Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Thinker

Same story in Gaza, just different year

It’s not hard to be an accurate prognosticator when it comes to wars between Israel and Hamas. Does this post from 2009 sound eerily familiar?

At what is likely to be at least a thousand dead, many more thousands injured and virtually every resident of the Gaza Strip traumatized for life, Israel may succeed in halting rocket fire for a while from Gaza. However, this action, like all the other military actions on Palestinian land will not win them peace. Others will soon be lobbing rockets inside of Israel again, or will blow themselves up at bus stations or will be finding other gruesome ways to seek retribution for the disproportionate violence inflicted on them, their families, their neighbors and friends. In reality, this incursion into Gaza simply sows the seed of future violence. Why should anyone whose home is destroyed or whose family members are killed or injured by the Israel military want to make peace? In truth, every bomb lobbed on either side simply creates a multiplier effect that ensures future military actions will be deadlier and that genuine peace will never arrive.

It’s hard to keep track of the body count in this latest battle in the extended war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Today’s press report says that at least 1060 Gazans have been killed as a result of this twenty-day (so far) battle between Israel and Hamas. It’s hard to estimate the number of wounded, but conservatively it should be at least six times as many people as those who were killed. Let’s round the number of dead and wounded to 10,000. With approximately 1.8 million people living within this 139 square mile area bordering the Mediterranean Sea, that’s roughly 1 in 200 people killed or injured within the Gaza Strip as a result of just this latest battle. To put that in perspective, if the same thing happened proportionally here in the United States, that would be 189,000 Americans dead and 1,589,000 wounded from 22 days of fighting. Over the course of this endless conflict of course, these numbers would be much higher. It would be on par, at least, with the casualties in our own Civil War, which at least ended definitively after four years.

Syrians embroiled in their own civil war can at least become refugees. Life may suck in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, but at least you are alive and in relative safety. There is no such escape for Gazans. Of course Israel won’t take them in. Egypt won’t let them in either. You would think they could become boat people, but the Israelis have banned even fishing and their navy would sink anything that dared to leave the Gaza Strip by sea. Residents there are trapped, with nowhere to escape to. They are doomed, it seems, to spend lives traumatized by war and made more miserable by poverty and a continuously degrading infrastructure.

Living in Gaza is sort of like living in a huge concentration camp, only it lasts much longer than the Second World War. Rather than dying in gas chambers or in work camps, the dying occurs principally during these battles, all occurring at close range, or afterward from wounds or as a result of the generally pervasive poverty. You would think Israelis would know a thing or two about concentration camps, but they seem thrilled that their army is inflicting punishment on these defenseless people, cheering from the highlands as their air force drops bombs on Gazans.

Not that the Israelis are getting off scot-free. As these battles go, it’s been painful for their army. 43 soldiers have died so far, and three citizens have died from rockets lobbed from the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Most missiles are mistargeted but those that aren’t are generally picked off by their Iron Dome defense system supplied by the United States. From Hamas’s perspective, they are doing well in this disproportionate battle. For a change the Israelis are hurting, at least a bit. None of this though is doing much to establish a cease-fire, at least one that seems likely to endure.

During the January 2009 battle I noted:

Israel says it will not agree to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until Hamas stops shooting rockets into Israel. It also demands international guarantees that armaments will not be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Egypt. Hamas says will not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel ends its blockade, which for months earlier has reduced living standards to subsistence levels and ratcheted up unemployment. It also demands that all Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip.

Curiously, these are the same demands both sides are making to “end” this latest battle. It should be noted that this battle was wholly avoidable. Supposedly it was the natural reaction to the murder of three Israeli youth by Hamas, as claimed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But that claim appears to be false. As a reaction some extremists Israelis killed a Palestinian youth. That was all of a spark necessary for this latest battle to get underway.

Not only is this war unspeakably cruel, it won’t affect any meaningful change and will actually make things worse. It is the definition of insanity, which is to try the same thing again expecting it will render a different result. Israel lives in the fantasy that if it were somehow destroy Hamas, the remaining supplicant sheep in the Gaza Strip will somehow forever accept Israeli control and domination. You can see how great this is working out on the West Bank. The truth is that every time Israeli has yet another battle with Hamas, they only exacerbate their long-term problem. Hamas looks like a crazy government, but whatever replaced it is likely to be much worse. Hamas is at least reasonably secular and coherent. Israel does not have to look too far to see what would be worse than Hamas as it is emerging now in Western Iraq, and now goes by the name of the Islamic State. Hamas is not al Qaeda, but if they actually destroy Hamas, something like the Islamic State will likely replace Hamas, and it will be on Israel’s doorstep.

Conflicts like this generally succeed in hardening the positions of both sides. Israel of course is swinging more toward the right, having the effect of reducing the possibility of a solution that might actually achieve peace: a two state solution. Instead, Israel is busy tearing down more homes in the West Bank, a cruel policy of retribution against the relatives of those who hurt Israel. It’s doing this while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and more recently by picking fights on the West Bank. All of this simply inflames passions more, making future conflict and war more likely, not less.

The “clear-eyed realists” in Israel are simply shortsighted thinkers, not looking at the larger dynamics and demographics. Peace is in their long-term interest. Indeed, it is the only way the nation of Israel will survive. But peace simply cannot be achieved wholly on Israel’s terms. Momentum is already underway internationally for nations to boycott Israel, since it is practicing apartheid, not against blacks, but against non-Jews. So Israel can expect more sanctions and economic boycotts as its positions harden. As I noted in 2009, their survival is dependent on us giving them the means to do so. The United States will not support Israel the way it does not indefinitely. As some point the international outrage will be too large for our country to stomach, just as happened with South Africa.

Israel has the chance, looking increasingly far away, to change the dynamic now through a two-state solution. It’s their only hope to still be a state a hundred years from now. Stupidly, Israelis are letting their emotions rather than logic dictate where they should be going. They are sowing the seeds for their own second Diaspora. However, during the next Diaspora there may not be an escape. The Islamic states that surround them will probably not let one of them out alive.

 
The Thinker

Improving public administration one course at a time

Retirement is good, or so I’ve been told. I’ll let you know when I arrive after August 1. They say that it beats working for a living.

As I hang up my career though, I sure didn’t expect the opportunity to share my wisdom in any meaningful way. You expect cake in a conference room (got that), a dinner with colleagues after work (got that) and a farewell luncheon (that comes tomorrow). It used to be you expected a gold-plated watch, but as I’m a federal employee I won’t get that. Anyhow, in what feels sort of like a consolation prize, last month found me in Landsdowne, a conference facility northwest of Washington D.C. I was invited to help create a better curriculum in their masters of public administration degree.

My invitation came from my friend Tim, who got me into the federal civil service in the first place. Tim didn’t spend that long in the civil service. He did go back to school, got a PhD, ran a couple campaigns for Congress as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red district (and lost badly) and most recently ended up on the staff of the American Public University System (APUS). The online university teaches careers in public administration, which is kind of what I spent the last thirty-three years doing. Since Tim knew me and knew I lived near Landsdowne, he convinced me to come and educate these educators on what public administration today was really about.

These days, you would think the last career anyone would aspire to is public administration. These people run governments: state, county, local and the federal government. Actually, they don’t so much run governments as administrate them. The sort of graduates APUS puts into the workforce aspire to positions like City Manager, where they get down and dirty into issues like making sure the city picks up the trash on time and fills the potholes. Some aspire to state or federal service, and it was the latter that made me of value to them.

Only I wasn’t sure I should have been there in the first place. For example, I was sitting in a room next the former mayor of Kansas City, Mark Funkhouser. Mark is an impressive guy and I could see how he managed to be mayor for four years. He is smart, grounded, political and pragmatic, with a clear understanding of what governing is really about. The other guy at the table was Andrew J. Duck, another friend of Tim who like Tim had run two campaigns for Congress, and lost. Mr. Duck now works for Northrup Grumman, which sells his expertise on intelligence issues to the Pentagon. Two guys, a facilitator, a note taker and the rather obscure me: a nerdy guy who manages a public information system. We were there to answer the question: what should APUS do to make their curriculum more relevant? The prize, such as it was for a couple of hours around a conference table, was an insulated coffee mug and a really good catered lunch.

I felt like the odd man out. Mr. Duck, for example, had not just keen insights into the intelligence business, but totally got public administration and the imperfect art of governing including the crazy disconnect between what the public expects and what is actually possible. (Attention citizens: with limited taxes not all problems can be solved instantly.) Mr. Funkhouser had actually walked the walk, managing a huge and diverse city and walking the fine line that politicians walk: being effective and political at the same time. It’s hard to be both. I felt outclassed. We browsed the course curriculum and were asked a number of leading questions while guys with cameras and microphones occasionally came in and captured our images and voices.

Their curriculum did not particularly surprise me, but a lot of it seemed marginally relevant. At least in the federal government, public administration is a very different beast. Citizens are less in your face than they are at the local level, while the amount of rules, regulations and policies you are supposed to adhere to often feel overwhelming. It’s a wonder we manage to do any governing at all. How many people would knowingly choose to spend thirty or more years of their lives in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy?

It was never my explicit choice; it just sort of worked out that way because I lived in the Washington D.C. area. How do you prepare someone for a life in the bureaucratic trenches? How do you inspire them? Most importantly, how can they be effective in this environment? It’s a grinding and grating world for most of us inside it, pulled between irreconcilable forces. There are the rules, which frequently change. There is your senior leadership, which is also frequently changing and who will push political agendas of the current president, which are often counterproductive and downright wacky. (Bush’s faith-based initiatives was one of the wackier ones.) There is Congress, which consists of people who generally belong in rubber rooms and most of whom haven’t a lick of common sense about how the real world works. There is the workforce consisting of generally good people who are often treated shabbily. And there is the bureaucracy itself: hard to understand and appreciate until you are stuck in the middle of it, where it sort of makes sense after a while, but makes no sense to an outsider.

Fortunately, I was able to contribute a few ideas that look that it will actually make it into their program in a year or two. First was the strange absence of acquisition education in their curriculum. Governments spend boatloads of money and much of it actually goes outside the agency to the private sector for goods and services. At least in the federal government, there is this confusing rulebook, the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It was hard for me to imagine anyone doing public administration without knowledge of how to procure these things legally and get a genuine best value, and also do it intelligently.

Being in information technology, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of education in this area too. You are training to administer government, but you have no idea of an information technology life cycle? No idea that you will have systems written in house, and others that will be pulled off the shelf, and they all have to talk to each other all the time? No idea that systems are born and die, and their replacements have to be carefully planned and paid for? No appreciation for what a CIO or a CTO does? No one expects a public administrator to write code in C++, but you sure need to understand that solid and reliable information pins together public administration and something about the architecture that makes the magic possible. It all has to work together seamlessly and tell you things that are relevant. If it doesn’t, you can’t do your job.

So I did my part for future bureaucrats and administrators. If you are crazy enough to want to do this stuff professionally, thanks to Mark, Andrew and me, perhaps future public administrators will have the skills they need in today’s crazy world of government.

Okay, I gave back. Now maybe I’ll take up golf.

 

 
The Thinker

The real solution to the child refugee crisis

Approximately 60,000 children so far have traveled alone across our southern border recently to find safety and sanctuary in the United States, with doubtless many more on the way. Just the very idea of doing something like these parents have done – sending their children away alone on their own on a long and dangerous trip to get into the United States — leaves us American parents reeling. How could any parent do this?

If you take the time though to read articles like this one, the only question is why these parents waited so long to do something so desperate. Countries like Honduras are impoverished but that’s hardly new. What’s new are the drug lords, the intense competition between them, and the lawlessness it has caused, which is much worse than anything the Taliban has inflicted. In much of Honduras there is no functioning government and those that function as government are in cahoots with the drug lords. In attempts to gain dominance among rival lords and cartels, children are being forcibly recruited. Failure to say yes could lead to death, rape or many other atrocities. When recruited you may be required not just to peddle drugs and extort people, but maybe kill them as well. Getting to the United States is of course highly dangerous, not to mention expensive to their parents, but it is a rational decision for these parents. It is not just the United States that is getting an influx of child refugees, but other Central American countries as well. These children are fleeing toward safety, not opportunity. They are simply refugees.

The drug trade in Central America is hardly new, but what is new in the increased drug trade in this corridor. This is largely due to success by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Caribbean at bottling up more traditional ways of transferring illegal drugs via small aircraft and boat. This is not an option in autonomous and landlocked countries in Central America. You know what happens when supply goes down and demand remains the same. Prices go up, which makes it easier to accept risk. Right now that route is through Central America.

The crisis in Honduras has become our crisis on our southern border. It is happening largely due to our country’s addiction to illegal narcotics. When you need a fix, you don’t think about how the drug will get to you, just that you must get high. But money for your fix is being funneled through the fingers of the worst kind of scum, including beasts masquerading as human beings in Honduras who will kill and rape kids, and maybe hack them to death in the street.

It’s reasonable to ask why our country is addicted to these drugs. All countries have this problem to some extent, but our addiction is very high compared to the rest of the world. Some of it is due to the fact that we are relatively prosperous, so we can afford to get high. Of course many of our drug addicts are very poor, and these are typically the ones looking for cheap highs. Heroin seems to be their drug of choice right now.

I believe that much of our addiction to drugs is because so many of us live really painful lives. Our lives are quite stressful, not as stressful as those of children in Honduras obviously, but one constant stress after another. This was made worse of course by the Great Recession when so much of our safety net disappeared. We live in a society that doesn’t cut us much slack. We are expected to do it all. Many of us simply don’t have the skills, education and other talents it takes to fend off this much adversity, if it’s possible at all. The stress becomes oppressive and unrelenting. Aside from the many people who were unemployed from the Great Recession, other traumatic pains are making us reach for a high: feelings of worthlessness, abuse from our spouse, screaming kids and bad neighborhoods. And so we look for escape. Drugs along with other addictions like food, booze, cigarettes and dangerous sex provide a temporary escape from crushing pain. To really feel better many of us need a living wage job, a decent place to call home in a decent neighborhood, and a little TLC from society at large. These are in short supply, in part because our collective wealth has moved toward the wealthy, who don’t feel inclined to spend it on charitable causes like us.

While many Republicans continue to tell us that we must somehow all by ourselves through grit and gumption solve our personal problems, this child refugee crisis proves just the opposite: that we are all related. Worse, because the actions of one affect others, it goes both ways. Our relationships can channel hurt or healing. When our inner pain causes us to visit illicit pushers to get a high, the chain of our pain extends down to the lives of terrorized children and their parents in Honduras, among other places. The relationship is not something symbolic. It is quite tangible. It is the dollar bill.

This refugee crisis is thus best understood as a crisis of failed relationships on many levels. On the national level, it demonstrates our political failure to do the pragmatic thing, which is to legalize drugs. This will not remove the pain of our drug addiction, but it will make addicts get cheaper and probably safer highs. It will squeeze the profit motive out of the drug trade, probably ending it overnight. It’s reasonable to assume that if drugs were decriminalized and regulated within the United States there wouldn’t be a flood of children from Honduras desperately trying to get across our border. And that’s because there would be no drug trade in Honduras, at least not one that would funnel high profit margin drugs into the United States.

I believe decriminalization and hopefully the legalization of these narcotics is the permanent way to end this refugee crisis, not to mention the pointless drug war. Our drug war has always been one where we simply refuse to face the reality of our human nature. As states like Washington State are discovering, legalizing marijuana can be a substantial revenue source, and that money can be used to do lots of good things: like build roads, bridges and schools. That sure beats making miserable the lives of traumatized children in Central America!

Our other option is to send in our army to occupy Honduras. This is at best a temporary solution but it should at least dramatically slow this refugee crisis. It’s the underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Drug decriminalization won’t stop everyone from trying to get across our borders, but it will act as a fire extinguisher and solve the root of this problem.

I wish President Obama had the nerve to tell us Americans the truth and advocated for drug decriminalization and legalization. I am confident that he understands this too but is unnerved by the political incorrectness to say so. If he wanted to be remembered as a true leader, this would be the time to tell us the truth.

 
The Thinker

Unitarian Universalists moved the needle on gay marriage

Marriages between gays or lesbians seem to be a fading issue in this country. In certain parts of the country, particularly in Southern states, the issue is still radioactive. Overall it is succumbing to a number of forces, probably the most important of which is simply demographics. The people that care the most about it are dying, and those who are comfortable with it tend to be younger.

Still, it is remarkable how quickly the tables have turned. Just a few years ago I was hearing from friends who were against gay marriage that only unelected judges were allowing gay marriage, not the people. “In every state where voters have had a say, it’s been turned down.” That’s no longer true, as Maine voters approved gay marriage by referendum in 2012. We have legislators paid to make these decisions. Vermont, of course, was the first to have civil unions and was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2009, over the veto of Governor Douglas. Legislators in New Hampshire and the District of Columbia followed Vermont’s lead in 2009. In 2011, New York State joined the club. In 2012 it was Washington State. In 2013, the floodgates opened. Legislators approved gay marriage in Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois.

Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states, and it is being disputed in court in states you would not expect, like Tennessee, Utah and Indiana. These rulings were prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling made lawful gay marriages legal for federal purposes. And because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. constitution, many federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws against gay marriage. The Supreme Court will likely get to rule on the issue again, which last year was narrowly tailored. While our Supreme Court tends to be conservative, it has a libertarian streak. It is likely that within a few years that laws or state constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage in the United States will become null and void, like sodomy laws.

This kind of rapid change is pretty breathtaking, even for me. In 2006, I disparaged my state of Virginia. In 2005, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage in the state. That seemed to cement prejudice into law for decades. I wrote:

Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

So how is Virginia doing with the whole gay marriage thing in 2014? Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, our Democratic Attorney General refuses to enforce that part of our state constitution, but that’s kind of moot at the moment. That’s because in February, our federal district court in Bostic v. Rainey invalidated our state’s constitutional amendment. The judged stayed the ruling on appeal. The case went to the Fourth Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments on May 13. It’s likely the ruling will be upheld. Since our Attorney General won’t appeal the ruling if it is upheld, gay marriage will likely be legal in Virginia sometime this year. In short, it looks like it will have taken eight years, not 50. Meanwhile, the polling here in Virginia has totally switched in eight years. According to a Quinnipiac poll released March 31, fifty percent of Virginia voters favor gay marriage, with 42 percent opposed.

While some of this is due to demographic forces, it’s also due in part to a lot of people being very noisy on the issue. Most Americans get it. They may find gay marriage morally repugnant, but they can’t get over the fairness argument. It’s simply not fair to extend to one class of citizen privileges not afforded to another, and it sure appears to be a violation of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so. Increasingly most of those disgusted by gay marriage are simply willing to hold their nose rather than fight it. There’s also the general sense that fighting it is futile.

How did this happen so fast? It happened because of a convergence of various forces as well as demographics. I am proud to say that my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, was the point of the spear on this issue, at least as a social movement. Back in 2009, I wrote about our national convention that I attended in conservative Utah. We took over the convention center in Salt Lake City and had an eight story banner “Standing on the Side of Love” going down the side of the convention center. It was bold, breathtaking and in 2009 felt pretty futile, particularly since we had converged on the bright red state of Utah.

The banner since then has been everywhere. It is hard to find pictures of any march anywhere for gay marriage without seeing the banner. In demonstrations and marches, the banner is prominent, with mostly Unitarian Universalists (UUs) carrying the banner. It’s not a hard message to grasp: UUs take the side of love, not hate. The banner is still in use, and its use is not just to help gays and lesbians acquire marital rights. It is also being used for the many of us UUs that support immigrant rights, and other endeavors that require love and compassion as a solution. Of course, the movement is more than a banner, it’s people, and our current president as well as past president has been leading our denomination on the issue.

I wish I could point to other great successes like this among UUs. There have been many prominent UUs throughout the years (including Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin) and more than a few presidents, but as leaders of social change we have often been laggards. (I am thinking about racial tolerance and sexism in particular.) That has changed. UUs have proven instrumental at moving the needle on this fundamental issue of civil rights and fairness. UUs everywhere, but the Standing on the Side of Love team in particular, have certainly earned my gratitude. I’ve never been prouder to be a UU.

I hope we can keep this streak going and keep moving our country toward acting as if love and compassion is the core of who we are as a nation. We are now trying to move the needle on the child refugee crisis on our southern border, among other issues. I hope that you will join us.

 
The Thinker

When did conservatism become so radical?

Halloween should be rescheduled for the last week of June. This is the last week of the Supreme Court’s annual session and they tend to leave their juiciest and most controversial decisions to the very end. The Supremes did not disappoint this year with two decisions yesterday that should leave sensible people reeling.

I’ll concentrate on the first, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and leave the public unions decision Harris v. Quinn perhaps for a future post. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, we got a decision that grants “closely held corporations” religious rights. Previous Supreme Court decisions had already granted corporations personhood status, a preposterous assertion given that corporations do not breathe, have children, die, get checkups, walk, talk or vote. On the latter, given the court’s breathtaking decision in this case, it’s probably only a matter of time before corporations get the right to vote as well. (Given the way the Supreme Court sees these things, they will probably get a number of votes proportional to their status, maybe based on the number of employees.) Justice Alito went so far in his decision as distinguish between corporations as people and actual human beings, “natural persons” as he calls us. You have to ask yourself: WTF? Was he sober when he wrote this?

All this, you see, is to protect the precious rights of the people that own these companies, as if in their role as “natural persons” they don’t already have the right to vote, or to spend their own money on campaigns, or speak out at rallies or take out ads in the newspaper. This means, of course, if you are an executive of a corporation you effectively get twice the rights, but effectively a lot more as you can wield the assets of your company to the extent you have money or can borrow money to speak out as much as you want. The Koch Brothers epitomize the ability of the very moneyed to drown out much of the rest of us. And now because your corporate personhood is so precious, you can also take away the rights of others. Unsurprisingly, certain companies like Hobby Lobby feel the need to screw it to women, which thanks to this decision means that they can prohibit contraceptive coverage from being covered in their health insurance plan. Why? Because it’s against their religion. Like corporations can go to church!

You would think this decision could not possibly make the pigs any “more equal” than the other farm animals (that’s an Animal Farm reference, in case you missed the allusion), but you are forgetting one of last year’s stunner decisions. Almost a year ago, on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law required certain states like Mississippi with a long history of racial discrimination in the voting booth to get preclearance for their voting methods. Mississippi was one of many mostly Southern states to set up more onerous criteria for voting: you had to show an approved photo ID, something that is difficult, expensive and inconvenient if you are poor. The Justice Department didn’t like it, of course, so it nixed the idea, but the state appealed to the Supreme Court. Of course, keeping blacks and minorities from voting was the whole intent of the law in Mississippi. By this decision, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was written specifically to get rid of decades of Jim Crow laws that made it hard or impossible for minorities to vote.

So the Supreme Court, which claims to be so concerned about maximizing freedom of speech, gives virtually unlimited speech to corporations which aren’t even human beings while allowing states to make it harder for certain actual human beings, minorities and the poor naturally, to exercise what limited speech they have due to their financial state. In other words, it’s more freedom for those who can afford it, including entities (corporations) that are legal fictions, something Justice Alito in his decision candidly acknowledged. And due in part to last year’s decision, it’s less freedom for those that can’t. This is not surprising from a court that was very plainly equated money with speech. Last I checked, a dollar bill did not have lungs, a tongue and lips.

This is conservatism? This is not radically changing what has worked in the past? I don’t know what word it is, but it is not conservatism. It’s crazy and radical stuff. Rather it was the Supreme Court that inferred that corporations must be treated as people. These latest shocking decisions take this to a further absurd and quite frightening level.

Given that these radicals will be on the court for some time a harder a more permanent solution is needed. It’s already underway but as a practical matter to actually make it happen will require Democrats to have large majorities in both the House and Senate. It is simply this: we need a constitutional amendment that unambiguously states that corporations are not people and only have such temporal rights as Congress deigns to give them. If I were in charge, corporations would be forbidden from giving a dime to any political candidate, any PAC or any group that works to influence public policy on any level whatsoever.

What kind of glue are these conservative justices sniffing? Have they read the preamble of our constitution lately? It simply starts, “We the people”. There is no “We the people and corporations”. That is original intent. The so-called constitutional conservatives on the Supreme Court who voted for these unwise and radical decisions have simply proven the opposite. Instead, they are part of a cancer that is killing our democracy.

 
The Thinker

Iraq: what now?

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.

 
The Thinker

Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes

Okay, not literally. I vaguely member trying on my mother’s pointy shoes when I was a lad and that definitely felt weird. I have learned a lot about women since then, mostly by listening to them. I now know that I was lucky to be born male. Recent news reports show some of the violence against women, including the planned execution of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death after refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Just murdering her is not enough though; she first is to endure a hundred lashes for the “adultery” of marrying a Christian man. In Sudan, only marriages between Muslims are considered legitimate, hence “marriage” to a Christian man must be adultery. (If this outrages you, take action here.)

Maybe you are thinking, she’s a weird exception. Just like that woman in Pakistan who was recently stoned to death by her own family is a weird exception, although it happens all the time in less public spaces in Pakistan. Except violence and discrimination against women is widespread. I recently wrote about pay disparities between women and men, which rarely results in lawsuits simply because it is so hard to prove. The gap in the United States is 23%, in that women earn on average 77% of what men make. Think about the lost earning power that represents over a lifetime. It’s no wonder that more women are in poverty than men.

Blacks know what it is like to be guilty of being black. Women are guilty of being women. Even if they are not particularly attractive, it’s not like they get a free pass from the likelihood of sexual assault. Sexual violence statistics against women are frightening. One in 6 women have been raped or have been sexually assaulted. A majority of women say they have been harassed or have been worried about violence because of their gender.

Think about what it’s like to spend your life with these realities. As a guy, when I go outside I don’t give any thought to any kind of assault, least of all rape, unless I am in a really bad neighborhood. (It doesn’t hurt to be 6’2”.) Unless I end up in prison, there is virtually a zero chance that I will be raped. Nationwide, three percent of men have been raped, and my guess is almost all of these happen in prison. For a woman, pretty much any strange man is a potential rapist. So they keep their purse clutched close to their chests. They try to travel in groups and avoid running alone or in the dark. Danger could lurk pretty much anywhere. It never stops.

Having relationships with men is dangerous. You never know what some guy you are dating may do to you. Will you be date raped? Will you be stalked? Will he turn out to be emotionally, mentally or physically abusive? What if you spurn his requests for sex? Typically the man is taller and stronger, so overpowering a woman is not too hard. You have to hope that men you date are civilized, and can remain civilized under stress. It’s a tall order, given these sexual assault statistics.

Then there are all these people treating you like a second-class citizen. Not only are you likely to be paid less, you are considered impulsive and unreasonable. If you are emotional by nature, it’s attributed to being that time of the month. Many politicians want you to get pregnant by making it hard to get birth control. They will bend laws to make sure you can’t terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They want you to bear children of men who raped you. They will even write condescending laws that require doctors to tell you lies about abortion or make you wait for days before having an abortion, assuming you can get one at all in your state. They will even write laws requiring that you to be penetrated against your will by an ultrasound wand before having an abortion. All of this is because you are a woman, and not to be trusted. You are a second-class citizen.

Not only are you paid less; you have more expenses than men. Before Obamacare, you paid more in health insurance because you have breasts and a uterus. Your clothes cost more. You need a wide variety to escape scorn. Try to find a decent bra for under $30. Okay, it’s not a problem if you are a guy, unless you are a cross-dresser. Need your hair cut? You will likely pay twice what a man pays. Men just put on the same kind of pants and shirt, and maybe change their tie. Women bear all these additional expenses while making less money.

More often than not, you are not seen as a person, but as an object. If you like to have sex casually, you are not a woman who happens to have a strong sex drive, you are a slut or words much worse. This doesn’t happen to guys. They get slaps on the back instead.

If you decide to run for public office, you will face higher standards than men. Just how good a mother were you anyhow? Did all your kids avoid drugs and get straight A’s? If not, don’t think about running for anything. Hillary Clinton knows what it’s like. People will watch your hairstyles and clothes and critique them ruthlessly. They will question your choice of spouse. They will count the number of times you go to church. If you are a male running for office, these simply are not concerns. No one thinks to ask such questions.

If you decide to take time off to be a mother, when you go back to work you are at the bottom of the promotion chain again, and at an entry-level salary. You will earn less social security because your wages were lower and your time in the workforce less.

In the workplace you are likely to suffer sexual discrimination, but also likely be doing work that is more menial and less engaging. Next time you visit your doctor’s office, look around. Look for a man on the clerical staff. You probably won’t find one. My wife worked in a doctor’s office for years. It’s a topic for another blog post, but suffice to say these women work like dogs, are vastly underpaid, and are treated very badly. The turnover in these offices is huge and the work is grinding and relentless. All their discounted hard work simply goes to feed the doctors’ bottom lines.

So, yes, I was lucky to be born male. So much of that humiliating and toxic crap is simply not part of my experience. Sadly, women have a long way to go to become full partners and truly equal before the law and within society. What’s holding them back is mostly us men. We have to evolve. Will we ever? Will you?

 
The Thinker

Republicans may be insane and vindictive but they are also hilarious

Thanks to all of you visitors who keep coming to read my 2010 post, Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane. I still find it weird when a post so many years old retains popularity, as this one sure seems to be.

For better or worse, Republicans speak their minds, no matter how loopy it sounds afterward. Strangely, most seem to enjoy foaming at the mouth, so much so that it goes to prove my thesis that they are insane. DailyKos.com is of course the “Orange Satan” progressive liberal website. It is also the site to go to if you decide that rather than just getting mad at Republicans, you also want to laugh along at their daily rants and lunacies. More and more, I go to Daily Kos simply to get my humor for the day. Republicans seem to provide an inexhaustible supply.

Whatever happened to sane Republicans anyhow? You know, the Nelson Rockefellers of the world? They tended to be from money, but were buttoned down and business-like. They were conservative in the sense that they moved cautiously.

They are apparently gone with the wind, and now only lunatics inhabit Tara. The new residents are hanging from the rooftops and foaming from the mouths. If you look carefully, you can see them with their loaded semi-automatic rifles peeking out the windows. I feel kind of sorry for them but they simply won’t take their Prozac. So I might as well laugh at them. What’s so funny, you may ask?

  • Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. No amount of facts that show that plain old bad judgment by our late Ambassador who flew some of his staff to an under-guarded consulate in Benghazi, Libya (effectively a war zone) has dissuaded Republicans from their unshakable belief that there were much more sinister motives at work by the Obama Administration and of course by President Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically. No less than three committees in the House are looking into the matter again. Among those they want to subpoena include Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a sitting senator when the incident happened. They believe there simply has to be an Obama conspiracy at work somewhere in this regrettable mistake. Republicans are also convinced that with enough hearings that they will find something that will validate their paranoid delusions about Obama and his evil administration. Even if they don’t find anything, they are certain that all these hearings will help them win more control of Congress in the next election. Most Americans, if they tune into this at all, are simply snickering. If reasonably up on this stuff, like me, they are laughing deliriously at each new paranoid claim.
  • Ping-ponging on the Bergdahl release. Before the rescue the mantra was: the Taliban is holding Bowe Bergdahl so we must get him home and Obama is not trying hard enough! It’s been five years already! Every effort must be expended to free this captive soldier. He may be hurt, tortured, or injured or something! And we must leave no soldier behind on the battlefield! After the deal: exchanging five Taliban detainees, who were never charged with a crime against the United States but held in Gitmo anyhow, is negotiating with terrorists. Before Bergdahl was just a patriotic soldier, but now that they are tuned into the details that he deserted his post (even though he did it before and returned), he’s a traitor that deserved capture. Of course the only thing that really mattered to them was they saw a new potential attack angle against President Obama, which was obviously much more important than securing Bergdahl’s release. In today’s news is news that Bergdahl claims that he was tortured by the Taliban. It will be interesting to see how the GOP spins this now. My bet: “He’s just trying to cop a plea so he is not tried for aiding and abetting the enemy.”
  • Craziness on the minimum wage. Republicans overall are hostile to increasing the minimum wage, which even Republicans agree is far below a living wage. For many the real solution is to repeal the minimum wage. Why would this be good? Because it would incentivize employers to create more jobs, lowering the unemployment rate! Of course, those taking these jobs would mean making less, meaning they would do menial work and digging themselves into even more dire poverty at the same time. Meanwhile, with no wage rate floor, those employers already providing the minimum wage would have incentive to cut their wages, further impoverishing a whole lot more people. All this new poverty would make more people eligible for food stamps. Their obstinacy is quite sad but that they can say these things while maintaining a straight face is hilarious!
  • Fox News. The network pretends to be “fair and balanced” and not at all racist or discriminatory when their female talent consists exclusively of pretty and white conservative blondes. Got to keep those 60-something conservative white guys with plenty of eye candy!
  • Sarah Palin. Nuff said.
  • Donald Trump and his jaw dropping mouth. He doesn’t believe that Obama’s short and long form birth certificates are real, despite both having been produced many times and that an ad announcing his birth was published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961. He’s in good company as long as he stays in the Republican Party.
  • Regular and blatant lies that global warming is not real, in spite of the statistics that show global temperatures rising pretty much every year and that most years are on average warmer than the ones that preceded it. How can I not laugh at a party full of people so dogmatic that actual facts have no bearing at all?
  • They are the anti-free pro-freedom party! That they are the pro-freedom party while doing their best to deny freedoms to anyone who doesn’t share their values including gays who desire to get married, women seeking abortions, Hispanics who want to become citizens and pay taxes, blacks who want proportional representation in their states and the poor who want to be able to vote without the hassle and expense of getting photo identification. Yes, course it’s appalling but at the same time their cognitive dissonance on the issue is downright hilarious!
  • Our world’s best health care system. They claim that our health care is tops in the world when we rank actually rank #16. Only I guess we’re not #1 anymore because of Obamacare. Because of Obamacare, poor people are getting treatment. Logically, if they weren’t getting treatment, we’d have better health care. It’s hilarious!
  • Rick Santorum and the many Pat Boone wannabees in the party. Rick is so fetishly sober and faithful to his wife that he won’t sit on a sofa with any woman other than his wife. Most Republicans are glassy-eyed in admiration over Rick’s heartfelt demonstration of fidelity, not to mention the cool sweater vest.
  • We love the poor and want to help them by making them poorer! It’s hilarious that they keep denying they hate the poor while systematically doing everything possible to make their lives more miserable and move what little income they have left into their pockets instead. It’s “the beatings will continue until the morale improves” way of making people happy! It’s tough love, but it is love. Feel the love, poor people!
  • Their gun fetish. They see nothing at all peculiar or alarming about paranoid schizophrenics having easy access to all the guns and ammunition they want. They cheer “open carry” losers who like to go into Targets with loaded semi-automatic weapons. Nothing to see here but some honest exercising of constitutional rights! What could possibly go wrong with a group of white redneck young adults strung out on testosterone and loaded assault weapons running around our retails stores?
  • The NRA in general. Any statement from the organization is good for a few laughs. You wonder how any organization could possibly be so clueless about cause and effect. Then you realize it’s not cluelessness; it’s just dogma. Dogma means never having to think through your illogical positions.
  • The Tea Party. It’s a party so principle driven that it is incapable of any compromise whatsoever, so it’s incapable of governing until the unlikely time when there is no one in Congress other than Tea Partiers. Dr. Seuss could not have created a more perfect north or south going Zak.

So, thanks Republicans! You are so completely surreal and out of touch that for those of us with one foot still in reality, laughter is inevitable. And laughter is good medicine, both for the body and soul. You are the gift that keeps on giving.

 
The Thinker

Rampages and beatifying the beautiful

Another disgusting rampage. Another white male (well, actually half white, half Asian, but obsessed enough with looking white to the point of dyeing his hair) decides he has been persecuted enough and goes on a murder spree. Of course I am talking about 22-year-old Elliott Rodger, who killed six people and injured thirteen others in a rampage on May 23, 2014 and then did what these cowardly murderers usually do: take his own life with a handgun. For a young man who railed against pretty women who he believes unfairly gave him the cold shoulder, four of his murders were against men, three of who were apparent roommates. The women were likely complete strangers, but were coeds at the local University of Santa Barbara he attended and likely reflected the archetype he expounded upon in his rantings and final video, of course uploaded to YouTube.

A few details of this incident did not fit the rampage stereotype. Three of the murders, of his roommates, were apparently carried out with knives and may have included a machete and hammer. I’m not sure what his beef with them was. Perhaps they were white and/or jocks. The others, of course, were shot expeditiously with our ubiquitous symbol of power for the powerless: a gun, specifically a Glock 34 pistol, acquired quite legally in California by a man with well established mental illnesses. Isla Vista police had earlier checked up on him, after his parents reported his disturbing videos on YouTube. Police found a mouse of a man and gave him no further thought.

Rodger says he did all this simply because he wanted to get laid and kept getting spurned from even getting a date. Of course it was more than this. Getting laid is not hard, even for a virgin. Anyone who can afford $5000 in guns can afford a street prostitute, or even an expensive blonde-haired escort like he lusted after. What Rodger really wanted was to be validated in the warped way that he thought he should be validated. He had to lay the right kind of stereotype. In his mind she had to be white, she had to be blonde, she had to find him attractive and apparently she had to be submissive and show respect by swooning over the fact that he was a man.

It’s the latter issue that is the primary subject of today’s essay. Rodger apparently saw himself as flawed. First, he was half Asian and to fit the archetype he believed blondes were looking for, he had to be all white. He thought that by dyeing his hair white he could join the white guys’ club, but it just made him look unnatural. This contributed to his rage. There were doubtless other things. Perhaps penis envy was also part of his perceived imperfections. Whatever, his doubtlessly clumsy attempts to win female attention did not work. He likely projected an aura of a messed up person, which is not hard if you are mentally ill. This is likely why women were spurning him, but it sounds like he set his bar unacceptably high anyhow. Chances are if he had actually laid one of these beautiful blonde goddesses, he would have been brought down to earth. Any subsequent relationship, if he could see past the confusion of his own mental illness, would reveal just another human being with flaws and foibles, just like him.

In some ways, Rodger was waiting for Godot. As we all know if you wait for Godot, it’s going to be a very long wait. No wonder his expectations were unfulfilled and his virginity remained intact. He was seeing women as he wanted them to be, not as they are. Women had become objects, not real people. He could only imagine validation through a woman so flawed that she had to be a stereotype. Naturally, his unsuccessful attempts piled onto themselves and turned into the perceived feeling that all women were against him because he himself was not the perfect male archetype he was convinced that they demanded. This anger fed his rage. Guns made it easy to kill half of his victims, but those living with him were in his intimate space, and on them he could unleash a more personal rage by killing them with knives and possibly a hammer. It is likely that his female victims would have suffered a similar fate if he could have gotten close enough to them, but of course he perceived them as spurning him, so he had to kill them remotely, hence the gun.

Rodger had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had been seeing shrinks since he was eight years old. You would think this mental illness alone would make someone unqualified to own a gun, but of course you would be wrong. “Joe the Plumber” (a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) got some attention recently by asserting that if his gun rights cause people to be unnecessarily murdered, that’s just too bad, the former being much more important than some goddam human lives. While I don’t agree with his thesis, I do reluctantly agree with his conclusion. If the Sandy Hook murders weren’t enough to restrict access to firearms, even if just to the mentally ill schizophrenic like Rodger, then he is clearly right. Mentally ill schizophrenics cause almost all these rampages, and they are generally also young men about Rodger’s age. Simply taking away gun rights from them would save the lives of many people every year. It’s obviously not something politicians are willing to do, since few are anxious to take on the crazily obsessed NRA.

Rodger’s larger issue though was a fundamental misunderstanding of who women actually are. It’s not hard to see how he picked this up, as our culture glorifies the beautiful and Hollywood prefers white actors. Hollywood is in the business of selling entertainment, and selling movies with actors who look like average Joes or Janes is generally not very marketable. We beatify the beautiful. With the beautiful and the talented grabbing most of our screen time, it’s not surprising that Rodger picked up this value and assumed he was unfairly and permanently discriminated against.

How to see past the cultural and Hollywood smokescreen? Part of the solution is to tune this stuff out, obviously not an easy thing to do in our increasingly interconnected world, as attested by the volume of Netflix downloads constantly streaming across the Internet. It might help if we could substitute books for visual mediums. In a book, unless its illustrated, the attractiveness or otherwise of its characters is not an issue. Schools and religious institutions can also do more to project the values that worth is not contingent upon your genetic makeup or your rating on hotornot.com.

It would be helpful for everyone, but particularly our youth, to be less cliquish. We should put people of different ethnicities, life experiences and perceived beauty together more often. By interacting with others outside our normal class, it becomes obvious that we are all basically the same and that beauty and genetics say nothing about worth or character. These values become real only when they are experienced. People of different types have to work through issues together over a long period of time to get this understanding.

For students, it might mean lots of group projects where people in a group are picked specifically because they are different, instead of the same. Leveraging our diversity on all levels is actually a great strength. The more we all understand the multi-dimensional aspects of all of us, and feel it in our core, the more empathetic we become and the better we become at solving problems that affect everyone. This takes a lot of practice, and it often takes trained facilitators to help people see the strength in our diversity and our essential humanity. We have to see each other as real, not surreal.

And of course where there are signs of obvious danger, like Rodger’s mental illness, we must take logical steps to protect society. The NRA says that owning guns is a right. That is the current Supreme Court’s interpretation. The truth is that gun ownership, like driving a car, should be a privilege. It can and should be restricted to those sane and sober enough to use guns responsibly. By making it a right, it’s like giving a teenager a hotrod, a full tank of gas, a set of keys and a fifth of Tequila and telling them to enjoy their drive. That’s is the message we send to people like Rodger. Until we finally figure that out, Joe the Plumber will, unfortunately, continue to be right.

 
The Thinker

The Internet is already not net neutral

Upset by proposals by the Federal Communications Commission to create “express lanes” on the Internet? If the current proposal now out for public comment becomes a rule, it would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast to charge a fee to those web sites that want faster content delivery.

This is the opposite of net neutrality, which is the principle that all web content should be delivered by an ISP at the same speed. (Actually, it’s at the same bandwidth, since all network traffic is effectively at the speed of light.) The argument goes that without net neutrality, those companies with deeper pockets, particularly those who are already established, such as Netflix, have an unfair competitive advantage over other services or start ups without such deep pockets. It’s a concern I certainly share, so much so that I first blogged about it in 2006. Bottom line: I am still concerned and I think this proposal must be fought.

What I didn’t write about back in 2006 was that there was no net neutrality back then either. Effectively, bandwidth is already discriminatory because it is based on ability to pay. It’s just based on your ability to pay, not the content provider’s. For example, Verizon has basically four tiers of Internet service from it’s “high speed” service (actually it’s lowest speed service) where content delivery does not exceed 1MB per second to its “high speed Internet enhanced” service where you can download at up to 15MB per second. It’s hard to quantify what the cost of the 1MB/sec plan is compared to the 15MB/sec plan, because it depends on many factors including what bundle you may or may not choose. Suffice to say if you want a 15MB/sec service, you will pay more than a 1MB/sec service. So if streaming Netflix is critical to you, consider their 15MB/sec service. (Of course, this assumes that the port between Verizon and Netflix can handle 15MB/sec. If it can’t then there is no point in paying Verizon the premium.)

You can think of the Internet connection from your ISP like a water pipe. If the water pipe is big (and the water pressure is high enough) you can get more water per second through a bigger pipe. What the FCC is proposing is to take this pipe and put two pipes inside it. One is a fat pipe that will serve certain content very quickly, the “fast lane”. The other smaller pipe is for those who can’t afford to pay ISPs these premiums, i.e. the “slow lane”. Since I live in traffic-congested Washington D.C., I think of the “fast lane” as the pricey HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on the beltway, and the “slow lane” as the toll free and usually congested other lanes. It’s not hard to imagine the Internet feeling a lot like it did in 1995, when the hourglass was principally what you saw in your web browser. Pages took forever to load, if they ever did. For those of us who remember those days, revisiting them sounds quite frightful. ISPs would have every incentive to throttle the slow lanes, because it would mean that web content providers would come to them and negotiate to use their fast lanes. In addition, they would have little incentive to increase bandwidth for their customers overall, but plenty of profit to funnel back to stockholders from those that pay for fast lanes. It is the antithesis of what the Internet is about.

So already there is no net neutrality of content delivery, unless you have an ISP that provides a “one speed for all customers” plan. The issue is not content delivery; it is the speed of particular content distribution within the ISP’s network. Which brings up another less noticed way that the Internet is not equal. It has to do with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).

If you access my blog with a browser you will notice it takes a while to render a web page. Why is that? It’s because I don’t pay for a content delivery network. I did a test from home on accessing my web site. I had to go through 13 routers (switches on the internet) between my home computer and my web host:

1 wireless_broadband_router (192.168.1.1) 0.525 ms 0.244 ms 0.216 ms
2 l100.washdc-vfttp-93.verizon-gni.net (173.66.179.1) 7.083 ms 7.095 ms 8.161 ms
3 g1-5-3-0.washdc-lcr-21.verizon-gni.net (130.81.216.76) 9.435 ms 12.101 ms 12.305 ms
4 ae7-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.174.208) 9.731 ms
   so-12-1-0-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.151.230) 27.151 ms
   ae7-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.174.208) 8.855 ms
5 0.ae1.xl1.iad8.alter.net (140.222.226.149) 10.166 ms
   0.ae5.xl1.iad8.alter.net (152.63.8.121) 9.396 ms 10.254 ms
6 0.xe-8-3-1.gw12.iad8.iad8.alter.net (152.63.37.14) 9.610 ms
   0.xe-8-0-0.gw12.iad8.alter.net (152.63.35.134) 9.693 ms
   0.xe-10-1-0.gw12.iad8.alter.net (152.63.35.102) 10.872 ms
7 customer.alter.net.customer.alter.net (152.179.50.206) 8.733 ms 10.023 ms 9.717 ms
8 he-2-4-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.65) 10.252 ms
   he-2-6-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.73) 14.819 ms
   he-2-5-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.69) 12.388 ms
9 he-4-3-0-0-cr01.56marietta.ga.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.89.150) 39.468 ms 42.618 ms 37.101 ms
10 he-1-12-0-0-cr01.dallas.tx.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.88.234) 42.852 ms 45.176 ms 44.283 ms
11 be-22-pe01.houston.tx.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.85.174) 50.270 ms 49.438 ms 50.270 ms
12 as8075-1.2001sixthave.wa.ibone.comcast.net (75.149.230.54) 49.692 ms 85.009 ms 50.379 ms
13 216.117.50.142 (216.117.50.142) 49.597 ms

Electrons still travel at the speed of light, but they are thirteen stoplights between my computer and my web server, at least for me. You can see how long my request took at each stop. For example, hop 13 took 49.597 milliseconds. Add up all the milliseconds to see how long it took for me to get to my site. If you do the same thing, the number of hops will probably vary, along with the access time. In short, it’s relatively slow to get to, which alone may explain why my traffic is down. People are impatient when they click on a link to my site from a search index. So they go elsewhere or get an effective CDN by using a subscription service to read content like Feedburner or feedly.com.

This is not much of a problem if I go to google.com. Here is the route:

1 wireless_broadband_router (192.168.1.1) 0.557 ms 0.229 ms 0.202 ms
2 l100.washdc-vfttp-93.verizon-gni.net (173.66.179.1) 6.919 ms 8.588 ms 7.432 ms
3 g1-5-3-0.washdc-lcr-21.verizon-gni.net (130.81.216.76) 12.248 ms 12.530 ms 9.252 ms

So basically Google has figured out a way for its servers to be “close” to me, usually geographically, so I get their content more quickly, or at least with fewer stoplights between their servers and my computer. This magic is done through a content delivery network. I’m pretty sure Google rolled their own, and that takes a lot of money, which Google helpfully has.

You can imagine if a company wanted to create a new amazing search index, it would be at a significant disadvantage if it didn’t have a content delivery network. They probably won’t roll their own like Google, but use one of the companies out there that do this for profit, like Akamai and Level 3. The technology behind this is interesting but I won’t detail it here. The linked Wikipedia article explores it if you are interested. Suffice to say it does not come free, but there are times when it is justified. The U.S. Geological Survey where I work uses a commercial content delivery network. Whenever there is a major earthquake they push the content out to the CDN, otherwise their servers would get overloaded and it would be like a massive denial of service attack. It also gets this data out more quickly to the public, as the typical customer probably only has to traverse three hops instead of thirteen to get the information.

We like to think that the Internet is free, but of course it isn’t. We all pay for access to it. Even if we don’t pay it directly, we pay indirectly, perhaps for the cup of coffee at Starbucks while we surf on their wireless network, or through taxes if we use Internet kiosks at our local library. Doing away with net neutrality is just another means by which ISPs hope to make gobs of money from having a monopoly on the last mile between the content you want and your computer. This may be due, in part, by our refusal to pay for their pricier tiers of service. The only difference is that this time you are not directly paying for it but other content providers will be. (You would think ISPs might cut you in on the deal and discount your rate, but that assumes they are benevolent, and not the profit-obsessed weasels they actually are.) As we all know, nothing is free, so these costs will certainly be passed on to you if you are a subscriber, and that profit will go to the ISP.

Given that bandwidth to the home is a limited commodity, giving discriminatory access to web content providers that can afford to pay must by necessity mean that others will get less access. In that sense, the latest FCC proposal is smoke and mirrors, and it is in everyone’s interest to get off our lazy asses and oppose it.

You can leave a short comment to the FCC here or a long comment here.

 

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