact, it is a principle that was opposed by those who founded our country and wrote our constitution. 

We need to stand up for free speech. It doesn’t take courage to stand up for speech we and our peers agree with, it takes courage to stand up for the right to speak what we, and perhaps even the majority, don’t agree with. To protect our freedom, that’s what each of us need to do and we should be afraid that many of those in our younger generation do not understand this.

Sunday
Jun302019

The Best Line of the Democratic Debate—and Why

The two-night Democratic debates gave us all a good glimpse of the twenty top candidates for president on the ticket that will oppose President Trump in 2020. There were a lot of things said, most of it said thoughtfully, and most showing us a real picture of candidates’ policy interests, and their personalities, if not their characters. As always, the press focused on the best one-liners and most of the nation seemed to applaud those who were confident and aggressive in their presentations. 

Some of the memorable one-liners were: 

Amy Klobuchar: “I don't think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning.”

Jay Inslee: "The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump."

Pete Buttegieg: “I couldn’t get it done,” when talking about increasing racial diversity in his city’s police force.

Pete Buttegieg: “a party that associates with Christianity to say it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents that god would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

Kamala Harris: "America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we will put food on their table,"

Kamala Harris: “There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.”

Most of these lines generated cheers and applause from the venue audience and tweets and retweets from watchers at home.

But there was a one liner that didn’t stand out, except to get mild criticism from sources such as The New Yorker, and that was Elizabeth Warren’s answer to the question about gun control and dealing with the millions of guns that are already on America’s streets. She said,  “we need to double down on research.” 

Warren isn’t a do-nothing on gun control, in fact, she has been a Senate leader on calling for a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks as well as other measures. Her answer reflects two important points: first is that for twenty years, federal legislation (the “Dickey bill”) prevented the CDC from doing research on gun violence. The 2018 spending bill removed that restriction and allowed the CDC to do research but not to advocate for gun control. The second point is that it is not really clear which measures will work to control gun violence in the United States. Gun violence includes not only mass shootings but also gang murders, criminal shootings, family disputes and suicides. All of these have different influences, which affect their prevalence. They have in common that they use guns. An absence or reduction of guns in the population would reduce such killings, but how to do that is unclear. That’s why Elizabeth Warren’s statement was right on target, even if it didn’t have the ring of ideological certainty that pleases both the press and partisan voters.

Gun control isn’t the only issue that is badly in need of research or, as is often the case, of politicians and voters paying attention to the research. The debate about charter schools is almost entirely one being conducted along ideological and political lines. Research—good research with consistent findings—exists, but no one pays attention to it. The CREDO studies conducted by Stanford University since 2009, have shown not only where charter schools do better or worse than public schools, but in many cases the factors that affect such performance. But these studies are ignored.

Climate change is seen by most Americans and by most Democratic politicians, but not Republican ones, as one of and perhaps our most dangerous threat. The Trump administration claims that the science behind climate change predictions is inconclusive, a view that is at variance with the broad scientific community. But even for advocates of attacking global warming, the measures that are advocated are often not the ones that research has shown would produce the most gain in reducing greenhouse gases. The New York Times best-selling study, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming” is almost never cited nor even discussed in political debates.  Yet, the research cited within its pages indicates that the measure that would result in the largest reduction in green house gases is managing and phasing out the use of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and air conditioning worldwide, something almost never discussed on the campaign trail. World countries have amended the Montreal Climate Agreement to require phasing out of such chemicals beginning this year and stretching over the next ten and by following these guidelines and destroying refrigerators at the end of their life and fixing leaky ones, approximately 90 gigatons of CO2 emissions would be avoided by 2050. Also in the report are the findings showing that employing rooftop solar panels would reduce twice the CO2 as switching to electric cars. Climate advocates rant about our habit of eating meat being associated with one of the greatest sources of methane from domestic cattle, but a method of grazing called Silvopasture, which combines woodland and farmland and allows grazing of shrubs as well as grasses, would produce a net reduction in methane and CO2 emissions through sequestering carbon in the plants and reducing methane production in cattle stomachs by their eating woody shrubs. Along these lines, grazing cattle on algae contained in seaweed, could reduce methane produced by the cattle by 80-99%, based on laboratory research and tests with live sheep.

Elizabeth Warren made one of the few calls for research in today’s American politics. We are at a crowning moment in science worldwide, yet our public policies often ignore science and research and our politicians nearly always do. Our press doesn’t focus on it as a source of solutions to public problems and jumps on any politician, such as Warren, who dares to ask for research instead of embracing an ideologically pure stance on an issue.

We don’t have to be dumb. We don’t have to take gleeful pride in our candidates “zinging” each other and let those with the most aggression and the best put-downs become our leaders. We can start thinking. We can quit believing that our guts tell us the truth on complex topics and that those who turn to science and research are wonks or ivory-tower procrastinators who are afraid to act. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the federal and state programs that have sounded good to their supporters and turned out to have failed miserably when put into action. 

Real research is out there and it's time we rewarded thinking in our candidates, and in our favorite political pundits, instead of brashness and cleverness  and saying things we like to hear. It’s time we stopped applauding pride in ignorance and started asking for a 21stcentury government that uses research instead of folklore and ideology to design a better world. I’m going to watch the campaign and decide which candidates reflect this view.

Wednesday
Jun262019

I'm Ashamed of My Country

In 1978, the film Midnight Express, based upon a book by the same name, shocked Americans with its depiction of the horrible conditions imposed upon inmates in a Turkish prison. The main character, an American, had been convicted of drug smuggling and the film served as a warning to other Americans and Europeans about the danger of becoming incarcerated in a foreign prison where human rights and health concerns were ignored by the government officials.

Most Americans are fearful about becoming a prisoner in foreign country, especially a third-world country or one with a dictatorial government. It is assumed that prisoners in those countries are not treated with the same concern for health, safety and human rights issues as they would be in the United States. But now we have reports of our own country treating locked up persons in degrading ways. And those locked up people are detainees, not prisoners. Many of them are children. 

Last week we heard reports from lawyers, social workers and pediatricians about deplorable conditions at the Clint, Texas Border Patrol facility were 300 children were being held with insufficient food and water and without adults to care for them. Older children were caring for toddlers and younger children who were not even their relatives because there was no one else to care for the young ones. No one was caring for the older children, who were often young teens. Children were sleeping on the floor covered by Mylar blankets. They were not given toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap or diapers. Many had not showered for weeks. Several children had the flu and others were quarantined with illness. So far, six migrant children have died in U.S. custody.

There has been plenty of effort to cast blame for the situation of migrants and especially migrant children in U.S. custody. President Trump blames the Obama administration who, he says, created the custodial conditions in the first place. Democrats blame the president, referring to his “inhumane, outside-the-circle-of-civilized attitude toward the children,” in the words of Nancy Pelosi. The president has countered, that he is as worried about the children as anyone, but the congress needs to give him the money to address their needs. Meanwhile, lawyers representing the Trump administration have argued in court that the government is not required to meet the children’s needs because the Flores Settlement Agreement, under which the so-called unaccompanied minors are held (many of them are unaccompanied because it is the government’s policy to separate children accompanied by adults who are not their parents, even if the adult is a relative and to classify the children as “unaccompanied) didn’t say anything about providing a “toothbrush,” “towels,” “dry clothing,” “soap,” or even “sleep,” so the government need not provide such things. Even donations of diapers and toothbrushes were turned away at the Clint facility.

The government’s policy is bad, the measures they have taken are bad and the agencies tasked with taking care of the children don’t have the funds to do it properly or safely. In the richest country in the world, one would think that this couldn’t happen. At the least, finding out that it has happened, congress should step in and appropriate the money and insist that it be spent on health, hygiene and safety issues of the children being detained. Instead, we have both parties fighting with one another over possible bills to at least partially ameliorate the situation. The House has just passed a $4.5 billion dollar spending bill, which, according to the Washington Post,  requires the Customs and Border Patrol “to establish new health and safety standards for migrants in its custody, as well as protocols for dealing with migrant surges, within 30 days.” Children could not be detained a shelters for more than 90 days. In addition, HHS shelter contractors who failed to provide adequate sleeping, food and hygiene items, such as diapers, soap and toothbrushes plus medical care and schooling, would lose their contracts. 

The House bill passed almost exclusively along party lines. Republicans in the Senate and the president oppose the bill. Mitch McConnell says there’s no point bringing such a bill to the Senate floor because he knows the president will veto it if it is passed. The Senate is working on their own$4.6 billion bill, which includes more funding for border enforcement, ICE funding and money to hire more immigration judges. Only $2.9 billion of the proposed Senate bill addresses health and safety issues of detained children.

Some House progressives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York,  Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan voted against the House bill, claiming that it failed to stop deportations and continued to support holding children in custody, but they offered no counter measure that would provide funding to assist the children.

Right now, with the condition of detained children in a humanitarian crisis state, opposing forces within our government of elected representatives are locked in a partisan battle, which appears to insure that nothing will get done to help the children. Both sides refuse to give in and both seem most concerned with scoring points with their bases by standing firm on their positions. For both sides, being seen as unwilling to compromise on one’s position is more important than solving a crisis that is threatening the lives of children. 

I am ashamed of the conditions in which we keep detained children. I am equally ashamed of our politicians, both liberals and conservatives, progressives and right-wingers, and our president and his appointees for failing to work together to solve this problem. I’m tired of our leaders, and many who support them, putting ideological purity ahead of humanitarian concerns. I’m ashamed of the United States of America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday
Jun232019

Sense and Nonsense in Foreign Policy

Under President Obama, the United States had a deal with Iran, one that included multiple parties, including European countries, Russia and China, and sanctions on Iran were being lessened. There was zero evidence that Iran had violated the terms of the nuclear agreement. President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. Since then he has increased those sanctions. The economy of Iran is suffering, and so are its people. 

In the last week or so, Iran has allegedly attacked Norwegian-owned and Japanese-owned oil tankers near the Straits of Hormuz, a main shipping route for Mideast oil. The previous month, four oil tankers had been attacked in the same region. This week, the Iranians downed an unmanned U.S. military drone, which it claimed was in its airspace. 

In response to Iranian aggression (Iran is the alleged perpetrator in the case of the oil tankers and has admitted shooting down the U.S. drone), the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the region, the president has said that he plans to send more troops to the Middle East, and a retaliatory air strike following the drone downing was planned, but called off because the loss of life it would have caused was deemed by the president not to be “proportionate” to the downing of an unmanned aircraft.

President Trump claims that the Obama administration was too soft on Iran and the Trump administration’s plan is to do everything that needs to be done to contain Iran’s disruptive activities in the Middle East and to insure that they do not develop nuclear weapons. But, since the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran has increased its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, announced plans to resume high-level enrichment of uranium, and reduce other of its commitments under the nuclear deal in response to increased U.S. sanctions. And now it has allegedly attacked oil tankers and shot down a U.S. drone, pushing us to the brink of war.

It is absolutely clear that the actions of the United States with regard to Iran under President Trump have not only increased tensions with Iran, but also led to an increase in Iranian aggression and brought Iran closer to resuming its program to develop nuclear weapons. 

It makes no sense to trumpet the success of moves that have worsened the situation with Iran and brought us closer to the two outcomes we least want: a nuclear-armed Iran and our involvement in another Middle Eastern war. Yet this is exactly what President Trump and his supporters are doing. Such claims fly in the face of evidence and logic. 

We have a noticeably worse relationship with Iran since Trump assumed office. We are closer to war and closer to them resuming their nuclear program. Other signatories to the nuclear deal, such as France and Germany, have not supported our position and have tried to maintain the deal without U.S. participation, but by increasing sanctions, the United States has made if difficult for the deal to work, leading to Iran threatening to resume their nuclear program. 

In fact, the Trump administration’s approach to Iran is a demonstrable failure, not a success. All of the outcomes it is trying to prevent have either already occurred or are on the horizon. Trump’s strategy was supposed to bring Iran to the negotiating table so that a new, “better” nuclear deal could be worked out. That hasn’t happened. We are no where near it happening and now a war with Iran is more likely than a new, negotiated nuclear deal and a cessation of Iran’s support of terrorism, Trump’s stated objectives.

Unfortunately, many Americans listen to Trump’s bombastic rhetoric about Iran and his blustery “tough” stance and believe that he is “standing up to Iran” and bringing them to heel. In fact, his actions have not brought any cooperation with Iran and have markedly worsened the situation. This is exactly the kind of  manipulation, using words to obscure facts and saying the opposite of the truth, that George Orwell captured in his “Newspeak” and “Doublespeak” in his novel, 1984. The president rants about "fake news," but he is more responsible for creating it than he is a victim of it. The facts are the evidence and they are what Americans should pay attention to, not the president’s duplicitous words about them.

Monday
Jun102019

Two Disasters that Threaten Our Country

It’s good to remember that, in 2015,  then-president, Barack Obama said, “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” He also said that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” The truth is that no presidential candidate’s platform that doesn’t address both of these issues is going to save us from the disasters that both of these issues can bring.

Other than President Trump, no candidate for the 2020 presidency is likely to ignore or deny climate change. Most will favor rejoining the Paris Accords and the pledges of carbon reduction that go along with them. Some candidates will be even more forceful and promise to implement even stricter goals than those within the Paris Accords, particularly with regard to coal and auto emissions and switching our energy to renewable sources. The bulk of the scientific data indicates that a massive shift in energy sources, reduction of deforestation and increase in methods of reducing carbon and methane emissions plus increasing carbon capture is needed in a very short while if we have any chance at all to mitigate global warming.

Neither climate change goals nor social goals that will bring affordable health care, livable wages for all Americans, affordable college, or adequate housing in our urban neighborhoods are achievable so long as we have growing income and wealth disparity combined with a political system that makes policies based on the interests of big business and the wealthy. 

Income inequality in the United States, is greater than that of any other developed country. In 2018, the top 10% of Americans earned 47% of the total income earned in the U.S. while across Europe, the top 10% earned 37% of their national incomes. In 1980, the figures for the U.S. and Europe were nearly equal. The rapid increase in income disparity in the U.S. has occurred since 1980 when the top 1% earned just over 10% of the national income while the bottom 50% earned just over 20%. In 2018, the numbers were reversed.

In 2017, the average yearly income of the top .1% of the population  was 188 times  the average income of the bottom 90% of the American population ($7 million: $35 thousand). Income gained through wages for the top .1% was 76 time greater than the average wage of the bottom 90%. Recently, the findings with regard to income disparity have been found to apply also to wealth disparity.(defined as net assets minus debt owed by a family) A 2014 paper by Saez and Zucman found that “Wealth concentration has followed a U-shaped evolution over the last 100 years: It was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, fell from 1929 to 1978, and has continuously increased since then. The rise of wealth inequality is almost entirely due to the rise of the top 0.1% wealth share, from 7% in 1979 to 22% in 2012—a level almost as high as in 1929.”

Wages for the bottom 90% of Americans have been essentially stagnant in the U.S. since 1980 (they have increased in Europe, which is one reason for less income disparity in European countries).  On the other hand, wages for the top 10 % and particularly the top .1% of Americans have skyrocketed. As Gillens and Page showed in their 2014 study, these wealthy Americans and the companies they own or work for essentially control governmental policy making in the U.S. through the influence of their lobbyists and campaign contributions to legislators. Dissatisfaction caused by inequality, in the words of economist Gabriel Zucman, “paves the way for demagogues” who  mine the feelings of unfairness and financial misery among those in the bottom 90% to fan the flames of resentment against those in power, either in government or in our economy. 

Not only does the present inequality lead citizens to grasp onto the anger and promises of demagogues, it results in a government that is not responsive to the wishes of the majority of its citizens. So we live in a country that creates angry populist waves of frustration and we have a government that does not address the real problems facing most citizens.

Democrats debate whether to nominate the person most likely to beat President Trump in the next election or the person most likely to address the underlying problems troubling our country. Those problems are climate change and income/wealth inequality. Other genuine problems such as racial inequality (which is magnified by income inequality)* and immigration (which is also magnified by income inequality as those on the lower end of the wage spectrum must compete with low wage earning immigrants, or at least they believe so), are compounded by these two underlying problems. 

President Trump is both a symptom of wealth inequality and a demagogue who has taken advantage of the anger created by it. It’s imperative that he be defeated in 2020, but it’s also imperative that we not elect a new president who is not ready to address both climate change and income/wealth inequality in a major, bold way.

 * The gap between Black and White families in wealth in the U.S. is as great as that between the 1% and the bottom 90%, and that gap is widening at the same pace. In 1983, the median White famly owned $110,116 in wealth (assets minus debts) and the median Black family owned $7,323. White wealth was 15 times greater than Black wealth. In 2016, median White wealth had risen to $146,984, while median Black wealth had dropped to $3,557. In 2016 White wealth was 41 times greater than Black wealth.           

 

Friday
Jun072019

Why Impeachment is a Mistake

I recently read a New York Times op-ed piece by David Leonhardt in which he argued that Democrats have dithered too long since the release of the Mueller Report and perhaps have lost their opportunity to impeach President Trump. Although I never supported the idea of impeachment in the first place, I agree that, if it was going to happen, it should have immediately followed the information in the Mueller Report, some of which gave some support for the idea that Trump obstructed justice enough to warrant impeachment. Mueller’s subsequent statements have suggested that he felt he was prohibited from charging the president with a crime, but felt that there was enough evidence of obstruction to warrant others, presumably congress, taking action. 

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have been against impeachment hearings because they believe that it will appear partisan and ultimately fail when the charges reach the Senate. They prefer hearings that will reveal more information about the president’s obstructive actions and then let that information influence voters in the next election. Adam Schiff agrees with them and so do I.

In terms of the problems facing our country and, particularly those that can be laid at the feet of the current administration, obstructing an investigation into potential collusion with Russia (which wasn’t found anyway), is low on the list reasons to change administrations in the next election. Failure to act on climate change, harmful deregulation of fossil fuel and auto industry environmental standards, brinkmanship with Iran and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, arms sales and even arms manufacturing agreements with Saudi Arabia, interference in Venezuelan affairs, various pernicious decisions by the Department of Education (e.g. deregulating for-profit colleges), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (e.g. failure to enforce fair housing regulations), and the Department of Health and Human Services (e.g. ban on using fetal tissue in research) and, of course, an inhumane immigration policy, are all more important issues affecting Americans than deciding if the president was obstructing justice by firing James Comey.

Not only does the majority of the country not want to go through the agony and antagonism of an impeachment process, they are ready to move on to other things and are tired of inter-party backstabbing and fighting that prevents any constructive legislation being passed in Washington. Democrats who pursue impeachment will be seen as prolonging this kind of ugly no-win battle between the two political parties rather than attending to the real business of legislating. And it will all be futile anyway, as a Republican-controlled Senate will never convict the president.

It’s time for the Democrats to move on and start providing a positive agenda that demonstrates how they would lead if they were in power in the White House. Most Democratic presidential candidates are doing this, and remaining quiet about impeachment. They know that it's a no-win issue.  I hope the rest of the Democratic Party also sees impeachment as a dead issue and stops wasting the public’s time with it. 

I’d like to see the liberal media and progressive activists do the same. Those who claim that congress has a moral obligation to impeach the president and that congressmen who don’t do so are neglecting their duty have things backward. It is immoral to know that the consequences of following a plan of behavior such as impeachment is likely to jeopardize the outcome of the next election, but deciding that satisfying one’s self-righteous indignation is more important. It is dereliction of duty for a congressman who is elected to represent all of his or her constituents to waste time and resources pursuing a futile partisan objective, which is supported mostly by his or her most partisan followers, while ignoring the development of legislation and policies that can actually help our country deal with its most dire problems.

 

Thursday
May302019

America's Mixed-up Foreign Policy

Right now the two major foreign threats to the United States are Russia, because of its interference in our elections, which continues to this day, and North Korea, whose recklessness with its nuclear weapons development program could lead to an incident that would plunge us into a war. Strangely enough, these are the two threats the Trump administration seems least concerned about. 

From what President Trump and members of his administration have said, the president believes that our number one threat is Iran, followed by Venezuela. President Trump is considering sending thousands of troops to the Middle East to counter the Iranian threat. No one outside of our administration, except zealous hawks such as Lindsay Graham thinks that Iran poses any kind of direct threat to the United States. The terrorist and revolutionary groups Iran supports, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi militants in Yemen do threaten our allies in the region, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel can probably take care of itself and it has now got the support of some Suni Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia in its quarrels with Iran. The Houthis in Yemen have sent missiles into Saudi Arabia but that is in retaliation for Saudi airstrikes against them (which have killed countless civilians) in the fight within Yemen.

Venezuela poses no threat to the United States and what is going on in that country is civil unrest caused by a failing government that has mismanaged its country’s economy to the point of being on the edge of collapse. President Maduro is the elected president, although the election banned his major rivals from running, but Juan Guaido, whom the U.S. supports, simply declared himself to be president because of his position as President of the country’s National Assembly. President Trump has instituted sanctions which have further damaged the Venezuelan economy and has threatened military intervention if Maduro doesn’t step down. Senator Lindsay Graham has urged the president to use military force to oust Maduro, claiming that the presence of Cuban troops in the country, ostensibly to support Maduro against his own people, is another instance of Communism stretching its reach.

The president and his supporters claim that his opposition to Iran and to Venezuela is also based on those countries leaders’ heavy-handed denial of fundamental freedoms to their own people. This claim rings hollow when, at the same time, the president defends Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung Un, and King Saud and his son Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, all of which have been as much or more onerous in restricting their citizens’ freedoms than have Rouhani of Iran or Maduro of Venezuela. The president also has been particularly friendly to autocratic leaders such as Victor Orban of Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

The president’s foreign policy is a dangerous one, which threatens military action on our part when there is no direct threat to us. It is this kind of thinking that led us into the Iraq War and some of the same people who were responsible for that decision, such as John Bolton, are part of the Trump administration. The president’s policies appear to be based on whim, on a genuine admiration for autocrats, and on hawkish counsel form his advisors and supporters. At the same time that he is directing his attention to false threats internationally, he is weakening our allliances with other NATO nations and ignoring the global threat of climate change. Following this foreign policy may lead to disaster.

Friday
May172019

Thinking with Your Heart vs. Your Pocketbook

This week has seen a number policies debated, three of which represent extremely important issues affecting Californians and, in some cases the whole nation. First there is President Trump’s proposal to end family and diversity based immigration in favor of employment based, with green cards awarded on the basis of a point system based on work skills, education, a job offer, English proficiency and the ability to pass a U.S. civics exam. The idea is that our country should be allowing in immigrants who will help our economy by being employed at substantial wages, paying taxes and filling vacant slots in our tech industries. Approximately four million people who are currently on waiting lists for green cards because of family ties would lose their places and have to reapply based on their requisite job skills and other proficiencies.

The second policy issue is one that has arisen in California and involves eligibility for MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid) for undocumented immigrants. In 2016, undocumented children in low-income families in California became eligible for MediCal until they turned 18 (five other states have similar policies). Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed expanding that age to 26. Other proposals have suggested adding elderly undocumented adults and even gradually raising the age for poor undocumented children so that eventually all undocumented immigrants below a certain level of income were covered. Newsom claims the California budget has enough surplus to fund his proposal, but probably not the others.

The third policy issue, again a California one, involves a proposed state law overriding local zoning restrictions so that high rise apartments and condominiums could be built in areas zoned for lower storied buildings or expanding the number of single family homes allowed on a plot of land are near transit routes. The aim of the bill was to increase housing in order to bring escalating housing costs in the state, particularly in cities and their suburbs, down. The bill failed for a second straight year.

What all three of these policy proposals have in common is that they seem to pit those who want to take care of the least well off of our citizen and non-citizen residents against those who are concerned about their tax burdens or their middle to upper class quality of life. 

The facts are that, in California, millions of undocumented immigrants go without health insurance. A large proportion of our legal immigrants are family members of U.S. citizens and entered into this country, legally, on the basis of that family relationship, and many California families are anxiously awaiting for a brother or sister, a parent, or an adult child to make it through the long and involved wait to gain entry to the U.S. California’s housing costs are among the highest in the nation, with a median home price two and a half times the national average and over half of renters paying more than a third of their monthly income to cover rent.

Those who suffer from the current situation are those with low incomes—the poor and the lower half of the middle class. The plain truth is that if these people are going to have their burden eased, it will be by those more fortunate giving something up: taxes to pay for public health insurance for those who don’t have it, or their pristine neighborhood of well-spaced single family houses devoid of apartment buildings or high rises. 

Soft-hearted people tend to favor such programs while those who believe that they've earned everything they have and they should not have to give part of it up for those who haven’t done the same, oppose the programs.

There are of course limits on what a country or state or city can do in terms of how far its means will stretch. But those means are dependent upon income derived through taxes and if people paid more taxes, then the government would have greater means. Since taxing the lower middle class or the poor would defeat the idea of helping them, that means taxing the well-to-do and rich at higher rates. In terms of immigration, we have to decide whether immigration is a tool for growing our national prosperity or a means of providing haven for the poor and allowing families to be reunited. Those who provide services in our restaurants, hotels, our homes and our commercial buildings or make low wages at McDonalds, Walmart, doing landscaping, or working in virtually any restaurant you can think of, need to have a place to live, and, if their families and their children are to move up the socioeconomic ladder, the more often they live in an adequate, safe residence, the more likely they are to move up.

Illegal immigration needs to be controlled, but those illegal immigrants who are residing in our country, working in our yards, sending their kids to our kids schools, and getting sick and injured along with rest of us, need to enjoy enough public benefits to insure the safety and health of their lives. It’s fine to have some aims for our immigration system beyond uniting families and taking in refugees. But completely abandoning those goals in favor of ones that are aimed solely at improving the economic outlook of the country, ignores the human purpose of immigration inscribed on the statue of liberty: “give me your tired, your poor…” I don’t want America to become so stratified in terms of wealth that it resembles a feudal nation where the rich live opulent lives of extravagance and ease in beautiful green and spacious neighborhoods while the majority lives in crowded, unhealthy, unsafe garages and deteriorating apartments.

I favor more thinking with our hearts than our pocketbooks and that means me and most of those reading this giving up some of what we have so that others, less fortunate, can have more.

Thursday
May162019

On Iran: Here We Go Again

The U.S. is considering sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East; we have already ordered an aircraft carrier and warplanes to the area. American personnel have been evacuated from our embassy in Iraq. All of these moves signal that the U.S. is either preparing for an attack on our forces by Iran or preparing to launch an attack of its own.

National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have both claimed that recent intelligence data, recently revealed as photographs of Iranian Revolutionary Guards loading missiles onto Iranian fishing vessels, is evidence of Iran preparing to attack either commercial or U.S. military vessels in the Persian Gulf. They also claimed to have intercepted messages urging Iranian-backed Arab militias in Iraq to attack American troops.

President Trump has demonized Iran since the beginning of his presidency. He fulfilled a campaign pledge by withdrawing the U.S. from the nuclear agreement with Iran, although other European countries, the U.K, China and Russia remain in the agreement and the EU has worked to oppose U.S. sanctions that were resumed after the Trump pulled out of the deal. John Bolton is a notorious hawk when it comes to Iran, and he appears to be instrumental in recent decisions. British, European and even Iraqi officials disagree with the U.S. on whether recent actions by Iran signal an increased threat.

Iran may or may not be increasing its preparedness for war with the U.S., but, if they are, that may well be because they are wary of U.S. intentions, which have gotten increasingly hostile toward their country under President Trump. Outside of the Trump administration and some U.S. congressmen, almost no Middle East experts believe that Iran will attack the United States, since that would be a no-win situation for Iran. The U.S. is much more powerful militarily than Iran is. 

We’ve been down this road before with Iraq. In that instance, our intelligence was flawed and misinterpreted, our military strategy brought immediate victory but long-term disaster as the problem of occupying and pacifying a hostile country led to further insurgencies, the build up of terrorist forces such as al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS, and sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The situation in Iraq is still volatile and unsettled. 

War is seldom the answer to a political disagreement. Look at Afghanistan. It is the longest-running war in U.S. history and it is far from settled. Every year the situation in Afghanistan worsens. If we finally settle the war it appears as if it will require giving the Taliban, whom we saw as the enemy, a role in the country’s government, which they were running when we first became involved. 18 years of warfare to get us back to where we started.

A war with Iran is a dead end. It may not be winnable by Iran, but it is not winnable by the United States either, since there is the always nagging question of what to do after the fighting stops (assuming it does). The Iranian government is not stupid or suicidal. If it’s stepping up its military preparedness, that’s because it feels threatened by U.S. actions and rhetoric. The Iranian people don't want war. Most of the population outside of the government are friendly to Americans, although they hate our government and its actions and the only thing that will rally them against the U.S. is if we push them into warfare.

We need to learn from our mistakes in the Middle East and follow a sane policy with regard to Iran. John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have advocated for “regime change” as our long-term goal. Who runs Iran is the business of Iranians, not of the United States. We advocated for regime change in Syria and look where that got us: a devastated country, ISIS controlled areas, millions of refugees, increased influence of Iran and Russia on the country, and its leader, Assad, still in power.

Haven’t we learned anything yet? 

Monday
Apr292019

The End of Hate

Written in response to another deadly synagogue shooting only days ago.

I first began leading my peers when I was elected student body president in elementary school. In the following years, I held several more school offices before I went off to college. In graduate school I was the president of the psychology graduate student organization at my university. As a psychologist in public service I was a department head and a manager of several large programs. When I taught at the university, I became Dean of my school. I have had lots of experience seeing what works and what doesn’t work in organizing people to get things done. Anger has never been the driving force behind any positive changes in the environments in which I worked.

When I look at our current society, I see mostly outrage, anger and self-righteous demands as the tenor of our social and political systems. Politicians compete for who can denounce his or her opponent most vociferously, and their critics focus on statements and faux pas for which they must apologize. Cooperation with opponents is seen as traitorous, and compromise as weakness. In the society at large, the internet is filled with trolls and the online conversations of ordinary people are filled with anger, debasement, name-calling and even threats. Every several weeks we experience another hate-filled individual taking up arms to wreak death and harm to those he or she has become convinced are evil or have to pay for some imagined misbehavior. When people take to the streets, many peaceful demonstrations turn violent, with attacks on opposing protesters or destruction of cars and buildings. 

Our public opinion leaders either locally or nationally appear to encourage anger and noncompromise as the honorable way to approach problems. Since the days of Barack Obama we have seen our congress and our presidents work without the cooperation of the opposing party’s members. Whoever is in the majority rams through their own agenda and holds hearings investigating the leaders of the opposition. When congress becomes deadlocked and impotent, as it has been for years, the president (both Obama and Trump) enact policies through presidential directives, policies that have been and in the future will be reversed with that president’s successor.

In a society in which many different ideas, beliefs and backgrounds are represented, the only way to move the society forward on a constructive path is by people with different opinions working together to achieve shared outcomes. Leaders, if they want our society to grow and prosper, must realize this and work toward solving problems and making progress, instead of toward their side winning and the other side losing. Leaders need to be acutely aware of the depth of fear, anger, suspicion, and prejudice in their and others’ constituents and the destructiveness of holding those attitudes and particularly of fueling them with their own rhetoric. Distrust and hatred of one’s fellow citizens has become a national epidemic, which has resulted in mass shootings, bombings, assaults and a growing sense of fear of one’s neighbors. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts of violence as well as the daily discrimination against members of racial and sexual-orientation minorities are poisonous and tragic daily aspects of our society that are based upon fear, hatred, prejudice and ignorance. Leaders need to address these issues as major societal problems. 

I’m tired of the tenor of hate that characterizes our society. I can’t see how we can address real issues in an attempt to improve our country if we focus on hate and anger instead of inclusion, trust, hope, and progress. Citizens at every level need to stop stoking the fires of hate and to understand their own role in preventing the kind of cooperative efforts needed to achieve the ends we probably all want. I hope this happens, but I don’t see evidence of it right now.

Casey Dorman, editor

Friday
Apr262019

Give Joe a Chance

I haven’t paid much attention to Joe Biden’s presidential ambitions. This is mostly because he’s not a source for new ideas, bold transformations of society, or a break from politics as usual. How can he be? He’s been a U.S. Senator for 36 years, a Vice President for two terms, and he’s my age, 76 years old. Well maybe his age doesn’t matter. Look at Bernie Sanders; he’s full of new ideas. But now Joe Biden has announced his candidacy for president, and an op-ed piece in the New York Times by David Brooks has made me give Biden more serious consideration.

David Brooks is a conservative columnist, or least he used to be, but he is intelligent and rational and I always pay attention to what he says. He has a tendency to go off on emotional tangents, which represent his longing for community, morals, and people caring for one another. It was those aspects of Joe Biden’s life that Brooks emphasized in his column. He ended his article by saying the following:

“Here is what is subtly different about Biden. He’s not an individualist. He is a member. He belongs to his family; his hometown, Scranton; his Democratic Party; his Senate; his nation, and is inexplicable without those roots. He used the word “we” 16 times in his short video announcing his candidacy.

Some candidates will run promising transformational change. Biden offers a restoration of the values that bind us as a collective.”

As I read these words about Biden, I realized that, although we have a surfeit of urgent problems confronting our nation—climate change, income inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system, a dysfunctional immigration system, racism in our criminal justice system, eroding international standing, gun violence, and persistent bias and discrimination across the society based on race, gender and sexual orientation—it isn’t the presence of these problems that defines the gravest issue of our times, it is our inability to fix them or even to mount a credible attempt to fix them. 

The most serious problem in our country is the inability of our citizens and the politicians who represent them to share a common vision of what our country should be and to work together to achieve that. We are stuck in an “Us vs. Them” mentality in which self-righteous anger and suspicion about each other are the dominant attitudes among our people. Morality is being defined as the willingness to attack those we oppose, whether it is progressives who want to expose bigotry or greed or to impeach our president, or right-wingers who want to stem the advance of what they consider godless ideology such as acceptance of LBGT people, women’s rights to make a choice about abortion, or anti-capitalistic wealth redistribution.  Neither side talks to each other except to make accusations. Members of both camps watch, listen, and read their favorite partisan media sources, which reinforce their biases. People seem more concerned with asserting their position than with solving problems. And no problems get solved.

Joe Biden is an old-style liberal who values equality, fairness, and believes in the goodness of people and the strength of a united country. He is well-schooled in foreign policy and supports a leadership role for the United States in a coalition of Western and Democratic countries. He has been a leader in favoring gay rights (remember when he forced Obama’s hand by supporting gay marriage?), and racial equality.  He is often visibly distressed by discord that stops the country from acting and he can become angry at bigoted actions and views. Most of all, he wants America to return to a state where we all feel as if we’re fellow citizens, grappling with our problems together for a common, shared goal. That ambition is what is needed to cure our biggest problem, which is our inability to see the humanity in one another and to work together. 

Biden is part of our establishment political system and that system is woefully subservient to powerful moneyed interests, so much so, that the policies we continue to put forth from our government and its elected branches further cement income inequality and preservation of the rights of industry at the expense of the good of the people. Will Biden just further these establishment practices, which are the very ones that progressives such as Sanders and Warren are determined to end? I don’t know. But I’m willing to wait and watch and listen to the policies he makes central to his campaign.  In the meantime, his message of unity, of mutual respect, of elevating our country’s moral level and bringing us all together is hugely important, because without those things happening, no progressive is going to be able to reach any of his or her goals or turn our system around.  We have to stop hating each other before we can work together to solve anything. Biden may be able to bring us together so we can do that.

I may not end up voting for him, but I'm willing to listen and to learn. I’m willing to give Joe a chance.

Casey Dorman, Editor 

Saturday
Apr202019

I'm with Nancy

Democrats and Progressives are split on whether to use the findings of the Mueller Report to pursue impeachment proceedings against the president. There are certainly enough mentions of unethical and potentially illegal behavior (often thwarted by ineptitude or reluctance on the part of administration officials to obey President Trump’s orders) to warrant an attempt at impeachment. On the other hand, the eventual success of such a process, which is initiated in the House but finalized in the Senate, is slim to none. 

The Mueller Report contains material that is embarrassing to the president and reveals his disregard for ethics and the constitution. Most Americans are and will be only vaguely aware of this material unless congressional hearings focus upon it. What Nancy Pelosi is urging is that congress go ahead with such hearings and bring forth the words of the report and testimony from those people mentioned in it, and from Robert Mueller himself, and allow this information to become a news focus, which will undermine the president’s stature and credibility. She does not favor impeachment hearings and much prefers to let the voters decide how damaging the Mueller Report information is and demonstrate their opinions in the 2020 election. 

Nancy Pelosi is right. The Democrats control the House of Representatives and they need to use their time as the majority wisely in order to show that they are serious about addressing issues such as health care, the environment, poverty, election integrity, and the control of big business over our political policies. The hearings on the Mueller Report can be a sideshow, but they can’t be center stage or the Democrats will appear to be a party more concerned with vengeance, payback, and innuendo than with governing. 

If Mueller had found the president guilty of a crime, impeachment might be warranted. But Mueller stopped short of charging the president with breaking the law. We can make sure everyone knows about the content of the full Mueller Report and the unethical conduct of the president, but there’s no need to beat a dead horse and solidify a public perception of the Democratic Party as concerned with nothing but defeating Trump (as the Republicans were with Obama). Democrats need to move forward with showing how they intend to fix our country. Impeachment isn’t the way to do that. Constructive policy proposals are. 

Monday
Apr152019

We Can’t Let the Bigots Win!

We all must remember the Holocaust because of the tragedy that was thrust upon European Jews. But the lesson of the Holocaust is not just about the tragedy to a certain religious or ethnic group, it is about man’s capability of evil toward his fellow man and the danger of bigotry, prejudice, a herd mentality, and the cowardice of not objecting when all of these things destroy the lives of people around us. The Holocaust could not have happened if millions of ordinary citizens had not stood by and passively participated in or even actively supported it. Bigotry and prejudice and violence have plagued people of color who live among White people since the beginning of our nation and for much of human history. Jews have been targets of hate in nearly every European and Western nation for centuries. Muslims were labeled infidels by Christians and were the target of Crusades during the Middle Ages and are once again the target of Western prejudice and fear. Immigrants, especially immigrants with darker skin, have always suffered discrimination in the United States and are once again being demonized.

President Trump is leading a campaign to make anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fear and hatred a centerpiece of his bid for reelection. His inflammatory speeches about the dangers of Mexican and Central American immigrants who are “criminals and rapists” are fanning flames of anger and fear among his followers and among those who obtain their world view from Fox News, which echoes and stokes the president’s angry language about the dangers of asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants. 

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from Minnesota has become President Trump’s latest Muslim target. His recent posting of a video of the 9/11 attacks, superimposed on Representative Omar’s remarks made at a rally, created a clear association between the Democratic representative and the Twin Towers terrorists and, by implication, any Muslim and the forces of terrorism. 

The president states opinions and makes insinuations that are on the fringes of mainstream fears. As they get echoed by his faithful press and supporters and he repeats them to cheering crowds, these opinions and insinuations become more mainstream and attract more and more followers, who are eager to pin the blame for their misfortunes and anxieties on concrete enemies toward whom they can direct their hate. 

Fearful and hateful prejudice, built upon more subtle but persistent stereotypes that lurk just below the surface in the consciousness of many Americans, can gain strength when it is repeated and when leaders, such as the president, encourage it by pointing their fingers at people who can serve to represent those fears. Human nature, as revealed not just by the events of the Holocaust and the Crusades, but by classic psychological experiments such as those by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, is strongly susceptible to the tendency to vilify our neighbors and direct lethal aggression at them at the direction of authority figures. Most people go along with the crowd. Everyone feels he or she would resist such groupthink prejudicial behaviors, but, in reality, few do. The tendency to fasten upon differences between us, and use them as targets of our anger and aggression is one of our species’ most dangerous qualities.

Our president is leading the movement to base our politics on fear and prejudice directed at our fellow citizens and at immigrants and strangers. This is the same pattern of politics that ended in the Holocaust and we—every one of us—cannot put our heads in the sand and ignore it when it happens. We must stand up and object to every racial, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant slander and meme that appears and especially combat it being used as a rallying cry to attract more of our fellow citizens to its insidious message of hatred. If we don’t, our moral character is in danger.

Tuesday
Mar262019

Stop the Kindergarten Fighting

For two years the politically-oriented America public awaited the Mueller Special Counsel Report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the charge of collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign. On Sunday a summary of the report was delivered to congress. Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. On the question of the charge that Trump obstructed the investigation, the report was noncommittal and turned the evidence over to the Justice Department. Attorney General, William Barr and Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein promptly declared that there was not enough evidence to justify a charge of obstruction.

Reactions to Attorney General Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report have been swift and partisan. Both sides are in agreement only on the issue of their mutual desire to release as much of the original report as possible. Otherwise, Democrats and left-leaning media pundits provided no admission that they had been laboring under a false assumption for two years and quickly jumped to the fact that Mueller did not “exonerate” Trump on obstruction, and they accused Barr and Rosenstein of burying the evidence in a partisan decision to dismiss the charges and demanded that all the evidence be made public. Social media anti-Trumpers continued to believe Trump colluded with Russia, accused Mueller of burying the evidence to avoid provoking a civil war within the country, and declared that obstruction by Trump was a fact. The president has reacted by claiming that some of those who demanded the investigation and pursued leads such as the Steele dossier were traitors and should be charged with treason. Some senate Republicans have demanded another special prosecutor investigation of the FBI and the Justice Department (and perhaps Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party) who instigated the investigation.

Robert Mueller and his team were the ultimate arbiters on the question of Trump’s collusion with Russia. They found enough suggestive evidence to justify a thorough investigation, and they found no evidence that collusion happened. No one else will have the tools or expertise to investigate this question as well as Mueller did. It should be regarded as settled. With regard to obstruction, the evidence was not decisive either way and Mueller handed the final decision on whether to prosecute a case to the Justice Department, where it should be. Yes, they are Trump appointees, but that’s the system. Their decision stands. 

The Mueller Report may have found much other information about the activities of President Trump and his associates. Some of that they have forwarded to other federal or state prosecutors. It’s not clear how much of what was found, but did not lead to an indictment, is included in the report Mueller gave to Barr. It might be useful to see it, but a line-by-line examination of the raw report, especially one that is designed to embarrass the president or search for grounds for impeachment, will only prolong the vituperative war of accusations that now characterizes our congress and our entire political scene. 

It’s time for both sides to move on. It’s time for the media to move on. Our country badly needs a functioning congress and we need to heal some of the gaping wounds that keep our citizens from feeling any sense of unity with one another. Further bludgeoning of the issues examined by Mueller and further sowing of suspicion and distrust of one another while demonizing the other political party and its supporters will only undermine our country. We have real issues to face—healthcare,  a drug epidemic, global warming, the rise of bigotry, immigration, Korea, Russia and China, world trade, Jihadist terrorism, etc. We need a functioning government and a focused and informed citizenry who can express coherent opinions on these issues.

Enough with the playground fighting.