Archive for June, 2012

The Thinker

Republicans: Let’s talk real national security

There is a little irony that a day after the Supreme Court narrowly decided the Affordable Care Act was constitutional after all, that I would undergo surgery. The surgery to correct a deviated septum (known as septoplasty) was actually scheduled six weeks earlier. My mother in law’s untimely death and my plastic surgeon’s busy schedule meant I had to wait until today for the outpatient surgery. It went well, but my time in the recovery room took longer than usual, perhaps due to aging. While waiting for the surgery, the TV playing in the waiting rooms was all about the Affordable Care Act decision.

My surgery was theoretically elective, but that did not seem to be the case for others in the waiting room. They included a ninety plus woman, virtually deaf due to plugged inner ears, who needed to get some tubes put into her ear so she could hear again. She looked miserable and her son acting for her largely could not communicate with her. Yet she was lucky. She was covered by Medicare. I was lucky too as I am covered by Blue Cross, and they approved my surgery. Even so I know there will be a whole slew of bills waiting me. It was nearly $900 just for the hospital to admit me. Doubtless the anesthesiologist and surgeon will bill as well, and there will be substantial copays for their services too. I’ll be lucky to escape this surgery for less than $2000, and that’s just for the copays. Blue Cross pays 85%.

I was back home by noon, my septum duly aligned and with various sinus polyps removed. Maybe this surgery will mean that I won’t need to spend my sleeping life tethered to a BiPAP machine for my sleep apnea. It’s a big maybe. Most likely I will continue to need the machine, but with the improved airflow, perhaps I can adjust the pressure settings downward, which would likely make sleep far more restful. Meanwhile I am downing Keflex and extra strength Tylenol every six hours and wearing a guard over my nose that is attached to little diapers to capture the bloody discharge from the surgery. Recovery from this sort of surgery is generally straightforward, and involves lots of use of QTips and hydrogen peroxide.

Mostly I am lucky because I am insured. My employer cares enough about me to provide it as a benefit, with me providing about a third of the cost of premiums. I am even luckier because even before the ACA I was already in a plan that required insurers to accept all comers. You see we federal employees have been been enjoying “Obamacare” for decades, and those employees I might add include members of Congress eager to repeal the ACA. And I must say, I like it. For decades I have been covered by health insurance, as has my wife and daughter. Insurers in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan have to accept people into their plans regardless of age and preexisting conditions. There are dozens of plans to choose from. On rare occasion, a health insurer will drop out of FEHBP, but it is a very rare occurrence. Mostly, health insurers are glad to cater to our market.

As I age, unsurprisingly, I have been using more health care services. I am quite certain that in spite of premium and my voluminous copays, we consume more in services than we pay in direct costs. It’s likely to be this way for the rest of my life. I don’t feel guilty about this. I feel grateful. I also feel like I’ve paid my dues. For the first twenty years or so that was likely not the case. I was paying for those older and sicker in the system. I did not resent this. It comes with the insurance territory. Health insurance only works if we are all in this together.

Essentially, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday. While Chief Justice Roberts surprisingly voted with the majority to uphold the law, and while he was silent about whether he personally thinks the ACA is a smart decision, he decided it is constitutional. This is good for our nation because by upholding the law at least for the moment he has likely fended off our devolution to a second world country.

Republicans are always anxious to vote more dollars for national security. I find it sad but curious that they don’t understand that national health insurance is also vital to national security. Most other first world countries figured this out decades ago, but we dithered. It is not surprising to me that since then we moved from greatest creditor country to greatest debtor country, and that our standard of living has devolved. National security is measured in many ways and it’s not just in the strength of our armed forces and intelligence. It is also measured by our willingness to invest in the human capital of its citizens so we can stay a prosperous country. In this we have been getting failing grades for some time.

We seem unwilling to pay the freight when it comes to education. We cheapen our public schools by increasing class sizes and shortening school years. We shortchange our public universities and expect students to mortgage more of their future by increasing tuition rates so they need to take out larger and larger student loans. This is keeping many from even attempting college, although many also have the talent. We also dumb down our curriculums. Courses like art, music and civics are considered expendable. Instead, we push highly structured and dumbed down standardized tests. Colleges are not immune from the phenomenon. As The Washington Post reported recently, college educations are becoming dumbed downed, or at least less time consuming. The Internet certainly makes research faster and more efficient. For most majors, the need for a full time college student to spend twelve hours a day on education, including often on weekends, as I did, is a thing of the past. I suspect this is to our detriment.

Education is vital to our national capital, but so also is our national health. It baffles me why this is not completely obvious. A healthy workforce is going to be more productive than a non-healthy one. If you are suffering from a health condition, your productivity is going to be compromised. If you suffer from a chronic condition, you may not be able to work at all. Where’s the good in that? Aside from inflicting needless misery on our citizens, why throw away the talent of so many of our citizens because they have a chronic condition? It’s such a tragic and needless waste and speaks poorly about what we really think about our fellow Americas. By throwing away our most precious asset, the skills of our own citizens, we guarantee our devolution as a nation. This is equally as dangerous to our national security, if not more dangerous, than securing our borders from illegal immigrants.

Mostly though while I waited for my surgery today I felt a mixture of relief and anger, not nervousness. The ACA, if we can keep it the law of the land, will do enormous amounts to make us a healthier and more productive nation, not just those like me still lucky enough to have health insurance. It will also relieve incredible amounts of unnecessary misery. Mostly though I felt anger that so many of my citizens are so ideological that they can no longer see our common humanity, who appear to think sadism is a virtue. These people, in the name of ideology would, like that heckler at a GOP debate last year, be enthusiastically rooting for people to be miserable and die.

The ACA gives us the opportunity once again to show our better nature. Let’s hope we find it again.

The Thinker

When did vagina become a dirty word?

Color me confused. Vagina is now a dirty word. I had no idea. I’m not sure Michigan House Member Lisa Brown did either when she uttered the word last week during an abortion debate in the state’s House of Representatives. Granted, vagina is not a word that most people use everyday, but it struck me as a perfectly appropriate word to utter in a debate that tries to legislate who gets to control a woman’s vagina. For her apparently foul mouth, Ms. Brown was blocked by House majority leader Jim Stamas from further participation in the debate.

Michigan women seem to be largely agreeing with Brown. The incident triggered a public performance of “The Vagina Monologues” on the steps of the capitol in Lansing, with thousands of people in attendance, including Lisa Brown. Vagina was doubtless uttered many times and into the ears of thousands of people, assisted by loud speaker systems. But in the state House of Representatives there was no further utterances of the word vagina while the great legislators of the state of Michigan went on trying to restrict what women can do with their own vaginas.

To guys, when you don’t have a vagina, or menstrual cycles, or cramps or any the other complications that come with being born female, it’s hard to be sympathetic. It’s hard for me to imagine how a bill could affect men like this one affects women. Certainly one highly improbable response to the abortion issue would be bills to regulate penises. (Wait a minute? Is penis a dirty word? It probably is, if it were to come up in debates in the Michigan legislature.) Abortion is usually the result of an unplanned pregnancy, after all, so why not have legislation that keeps all men’s penises in cages until their lawfully wedded wife decides it is okay to attempt procreative sex which, if it succeeds, will go full term? Maybe husband and wife would have to go to the police station where the wife would swear that their sex will only be for procreative purposes, and then the police officer would release the man’s penis from its cage. (Probably there should be a special room at the station for these purposes.) Yes, it’s an audacious proposal but such a proposed law if it had a serious intent would doubtless enrage men. No one messes with our penises without our consent, thank you very much. The Lansing state capitol might be a smoldering pile of rubble once Michigan men vented their anger. Yet many of us men turn a deaf ear when women make the same argument, either with soft or raised voices.

What makes a word dirty, anyhow? What are the criteria? Particularly if you are to utter such a word in a public sphere, how can you possibly know if you are doing something worthy of admonishment if there are no firm guidelines in place? We all develop a sense of which words to avoid in polite company, but in my mind vagina was not one of them. I can see myself much like Lisa Brown, debating the issue of abortion with colleagues and protesting that regulating women’s vaginas should be off limits. I would not first check myself to see whether someone would be offended by the term. It comes with the topic of discussion. It certainly was germane in the Michigan House of Representatives during that particular discussion.

To me, there is nothing more titillating about a vagina than there is about an appendix. If anything, I hope women will spend more time talking about their vaginas because then there might be some parity with men. Lord knows men certainly spend a lot of time talking about penises, although rarely using the clinical term. Instead, we use the many slang variants out there. And except for a few of us, we are hardly offended. The closest equivalent we have to a vagina is probably our prostate (wait, is prostate also a dirty word?), which is also well hidden and mysterious but which keeps many of us men in middle age and beyond rising frequently during the night to use the bathroom. It’s possible that some guys will discuss prostate issues, but given the choice they’d rather talk about penises, in particularly penises in relationship with vaginas. Because the truth is that to most men, the vagina in itself is not interesting except in relationship to whether our penis can get inside one.

Now I am a bit picky when it comes to swearing. I don’t do it as a rule and I tend to think less of people who swear chronically. I suspect they are doing it for attention. Swear words by themselves though are not bad. They’re just words. What makes them offensive is how other people react when you use them. Most likely in a group of sailors, swearing will be completely inoffensive because it is part of the culture. My daughter is a frequent swearer, and I let her know I don’t like it. I don’t like it not because I think swearing is bad, but because it is hard to have conversation that is meaningful with her when expletives are flying. For her, an expletive means nothing, but to me an expletive is designed to have a high emotional impact, simply because it is so rarely said aloud. It’s supposed to be like shooting a bazooka instead of a handgun. So I rarely utter an expletive, largely because I grew up in an environment where swearing was abnormal. When I hear them, it jars me. So when I do swear, it is for a just cause. I used one with a friend at work some months back, the first time I ever remember doing so with her. I wanted this person to know, as part of a private conversation, just how upset I was by proposals suggested by some Republicans to cut our pensions. I used the word to impart special impact, that I was really that upset. It got the message across only because I so rarely swear.

Representative Lisa Brown never even used a swear word. She used a clinical word that made it clear just how upset she was about such a sensitive issue as abortion. Yes, it’s a sensitive subject but apparently not sensitive enough not to be broadcast live to the citizens with cable TV in Michigan. Had she used the C word instead, she would have been rightly censured. That was not the case here. Apparently her real offense was to explicitly state just how offensive she found the legislation. That, in the eye of some people, is just like swearing.

Now there’s something we should swear off.

The Thinker

We are not rocks, we are human beings

Psst! You are personally responsible for everything you do! Actually, in modern political discourse, this is not whispered so much as it is shouted. You hear it from Republicans and conservatives all the time. I can’t shout on a blog, but I can do something worse: use caps. So just in case you don’t get the message from the daily drumbeat of news, Republicans want you to know that YOU ARE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERYTHING YOU DO.

And because you are personally responsible for everything you do, you can change your behaviors any time you want because you have this magic stuff called free will. You can do it, just like that! It’s easy! By taking personal responsibility for your health, for example, you could eat little but nuts and berries, plus run twenty miles a day. And if you made the personally responsible choice to marry and have children you are personally responsible for raising your kids, their behavior (at least until they turn eighteen), and eating little but nuts and berries, plus running twenty miles a day after work. You can do all this plus sleep eight hours a day, have a satisfying (missionary only position) sex life!

It turns out that if you practice personal responsibility, you can do everything right, manage everything perfectly and intuitively solve every personal problem. The inconvenient fact that trying to maintain perfect health and doing everything right for your spouse, family, parents, siblings and the community will prove humanly impossible is irrelevant. It’s far more important to know that you are personally responsible, and any deviation from the ideal of personal responsibility deserves nothing but contempt and scorn.

Yes, you are personally responsible even if you don’t have the means. You could have been abandoned by your parents as a child, forced to live in the streets (since Republicans don’t believe in a welfare state), end up selling your body to have food to eat, and you are still personally responsible for somehow getting an education on your own nickel, excelling in school, never breaking a law, living a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a roof over your head (a cardboard box will do in a pinch) and maintaining optimal health as well. When you are personally responsible you never, ever ask for a handout. The very idea! You are personally responsible and you are required to be completely self-sufficient. Got it?

Of course you do! You could not possibly miss the message these days, particularly since it is brought to you free of charge by overbearing, generally very well moneyed and often hypocritical Republicans, the vast majority of whom had parents who provided for all their needs, taught them they belonged to a privileged caste and now beneficently use some portion of their fortune to drum in the message continuously via the media. You know, like the Koch Brothers. You are contemptible if you fail to be one hundred percent personally responsible at all times. Actually, you are something close to toilet scum. We must all be the very model of a modern Major General, all the time. Just do it now and do it perfectly, for crying out loud!

There are all these additional temptations out there, just to truly test your mettle. Let’s not, for example, do what New York Mayor Bloomberg is doing, and try to limit the size of these supersized sodas sold in the city. After all, New Yorkers might actually get healthier without overt action. Rather, you must be personally responsible enough to understand that these empty calories will make you fat at very little expense, or at least you will if you spend your days obsessively plugged into various health oriented web sites, and of course being personally responsible, it’s something you must do. Armed with this knowledge that you will acquire from psychic vibrations coming through the ether if necessary, you will magically find the willpower to pass these endless temptations by. So don’t try to regulate these liquid empty calorie behemoths just because some mortals are weak. It’s anti-American. It’s too Big Brotherish. Worst of all, it’s anti-corporate.

However, the good part about personal responsibility is you also have freedom. So if you want, go ahead and indulge in a supersized Slurpee. And should you choose to get fat and develop Type II Diabetes, that’s okay too, providing not one cent of the costs of your choices are borne by anyone else. That’s the bottom line when it comes to personal responsibility. (Qualification: the above does not apply to the environment. Feel free to be personally reckless toward the environment. After all, God wants us to be.)

You would think though that with the ever-present mantra of personal responsibility many more of us would, well, actually behave in a personally responsible way. But for some reason most of us do not. In fact, consuming all those supersized Slurpees is evidence that most Americans, while they doubtless get the message, simply refuse to take it to heart. Because every year Americans on average gain more weight. At the same time, fewer of us have or can afford health insurance.

Naturally your environment has nothing to do with your problem. Even if it did, you can easily surmount it. You just aren’t bothering to try. The fact that you can hardly travel anywhere without seeing billboards for pizzas and junk food, or turn on the TV without seeing ads that promote an unhealthy lifestyle, is wholly irrelevant. Nor is the fact that your friends are also eating too much of the wrong stuff and for the most part not exercising relevant. Because if you are personally responsible, then by extension you must also believe that you are completely autonomous. You must also believe that all those connections and relationships don’t affect your behavior. Marines may have to go to Parris Island in order to get fit and learn to properly kill people. However, you can achieve personal responsibility all by yourself. Simply grab yourself by your bootstraps and pull. It’s that easy!

But for some reason Americans aren’t taking the message to heart! Every year we get fatter. Every year we exercise less. Every year we spend more time diddling with our smartphones rather than huffing on running the trails behind our house. Strangely, even most Republicans seem to be having problems with the personal responsibility thing. Or perhaps they are independently wealthy enough where they don’t care. Morbidly obese but excessively preachy Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey comes to mind. That’s the good thing about having wealth: you are exempt from the rules because you (probably) won’t be foisting off the costs of your unhealthy lifestyle on anyone else.

As always there is the ideal and then there is reality. It is true that we are personally responsible for the choices that we make. But that doesn’t mean we magically have happened to learn how to be personally responsible, or that they are innate skills inside us. Even if we do possess the skills, there is little likelihood that most of us, given the billions of possible choices available for any action, will always choose to behave at all times in a personally responsible way. Nor have most of us acquired the education and mentoring to learn how to make wise decisions. The skill has to come from somewhere. If we don’t possess it then we have to glean it from someone. A friend. A teacher. A minister. Someone. Except to acknowledge this, we also have to acknowledge that we depend on other people. We have to acknowledge that our world is relational, instead of each of us being beacons of individuality and self-sufficiency. We have to acknowledge that we are all connected. No, it is better to live in a fantasy world instead.

That won’t do, of course, so get with the program. A song will get you into the spirit. Find a guitar. And start belting out that 60’s song by Simon and Garfunkel:

I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

I’m betting while you are attempting to do so, you are suppressing a tear because you are just another human being with foibles like the rest of us and are grabbing another handful of Cheetos.

The Thinker

WordPress: a content management system for the masses

This blog runs on WordPress. It wasn’t always this way. It started out on MoveableType, which in 2002 was the hot software for a phenomenon that barely existed: blogging. Five years ago I ditched MoveableType and moved to WordPress. MoveableType became too commercialized. While ostensibly open source, the licensing was hard to use freely. The hassle factor eventually became too much to deal with, so I moved to WordPress, but not without a lot of head scratching. Utilities for moving the content out of MoveableType to WordPress were rudimentary. Fortunately, I’m enough of a hacker where I rolled my own.

Moving to WordPress turned out to be a smart move for the blog. There are no more hassles about licensing. And WordPress is huge, with thousands of themes and plugins. If there is something that WordPress will not do out of the box, it has likely been done not just once, but with a dozen variants via free plugins. Unlike, say, phpBB forum software, which can be modified but is a hassle, installing, activating and deactivating a plugin with WordPress could not be simpler. You can search for a plug in inside your control panel, install it with a couple of clicks and you are on your way. Deactivating is just as simple. In short, WordPress is super-slick, has no licensing hassles and is completely free.

The more I use WordPress, the more I understand that it is really something like a Swiss army knife for managing basic content on the web. Yes, it does blogging very smoothly and elegantly, but it also does so much more. I find myself using WordPress for pretty much all my web projects, including recently this neighborhood web site. It makes expensive software like Dreamweaver and FrontPage unneeded in most cases. You can manage all of your site’s content with a web browser. Need a basic web site but lack design skills? WordPress is what you need. Find a cute theme and if you want to make it stand out upload a site logo too. Need a simple content management system? WordPress can elegantly do the job. In fact, I am using WordPress not just for my own web sites, but also for sites I put up for friends, neighbors and to earn some spare cash. Regardless of use, you essentially have a content management system for free with a look-ahead search control and easy categorization and tagging features. All you need on the web server is PHP and MySQL, which are usually provided free.

Web hosts are also making it easy to use WordPress. It used to be you had to download the software, then upload it to your web server, create a database to hold the data, and maybe adjust some file permissions first with FTP. Now web hosts largely come with script installers, where WordPress is one of the prominent options. With a couple of clicks, it will install WordPress for you.

What may be keeping WordPress from being used more for other than blogs is some basic knowledge. There are lots of online video tutorials out there, but it helps to know a few key concepts:

  • Posts are used for blogging. Think of a blog as a public diary and a post as a diary entry. Posts are normally shown by date from the most recent, but can also be easily categorized or tagged so they can be readily found in logical ways.
  • Pages are for static content. This is key, because if you want to create a web site for say a church or social club and don’t need posts then just create pages.
  • Sidebars allow easy navigation and they are modified through the use of widgets (Appearance > Widgets). The theme determines how many sidebars you can have. Default content will appear on a sidebar, but it is so easy to move sidebar content around just by dragging and dropping. It won’t take you long before the default sidebar content probably won’t be enough. That’s when you go hunting for plugins, which can be done inside your control panel. Most plugins also have widgets. So after you install, enable and maybe configure the plugin, look for the new widget then drag and drop it into where you want content to appear.

A few tips:

  • Spend some time picking an appropriate theme. There are so many of them out there, but they are easy to try on in the control panel and switch as necessary. All your content should move smoothly as you change themes.
  • Be careful allowing open commenting without moderation, as you are likely to attract spam otherwise. In most cases you should install the WP-reCAPTCHA plugin, get a public and private key from Google, and configure the plug in to use it. This gives you high confidence that spam won’t leak through, but it’s usually a good idea to force a comment to go through moderation if it contains embedded links.
  • If your site is personal, you can have the Akismet plugin filter comments for spam for free. Otherwise you may want to consider buying a package from Akismet to limit the amount of spam you will have to deal with.
  • Want to serve ads? It’s pretty easy. First, set up a Google AdSense account. For sidebars, you will usually want to set up skyscraper ads. Then download and configure the plugin with your publisher ID. Of course, there is a WordPress plugin for Adsense with a widget that allows you to easily place the ad. You can also insert a text widget with the ad code from Google. Google allows up to two ads per page.
  • Need to move existing content? In most cases, simply copy and paste each page one at a time from the old site using your browser. In some cases you may need to fix anchors because absolute URLs will tend to copy over. This is easy to do by pressing the HTML button when you are editing a post or page.
  • Want to track site your site usage? Get a free Google Analytics account then install the WordPress plug in.
  • There are so many smartphones out there that it makes sense to optimize your site for them. I suggest installing a mobile friendly plugin.
  • Sharing site content with social media is all the rage. An AddThis account with the WordPress AddThis plug in makes it easy to share posts and pages on your site, plus you can track social media usage on the AddThis site.

WordPress takes the hassle out of presenting and organizing web sites, and it’s free after you pay for hosting. Happy web publishing!

The Thinker

Little conservative about most conservatives

A couple of weeks ago I noted that many Christians are anything but Christian. In fact, it would be hard to find a group that looked more like the anti-Christ. So many modern Christians these days are obsessed with hating people. One of them was profiled on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday. Bryan Fischer is a rather obscure radio host associated with the American Family Association with about a million listeners. He was largely responsible for getting Richard Grenell fired from Mitt Romney’s team of advisors. Grenell was guilty of being gay, and that’s pretty much all that mattered to Fischer.

Grenell of course is hardly alone. Closer to (my) home was the recent case of Tracey Thorne-Begland, nominated by our conservative governor for a Richmond judgeship. The Virginia General Assembly rejected him on May 14th, because he was guilty of being gay. I mean it stands to reason that if someone is gay, they are by definition sinful and thus unqualified for public office, let alone judgeship. Duh! What was Governor McDonnell smoking? Yet despite this, the Richmond General District Court gave him a temporary appointment, and is hoping that when the general assembly meets next year it will have a change of heart. That seems unlikely. And this is a judgment from legislators who are overwhelmingly Christian who presumably would take to heart Jesus’s admonition not to judge others.

Today, I note something which should also not be too startling but which surprisingly gets little press. Most conservatives simply are not conservative. It’s hard to say exactly what they are, but I suspect a psychiatrist would suggest they suffer from multiple personality disorder.

Conservatives in general want to retain things they way things were. Many of these conservatives are conservative, if you don’t mind going back 500 years or so. The problem is that they frame themselves as constitutional conservatives. In doing so they assert that the original intent of those who wrote our constitution was quite a bit different than it actually was. Bryan Fischer, for example, can be fairly described as a Dominionist. Fischer asserts that what our founding fathers wanted was a Christian-only nation, and all our laws should have their basis in biblical law. The ultimate goal of Dominionists should look familiar to the religious conservatism also sweeping Islamic countries. The Muslim brotherhood hopes that this weekend Egyptians will elect their candidate as the new president. He is someone who wants to implement Sharia law in Egypt. Sharia law is religious law made secular law. It forces everyone to follow religious law. Dominionists want the United States to implement Christian law (whatever that is), and force everyone to abide by it as well, even if they are not Christian.

Never mind that “Christian law” is something of an oxymoron. Dominionists and many conservatives simply fail to recognize that this is the exact antithesis of the original intent of the constitution. It’s quite clear in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Our founders went out of their way to make it clear that someone’s religion was irrelevant to their public office: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

How much more original intent could possibly be required? As if the plain text of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were not enough, there are also the Federalist Papers, which make it clear this was the exact intent of our founding fathers. Nor did they intend to limit freedom of religions to Christians only. Writing to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island in 1790, George Washington wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This of course is but just one small example of where today’s conservatives are completely against the conservatism they claim to champion. Here are some others.

  • Environmentalism. Conservatives should treasure the environment. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was very pro-environment and spent much of his presidency expanding our national parks and promoting the value and enjoyment of nature. Today’s conservatives think everyone has the right to trash the environment. Pretty soon the only use for guns will be to shoot your neighbor; there won’t be any animals left to shoot. Moreover, the glaciers will be gone, much of our shorelines will be underwater and our climate will be forever transformed specifically due to our controllable, human interactions with the environment. This is the “conserve” in conservatism?
  • Freedom. The original intent of our founding fathers was clearly to allow all citizens to enjoy the maximum amount of freedom and to tightly control how much of your freedom governments could take away. They were pro civil liberties, not anti civil liberties. The Declaration of Independence declares all men have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Specifically we were granted freedoms of religion (including tight controls on the regulation of religion by the government), freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of petition. Citizens were specifically permitted Habeas Corpus, allowed trials by jury, could not be subjected to double jeopardy and were permitted not to incriminate themselves. All powers not specifically delegated to the federal or state governments were left to the people as a liberty by default.
  • Original intent. A true conservative who respects the constitution must also respect its amendment process, not assert that everything in it should be interpreted as it existed in 1790. Our founders specifically understood that circumstances change, but set a rather onerous bar for amending the constitution. The amendment process is clearly constitutional and because it is hard to do conservatives should respect it. They should be waiving flags of freedom that women and blacks got the right to vote, that eighteen year olds can vote and that citizens can now directly elect their senators.
  • Abortion. If personal freedom is the foundation of conservatism, why does a woman not have the freedom to choose what to do with her own pregnant body?
  • School vouchers. Public schools did not exist in 1790, with the possible exception of scattered public state universities. The government for the most part was not in the business of public education at all. Why should conservatives support giving government money to people so they can send their children to school? Why do the same with welfare, or health care? Isn’t this more redistribution of wealth?
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide. If a good conservative believes in maximum freedom, why should a person not be allowed to die with dignity at a time of his or her own choosing?
  • Gun control. If a state and the federal government declare it has no need for a militia, why cannot a state regulate guns when the text of the Second Amendment specifically says that freedom to own guns is predicated on the need for the state to have a militia?
  • Same sex marriage. Why shouldn’t a citizen have the freedom to marry whoever they choose? Isn’t this in accord with conservative principles to maximize individual freedom?

I suspect that I, a progressive, am far more of a traditional conservative than the vast majority of conservatives who claim that label. I don’t know what these conservatives actually are, but they should stop soiling such a good term.


The Thinker

Review: Crash (2004)

I’m glad I don’t live in Los Angeles. At least, I’m glad I do not in the world of Los Angeles depicted in the movie Crash (2004), but this movie at least gives me a chance to be a reluctant visitor. Los Angeles is known for its multiple ethnicities, about equal parts White, Hispanic, Black and Asian. At least they are equal opportunity racists. You may need a scorecard in this movie to keep up with all the racism going on. Here’s some of it:

  • The street-wise white cop (Matt Dillon) hates the nice black director dude (Terrance Howard) because he is black (and successful). He takes his hatred out through fondling his wife (Thandie Newton) in front of him while frisking both of them during a routine traffic stop. He’s also upset that his boss is black guy and his white father with chronic bladder problem was a janitor who never got any respect. However, he gets really perturbed when the black lady at his health insurance company turns down his father’s claim.
  • The local district attorney who is also running for office (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) are car-jacked by two black dudes. Once they make it home, the wife demands that their locks be changed, but is upset that a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Peña) is doing the work, and doesn’t mind saying so while he is within earshot. In a tirade she even lets her long time black housekeeper hear that she mistrusts her.
  • A white gun shop owner starts saying racist things to a Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub) and his daughter who feel the need to pack a little heat because their shop is in a bad neighborhood.
  • The shop owner decides his Hispanic locksmith is lying to him. He doesn’t believe that he must fix the door frame, not the lock, because, well, their type always lies.

It seems that everyone’s a victim in this movie, and it’s all the fault of someone in another ethnic group. Mostly the racism is overt, but sometimes the racism is subtle. The black director is called out by an actor because his black character did not sound black enough, and he so feels the need to fit in that he reshoots the scene. There are so many tea kettles close to boiling you figure it all has to explode somehow, and yes there will be a homicide or two. Yet for every racist there is also someone trying to look past it. There is the white rookie cop, who cannot deal with his partner’s racism. There is the police lieutenant who tries to overlook his officer’s racism, while fretting over his younger brother who steals cars and seems destined to die early.

Crash tries hard to investigate this topic that makes almost all of us squirm. It sure had me squirming. And yet, the scenarios are probably more typical than not in LA. One only has to look back twenty years to the riots following the acquittal of police caught on tape beating Rodney King to know how explosive ethnic rage can be, particularly in Los Angeles. Yet it is just as true that there are natural forces relentlessly trying to counteract racism, and documenting these is probably what Crash is really all about. It’s a movie that shows that the glue that binds community may be weak, but there are always people around willing to apply more caulk even as more natural forces want to pull things apart. It’s all a grand cacophony of sorts, especially in Los Angeles.

Crash won Best Picture in 2006. Some say it won because Hollywood was too homophobic to give it to Brokeback Mountain. After finishing the movie, I found it to be a good movie, but not quite best picture material. It does succeed in exposing a challenging topic through compelling and wholly realistic characters. Despite the presence of some top-tier actors, they all feel like people you would find eating at a Waffle House. It’s almost like you can see the arrows that life has shot into their bodies. They are all wounded people of a sort, in chronic anguish, fatigued by society in general and each have less than ideal skills dealing with the mess. It’s hard to find your better nature when you live in a 24/7 urban jungle.

Aside from the memorable characters and the neat interweaving of lives in stress, I also enjoyed Crash for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Chinatown (1974). In both movies you feel not so much in America as immersed in the peculiar nation of Los Angeles. Both films leave you thinking that LA may be a crazy city, but there is something weird and compelling about living there anyhow. It’s almost like you haven’t really lived until you have spent a few years living in LA in its heat, air pollution and crime. LA today may well be what New York was fifty or 75 years ago: a crazy and complex zoo of people who can just barely stand to endure each other, yet who also need each other despite their generally dysfunctional natures. The theme of racism that pervades Crash may ultimately be just a frame to move us viewers into the world of Los Angeles, and make it permeate our heartland souls for a while.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Review: The Chernobyl Diaries

Two weekends ago my daughter tried to get me to go see The Chernobyl Diaries with her, but we ran out of time and interest. Yesterday out here in Lakewood, Colorado my friend Richard decided he wanted to see it. I usually avoid horror movies because of a general revulsion for blood and guts rendered in high definition, but I decided to make an exception.

Now I remember the other reason I dislike horror movies: because they are so predictable. It’s similar to the reason why I dislike superhero movies. In superhero movies you know the superheroes will come through in the end. They are superheroes, duh! In horror movies you know there will be lots of fake horror and that actors will run around doing a lot of screaming and making stupid decisions.

The stupid decision part is actually good, and perhaps the most entertaining reason to see a horror movie. Now let me ask you: if you were in the ruins of Chernobyl (the site of the world’s worst nuclear reactor incident), had a Geiger counter with you and were being chased by what I think were zombies (so hard to tell), would you (a) run as far and as fast from the nuclear reactor as possible or (b) “inadvertently” end up near the nuclear reactor core and with radiation lesions all over your body.

In a logical movie you run like hell away from the reactor and hope to hell you can outrun the zombies, Russian bears, wolves and mutant fish. If you survive, you would send soldiers in radiation suits in to look for your lost friends. In The Chernobyl Diaries of course you head toward the nuclear reactor and are quickly losing your vision from all the radiation while the zombies keep closing in. And this is good. How could this possibly be good? Because all characters in horror movies deserve to die. Zombies, mutants and other creatures from the id do us a favor by removing them from the gene pool. It’s Darwinism in action for the 21st century!

Really, there is little suspense in most horror movies, because they are formula. There’s not much in this movie, but I plead guilty to being on heart medications, which makes it virtually impossible to get an endorphin fright rush. I mean, really. In horror movies you know creepy things are going to happen, otherwise you would not go see these movies. The only real suspense is when. You approach a curtain across the driver’s seat in a creepy, bullet strewn bus on the Chernobyl campus and only one of two things is going to happen: something horrible will be immediately behind it, or nothing will be. It’s actually more suspenseful if nothing is behind it.

Kudos to unknown director Bradley Parker for at least picking a creepy setting: the actual Chernobyl nuclear complex. The 1986 nuclear accident in the Ukraine is still ranked by many as the worst incident in history. Thirty one people died and 237 suffered acute radiation sickness from this wholly preventable accident. Many thousands more were affected by significant amounts of radiation. Arguably, the more recent Fukushima Daiichi accident was worse, but that resulted in fewer fatalities (from the release of radiation, not the tsunami). If this movie has any merit, it is to give us a firsthand look at this creepy complex.

How do six young twenty-something American teens end up there? Because they are brainless. The plot has four of them palling around together on an extended European tour. Two are brothers, and one has been living in Kiev for some time. He knows a guy who runs an “extreme tour” of Chernobyl and of course he talks them into it. Two others join them on what is supposed to be a one hour tour, but guards won’t let them past the gate. Naturally their tour guide Uri knows another entrance, so they enter anyhow. Of course they are not in there long before (drum roll) a mysterious accident happens to their van which keeps them from leaving. Uri goes out alone and not to give away too much of a predictable plot, but he doesn’t live too long. What are Zoe, Natalie, Amanda, Chris, Michael and Paul to do? Hint: it will involve lots of running and screaming and ultimately a lot of dying.

I never saw The Blair Witch Project (1999), an ultra-cheap horror movie which developed a cult following. The good news is that The Chernobyl Diaries does not look nearly as grainy, but it feels about as cheap. The better picture quality is because it was all done with high definition digital movie cameras, mostly one steady cam that follows the actors everywhere and is constantly in their faces. Presumably this is done to give the movie the feeling of intimacy. The camera was probably the most expensive prop in this “movie”. (When it is all digital film and even projected digitally, it’s hard to think of it as cinema, but as a video.) There are no sets, just seven principle actors, some rarely seen snarling zombies, a bear, assorted wolves, one zombie girl child seen only from behind, and lots of running, crying and screaming. It’s actually not a very bloody movie, probably because there was not much money to render these effects.

It sounds like I am dissing the movie, but not entirely. The director and actors are virtual unknowns and the plot is but a fig leaf but the actors are at least competent enough at acting scared and acting like they are friends. Given the ghost city that they shot in, it was probably not hard to get in the mood. And yes, it is kind of neat to see Chernobyl in all its HD digital glory. The director gives it a go. For a movie with no budget to speak of, it makes an acceptable albeit largely predictable horror movie. So go see it particularly if you like superhero movies, because its plot will be just as predictable. Admit it: you go to horror movies not to be really scared, but to pretend as if you were actually scared; it’s sort of like riding a roller coaster.

I hope these actors go onto better movies with bigger budgets because they all act decently. Maybe director Parker can leverage this cheap movie to better cinematic venues as well. There are certainly worse horror movies out there, but you are likely to feel you did not get your money’s worth from seeing this movie in the theater. It’s a C+ horror movie, with decent acting but an implausible plot that has one major strength: a location where a real and truly horrible event took place twenty six years ago. No set of zombies from the Chernobyl reactor tanks can possible equal the horror that actually happened there on April 26, 1986.

2.6 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★½☆ 

The Thinker

Something about Golden, Colorado

Last summer my wife and I spent four nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was something unexpectedly special that I discovered in Cambridge. I can see why my wife is enamored with the Boston area as a retirement area, despite the impression I get that most Bostonians are anxious to retire from Boston.

I spent Monday night having dinner with colleagues at the Table Mountain Cantina in Golden, Colorado. I spend two weeks a year near Golden at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, and this is my second week this year to hang out here. When looking at dinner options, nearby Golden is an obvious choice, as it is just a few miles to the west. And so there we were again in downtown Golden, except this time choosing to dine at the excellent but affordable Table Mountain Cantina, rather than at Woody’s Pizza across the street, with its terrific all you can eat specialty pizza, salad bar and beer cheese soup buffet (only $10.23).

So I have slowly become more acquainted with Golden over the years. Each visit leaves me more intrigued by this small city of just 19,000 people. It’s much like Buffalo, Wyoming would be if it grew up. In fact, my attraction is becoming more than casual. I feel the need to rent a room for a week or so just to amble around the city to see if my instincts are right. Could Golden, Colorado by my ideal retirement community?

Golden often gets overlooked because twenty miles to the north is the more famous city of Boulder. My brother lives there. It seems to be a haven for liberals (particularly the physically fit ones). Golden may have more history than Boulder, as it was first founded by gold prospectors in the 1850s. Clear Creek runs through the middle of Golden. It briskly carries rains and snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, which it sits right next to. Clear Creek feels more like a river than a creek, particularly during the snow melt season. It is undeniably pretty, cascading downhill at an impressive velocity and full of abundant and clear mountain water. It was no wonder that in 1873 Adolph Coors decided it was an ideal location for a brewery. The Coors brewery is still there, and gets it its water directly out of Clear Creek. The brewery forms a small industrial side of Golden. If there is an area of Golden to dislike, the brewery area would probably be it.

Mainly though Golden feels like a 21st century anachronism of a small mid-20th century town. It feels vibrant, healthy and whole. It sits close to Denver but it feels a world apart. To its west loom the Rocky Mountains. To its east is a tall mesa that hides the Denver skyline, making it feel like it is in a valley of its own. It is a city that feels isolated from the Denver metropolitan area but really is not. In fact, light rail is coming into Golden. In a few years it will be possible to take light rail all the way from Golden to Denver International Airport far northeast of Denver.

Golden’s downtown is just lovely. There is simply no other way to describe it. It is incredibly clean and modern and feels as safe as I suspect it is. There are a few chain stores in the city, but no Wal-Marts to be found, at least inside the city itself. Mostly you have hosts of independent businesses lining Washington Avenue and neighboring streets: restaurants, boutiques, antique and coffee shops. Golden has a vibrant main street that forms the center of the community. Ambling down Washington Avenue is a joy. It is hard not to spend long minutes perched on the bridge over Clear Creek mesmerized by the constant rush of clear falling water. On Monday night it was running briskly, but not so briskly that some residents were not out on the rocks dipping their legs into the creek. A cool and clean mountain breeze funneled over the bridge, cascading into my nostrils and making me feel invigorated and glad to be alive.

Everyone has their idea of what a retirement community should look like. For me it does not involve ugly track houses in Arizona or Florida, or shuffleboard at a seniors’ center, but being part of a real and vibrant community. Golden has a university, the Colorado School of Mines, so it has a strong and enduring educational presence, borne out by the many young people walking around. Ethnically, no getting around it: it is overwhelmingly white, but there is a modest Oriental community. The housing in Golden is a mixture of new condos along Clear Creek and historic, Victorian-style houses, all seemingly well maintained. Parks and bike paths abound. For the athlete, a brisk run or bike ride to the top of Lookout Mountain is close and invigorating. At the summit on a clear day you can see the airport more than thirty miles away. There you can also find the museum and grave of Buffalo Bill.

Golden is a city but has a small town village feeling, and yet it is connected to the Denver metropolitan area. Being close to a cosmopolitan area is important to me. Granted, Denver is hardly the most impressive metropolitan area I could pick, but it would definitely do. It has all the things one looks for in major cities: museums, sports teams, concert halls and major universities. As I noted before, the whole Denver area has a progressive feeling to it, epitomized by Denver’s emerging light rail system.

Yet Golden is close to lots of attractions of its own. Red Rocks outdoor amphitheater is just a few miles away, and it regularly draws major performers. Its biggest attractions are the looming Rocky Mountains which it sits next to. It is literally a gateway to the continental divide since it is the last exit before I-70 climbs toward points west. I’ve never tried skiing, but I might be inspired to try since skiing is abundant in Colorado and close by. If not skiing there is so much more outdoorsy stuff: hiking, nature watching, biking, rock climbing and camping. Golden is ideally located at the nexus between nature and the city.

I also want an active retirement. I currently teach as an adjunct at a community college. Right next to Red Rocks Amphitheater is Red Rocks Community College. Potentially I could teach part time there, and it would be an easy commute. I could bike there without much difficulty.

While I haven’t looked at real estate prices, I suspect Golden is much more affordable than snooty Boulder to its north. Colorado also gets real winters, something near and dear to my wife, although she might find the light, powdery snow offensive to her eastern sensibilities. The mile high dry air might take some getting used to, but I am here so often I don’t notice it anymore. I do know that I appreciate dry air, which Colorado has in abundance, along with plenty of sunny days. Most of the year you can live comfortably and without an air conditioner. Just open the windows.

What’s not to like about Golden? It would take some time in the city to figure out if there are downsides worse than the Coors Brewery. I do know how it feels. To me, it feels comfortable, snug and has a strong, hometown gravitas. I suspect I could spend the last (hopefully) thirty years of my life quite comfortably in a condo overlooking Clear Creek in downtown Golden. If I can convince my wife to do it, I’d like to spend a week or two in Golden and find out.

The Thinker

Well, at least there’s Southwest

I’m not sure exactly when flying stopped being fun and started becoming a hassle. Flight delays will turn any flight into a hassle, no matter how outstanding the service. Still, I am old enough to remember when flying usually was fun. It was something you looked forward to. Maybe it was the warm moist hand towel served with before your meal so you could wash your hands. Yes, some airlines did this, even back in economy class. Real silverware was provided with hot meals back on Delta Airlines in the 1980s, also in economy class. Mostly, back then flying commercial was fun. There was usually a great view out the window, great looking flight attendants, and you felt fussed over.

Sometime in the 1980s, I took a People Express flight to Florida. I definitely saved money but the experience felt very third-world. It was my first experience flying on a cattle car of an airline. I’m not surprised that they went bankrupt, when you ended up connecting in Newark in a tired, ugly brick concourse. They had way more people than they had chairs, so mostly you found yourself sitting on the floor waiting for your connecting flight, then walking through a door with a hinge, out on the tarmac to a stairway to get on your plane. The flying part, when it finally happened, was excruciating, at least for a guy over six feet like me. The seats were painful for anyone under six feet, or anyone weighing more than two hundred pounds. To top it off, the plane was grimy and smelled of sweat.

Since the 1980s the flying experience has steadily degenerated. It is the unpaid price of airline deregulation, it seems. These days more often flying is both costly and a hassle. Free meals are a thing of the past, unless you are in business or first class. Getting a meal on any flight is problematical, but if you get one you will have to pay for it, and it will probably come in a snack box, in fact it will be more like a snack than a meal. We customers now pay for lots of things that used to be free: exit row seating (which used to be considered a hassle), baggage, early check in, two inches of additional leg room (or “Economy Plus” as United likes to call it), window seats, aisle seats and on at least one airline the privilege of using the toilet. In only one way has flying improved: smoking is no longer permitted, at least on flights within the United States.

The odd thing is no one really likes airline service. Certainly it’s unliked by customers, although many economists will argue that passengers now fly at a lower cost per mile flown than they ever have. The airlines don’t seem to like the business they are in, perhaps because it is no longer sexy. Most of them lose money and those that make money tend to do so sporadically. Airline attendants used to be paid a living wage; now not so much. Even captains get squeezed, particularly on commuter airlines where your pay may be as low at $18,264 a year, barely above minimum wage. Airlines also seem to merge regularly, most recently Southwest and AirTran, making you wonder if we will end up with a half dozen airlines, all of which will charge premium prices for mediocre service.

So I’ve learned to reduce my expectations flying. However, I still pine for days when the food served on airlines was hot and usually tasty, and when people actually dressed up to fly. Now I am mostly concerned about not getting ripped off, getting from point to point on time, and not having my knees painfully scrape the seat in front of me.

Lately I have been rebelling flying United Airlines. Typically I flew it everywhere I traveled for work, simply because they had the contract fare. It’s not even my money, so I shouldn’t care. But when it costs $1100 for a contract flight to and from Denver from Washington, D.C., I feel cheated. What do I get for all this money? Well, I do earn frequent flier miles, but in spite of traveling for business three to ten times a year, I never earn enough for a free flight, at least for some place I want to go at a time that works. The system seems programmed to frustrate you. Once I managed to get business class at no extra charge, but usually even that is not available. United carefully restricts the number of seats it will upgrade with frequent flier miles. Mostly they want you to pay $50 or $100 for the privilege, and will still dock your frequent flier miles.

This year, with one exception, I have been flying Southwest Airline exclusively. While remembering the airlines’ glory days, I am also appreciative of Southwest. Its system is a bit strange at first, but it is easy to get used to it. What I particularly like is saving money, even when it is not mine. Typically Southwest flights don’t even show up in our travel reservation system at work. I discovered that going to their web site and booking a web-only rate that I could cut the cost of a flight roughly in half compared with what my employer was paying for United and get a flight that suited me. Fortunately, since it cost less, I can book these flight.

What do I not get? Not much. Southwest doesn’t offer movies or any form of inflight entertainment. The recent exception has been Wifi, which you have to pay for, but which is not available on all flights. Fortunately, for most of us this is not a problem. We have our iPads, laptops and DVD players. They will keep us amused, but if not an eReader or old fashioned paper book will work as well.

I also lose the ability to book a seat. Instead, it is first boarded, first seated, which means twenty four hours before your flight you have incentive to get your boarding pass online. So it pays to watch the clock and get that boarding pass as soon as you can twenty four hours before your flight. Yesterday, I got my pass about ninety minutes after the window opened, and half of those on the flight had already gotten their pass! I ended up with B32, not a seat number, but an order for boarding. This got me an aisle seat three quarters of the way toward the back of the plane.

I did not lose the great airline meal, since they are not available anyhow.  Southwest does serve chips, cookies, pretzels and peanuts, and a complementary beverage. So if you expect to have a long flight, it makes much more sense to bring your food with you. Just don’t expect them to let you use their microwave.

What do I get?

  • Low prices. This is the main point. “Low” is relative, of course, but they consistently beat the competition, often by thirty percent or more.
  • Mostly predictable flying. Their planes seem to fly more predictably, probably because they are better maintained.
  • Faster ingress and egress. Their boarding system may seem a bit squirrely, but it works and it’s fast. No other airline can get people on or off a plane faster.
  • On time flights. Flights are usually on time; they have one of the best on-time ratings in the industry. My one experience with a delay recently flying back from Phoenix was that if your flight is delayed, they will hold your connecting flight if possible.
  • More legroom. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough where a tall person like me can sit comfortably. I can’t tell you as a tall person how painful it can be to spend hours with your knees pressed into the seat in front of me.
  • Better seating choices. In fairness, Southwest does offer an “Earlybird check in” where for $10 you can get a boarding pass 36 hours before a flight. Otherwise you must wait until 24 hours before the flight. In practice you don’t have to pay $10 to get a good seat. If it means enough to you, you will spend the money or take the time to make sure you get an early boarding pass.
  • Equality. No snobby walled off business or first class section. We are all equal in the eyes of Southwest employees, and are treated this way.
  • Free baggage. The first two bags are free. This means in addition to saving on airfare, I save my business typically $50 on baggage fees.
  • 737s. Give me one aisle and three across seating. It’s ordinary but it works just fine. These generic aircraft, perhaps because there are so many of them, tend to be more reliable than wide body aircraft.
  • Less marketing. Southwest of course has their frequent flier club and credit card, but they don’t relentlessly hawk it.  It’s a feature, not an attraction.
  • Chicago-Midway. They pretty much own the airport, which makes connecting flights so much more predictable than crowded and terminally flight-delayed O’Hare.
  • Locations. Southwest mostly flies where I want to go and now that they have more flights out of Washington Dulles I can get there without the hassle of driving to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Southwest is hardly the ideal airline, but it delivers on what matters: convenience, value and predictability. I no longer care about how many theoretical airline miles I have with United. I’m glad to trade them all away for the no-hassle flying that Southwest offers.

The Thinker

Between an economic rock and a hard place

Truth seems to be a precious commodity these days. Truth is not always easy to handle, but it does has the virtue of being true. Given the truth, you at least have a chance of working your way out of a problem. Unfortunately, there are many vested interests out there willing to lie or give us only partial truths purely to advance their agendas at the expense of the nation as a whole.

The current presidential campaign needs a whole lot of truth from both President Obama and future Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Of the two, Obama at least is closer to telling us the truth, but he is shielding Americans from harder truths. I wish that Obama could simply dump his posturing and nuancing and simply tell us the truth. It would be especially welcome to hear some truth about the economy, particularly yesterday when our unemployment rate crept up from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent, while we actually very modestly increased hiring.

Republicans are all over the report, of course, pointing it as more evidence of a failed presidency. No question about it, 8.2 percent unemployment is not great, particularly if you are unemployed and don’t wish to be unemployed. Is it Obama’s fault? Shouldn’t he be held accountable because he is president?

Obama at least has a net increase in jobs during his administration and twenty-seven months of consecutive job growth, which is more than you can say about the George W. Bush administration. I think Obama has done a remarkable job dealing with an economy that at the start of his term looked like it was heading into a new depression. At least we are heading in the right direction.

Yet the reality is that neither Obama nor a President Romney can work miracles on this economy by himself. This is because the president has limited powers. The alchemy of presidential power happens at the edges, if it happens at all. Mostly it occurs when the president is successful in persuading Congress. This was hard for Obama even when Democrats were in charge, and virtually impossible now. Moreover, there are systemic problems that are at work that are likely to cause relatively high unemployment rates for years to come. Some of these can be ameliorated; some cannot. There are some short-term strategies that will improve the situation, but fixing the long-term problems is tough and cannot be solved by doing more of the same.

Here are some truths about our economy I wish I would hear from anyone running for public office:

  • We are in a hell of an economic mess mostly of our own making. Yes, it is partially the result of lots of things outside of our control, such as the closely connected international economy. It is also due to our inability to come to a political consensus. This, more than anything else, is the root of our problem, and our problems will likely linger until broad consensus is reached.
  • Europe matters. It is going into another recession. It has and will continue to affect our economy, and is probably the reason our job growth is slowing. Austerity in Europe is leaving people there poorer, and thus they cannot buy as many of our products and services, plus it adds uncertainty to the whole world economy. To some extent, our economy will be impacted until Europe itself achieves political consensus and its economy rebounds. And that is something neither Obama nor a new president can fix.
  • The economy is not going to improve by cutting public spending. Doing so will only cause the economy in the short term to get worse. This is because, no matter how inefficiently, spending money employs people. And when people are employed they mostly spend the money, which stimulates the economy.
  • Sustainable growth happens when we make new products or services that other people broadly want. And that does not happen through inertia but through a lot of research, investment and through having a highly skilled work force. It happens to some extent through government investments. The Internet, the key to our modern economy, was not a result of entrepreneurial behavior, but a result of a government research product.
  • Wealth does not trickle down. It grows as a result of a burgeoning middle class. The one percent already have virtually all they need and are not going to spend enough of their capital to grow the economy for the rest of us.
  • Growth requires infrastructure. The surest way to cripple our economy in the long term is to neglect infrastructure spending. Austerity will do just this.
  • We are all going to have to pay more taxes. If we are stupid enough to delude ourselves that we don’t have to, we will move our country down the economic ladder, eventually moving us into a second world status. Governments don’t exist to redistribute all wealth, but do need to redistribute some wealth; otherwise you don’t have a government. If it doesn’t, bridges don’t get built, roads don’t get paved, power grids deteriorate, children don’t get educations, shoddy medicines end up on the market and unsafe food ends up on our shelves and in our bodies. Our economy, including our national defense, depends on having our infrastructure in place.
  • The education of our citizens is a critical, if not the most critical, of all the factors underpinning our long-term economy. The free market cannot solve this problem. If it were possible, there would have been no reason to create public schools in the first place. True sustainable growth comes from maximizing the educational potential of all our children and applying it to products and services the world needs. That means we want all children capable of it to go to college, if possible. We want to inculcate a curiosity in our children and provide an environment that rewards creative thinking. We must invest in our children’s education, if for no other reason so they can sustain us in our old age.

In short, we are in a huge economic mess and the choices we are making or not making are making it worse. We need a national strategy that fundamentally addresses these issues. Tax cuts won’t solve the problem. Corporate welfare won’t do it either. We can start with spending heavily on infrastructure, through deficit spending if necessary. Perhaps we need a national infrastructure bank. Such a bank would serve to depolarize the issue of spending money on infrastructure. And it would certainly stimulate job growth, as well as better position us in a competitive world.


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