Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Thinker

No right to work in “right to work” laws

Wisconsin is the latest state to enact a so-called “right to work” law. With this law exactly half of the states are now right to work states. If your state is a right to work state, this means that you cannot be required to join a union as a condition for taking a job. If collective bargaining exists at a job site, the union can still negotiate benefits for you. You just have the right not to pay them union dues.

The effects on employees in these states are easily documented. In general you will earn less for the same job than in a state with no such laws. Unsurprisingly, this is because it is harder for a union to win the right to negotiate wages and benefits when they have fewer resources (union dues) to do it with. If paying union dues bothers you, there is an alternative: don’t take a job in the first place. If you think union dues are too high, as a union member you can petition for changes. Like any union (such as a credit union) a labor union is owned by its members. A union can disband itself if its members feel it is ineffective or if its dues are too onerous.

The supposed rationalization for right to work laws is that you as an employee should not have to pay from your wages fees that you do not want to pay. However, we are already required to have withheld from our wages federal income taxes, state income taxes, often city income taxes, pension contributions, Social Security and Medicare taxes. We can’t opt out of these. In many states other things are automatically withheld unless you explicitly opt out, such as your contribution to a 401-K retirement fund.

What if anything does all this have with a “right to work”? The theory seems to be that paying union dues by itself might be the difference between having a job that pays a wage you can live on and one you cannot live on. This is at best a dubious proposition, since you would be hard pressed to find a service-related profession where the real wage (after union dues) is less than a similar job without a union. It’s almost guaranteed that union members will negotiate better benefits for their members than you would by yourself bargaining with your employer.

“Right to work” laws are misnamed. You have no right to a job in any state. The closest we came was during the Great Depression. Government-created agencies like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps hired the unemployed to build bridges and improve our national parks when private industry would not. My grandfather was one of these people that depended on a WPA job during the Great Depression. Today, if you are unemployed the best you can hope for are some limited unemployment benefits and food stamps. The reality for most people is that these benefits don’t begin to cover the real cost of living, so they are employed. They are just not employed enough to have a living wage. Many of these people are so good at finding jobs that they have two or three jobs simultaneously, generally part time with no benefits. Yet they still cannot afford to live and they survive at the margins, perhaps in group housing but often they end up homeless.

So right to work states don’t guarantee any right to work. Such laws thus provide no particular incentive to get work. And if you can’t find a job, state assistance at helping you find a job will be marginal at best. Maybe there is a state unemployment office where you can go to look at local job listings, although this is mostly done online now. To the extent you can get unemployment benefits, you will likely have to prove you are diligently searching for a job. This isn’t normally a problem because you cannot survive long on unemployment benefits. At best you will draw from your savings less quickly than you would without them.

What would a right to work look like? A right is distinguished from a privilege because it is inherent and inalienable. You have the right to practice the religion of your choice. If you had a true right to work then either a employer would have to hire you or the government would be the employer of last resort. You might not like the work they would give you but it would be work that you are capable of doing. And since it would be work instead of free labor, they would have to pay you a wage. And since we work to survive, the work would have to pay a living wage, i.e. you should be able to live above the poverty line from a full time job.

You’ll see none of this in any “right to work” state, or any state at all, which means there is no right to work in this country. What they really are is “the right to opt out of paying union dues while enjoying the benefits of a union should your job be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.” Of course if because of insufficient union dues, the union goes bankrupt then you are out of luck. And as is often the case in right to work states, with no requirement for you to pay union dues, most unions can’t organize to win collective bargaining rights. Unsurprisingly “right to work” states have much lower rates of unionized workers than other states.

Without a labor union not only are you likely to have fewer benefits, you are also more likely to lose your job, which contradicts the whole “right to work” philosophy. You are an “at will” employee, which means you can quit for anytime and any reason and leave your employer in the lurch. Your employer also has the right to fire you at any time, and generally for any reason except those few reasons (like due to your sex or race) prohibited by law. Of course, it is very hard to prove that you were deliberately fired due to these factors, so basically you can be let go at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, and with no severance pay unless there is a state law on that. You might be able to retain your health insurance under the COBRA law, only if you can pay the full cost of the premiums while getting no income.

Right to work laws are simply snake oil wherein the state gives you the “right” not to pay union dues at the almost certain cost of a reduced standard of living and with a greater likelihood of sudden unemployment. If it were explained to workers this way almost no employees would want them.

 
The Thinker

Texans needs an intervention, not an invasion

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Response by Dr. Benjamin Franklin to an onlooker after the close of the 1787 constitutional convention

In case you missed the news, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the activities of the U.S. military in Texas during their upcoming military exercise Jade Helm. No, I swear I’m not making this up! When I first heard it, I chuckled. “I can’t wait to read The Onion article,” I said. To my astonishment, it’s true. Conspiracy theorists have whipped up yet another dazzling conspiracy theory: that this multi-state military exercise to train our special forces against enemies like ISIS is actually an invasion of Texas by our own military. It’s an attempt to subjugate and subdue Texans, and to allow the Mexicans and radical Muslims in, because as everyone knows President Obama is not actually an American, but is a secret Muslim. Yeah, the same guy who brought down Osama bin Laden when George W. Bush could not. Go figure!

Conspiracy theorists of course are always dreaming up something. The only thing different here is that the governor of Texas – the governor – gave some legitimacy to these nutcases. It was not by offering some token sympathy to these people; it was by taking some deliberate action to appease them.

So I guess it’s official: the lunatics are running the government of Texas and Greg Abbott is one of them. I’m going to hope this was just an exercise in political cowardice, something you would not expect from Texans where the primary preoccupation seems to be asserting your state’s manliness and your right to do things your way. As the saying goes, don’t mess with Texas. Abbott is hoping for former governor Rick Perry’s hold on office. As Rick Perry learned you can’t possibly run too far to the right if you want to stay elected in Texas. Abbott’s political calculus may have been that this is simply the next step. Maybe he’s just acknowledging that most of his fellow Texans, at least the ones that vote, are nutcases so he better make them happy. Or he’s a nutcase too.

It doesn’t really matter because either scenario is appalling. This crazy response to a batshit crazy conspiracy theory does suggest that Texas needs an intervention instead of an invasion. Detroit got taken over by the state because it couldn’t keep itself solvent. The grownups, if there are any of them left in the state, need to stage a Texas intervention. It’s gotten so bad that former governor Rick Perry now sounds like a reasonable person.

It doesn’t matter who does it as long as it is someone who can separate fantasy from reality. The proper response to these conspiracy theorists is not respect but derisive laughter. I mean, it’s right on the floor funny. It certainly was for me, because the more I read the harder I laughed. Because many of these conspiracy theorists also believe this is somehow tied to the recent closure of six Walmart stores due to plumbing problems. The conspiracy theorists see this as related: these stores are actually going to be used as staging areas for Texans who are going to be shipped from there to FEMA camps.

Perhaps this is the logical result of progressive gerrymandering. When you create increasingly polarized voting districts you tend to elect only progressively more partisan legislators. It’s no longer okay just to be conservative. To get elected you have to be conservative, fundamentalist, against abortion, want to take away all subsidies for the poor and disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t look like you or parrot your behavior. Now it has been demonstrated that even governors can feel forced to take lunatic acts like this one simply to appease their base. Whether it will work is unclear, and there are plenty of conspiracy theorists that think Abbott’s actions aren’t nearly enough.

Perhaps as part of an intervention it would help for Texans to recall why they joined the United States in the first place. Basically, Texans could not beat the Mexicans alone, so it petitioned to join the United States because with its forces they could (read up on the Mexican-American War). By joining the Union, Mexico lost and Texas was saved for white people. Texas was stronger as part of the United States than it was as a republic. For all their macho posturing, if Texas did leave the union they would be back in a similar situation. It would be entirely up to them to stop migrations from Mexico and other parts of the Americas. Texans though seem incapable of admitting that they are needy; that their survival as a culture is predicated on belonging to a larger entity. Unless all the other forty-nine states do things exactly as they would do them, they don’t really feel an affiliation.

I do know one thing: if the Texas republic did reemerge, it wouldn’t last very long. These same nuts would be in charge, but since they can’t seem to manage reality, they would be easy prey. For all their mean mouthing and domineering attitudes, it’s all bravado and they are mostly cowards. They need the United States much more than the rest of us need Texas. Acts like this one would have me gladly voting for the state to succeed. Eventually they would realize it was a big mistake and put the sane people in charge again. Then I would let them back in.

Maybe.

 
The Thinker

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

 
The Thinker

Not quite ready for Hillary

To no one’s surprise, Hillary Clinton is planning to finally confirm that yes, she is running for president in 2016. This will happen probably via a Twitter post tomorrow that will link to a video of her announcement. Officially she’s been undecided, but given all the backstage machinations going on within the Clinton camp it’s been obvious for months if not years that she was going to run. Thence she will be off on a listening tour. She has learned from previous campaigns that she does better when she is not giving speeches and when she is seen as relatable.

I hope I am not the only one out there feeling underwhelmed. It’s not that I can’t support her for president, particularly since there is not a sane Republican running for president. Hillary for President sounds about as exciting to me as a bowl of mushy oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe it’s good for me but most mornings I don’t want to eat it. I’m not sure who I am looking for, but it’s not Hillary Clinton.

For most on the Democratic left, the choice would be Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), who will soon be my senator. I could get behind her of course if she were going to run, which she is not, even though I doubt she would be an effective president. She has been quite clear about not wanting to run for president. Hillary is not quite without competition. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is running, some say in the hope to end up on her ticket. Former Republican governor of Rhode Island and Democratic senator Lincoln Chafee sounds like he will be running. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb sounds like he might do the same.

O’Malley is definitely politically left but is otherwise uninspiring. Lincoln Chafee is virtually unknown outside his tiny home state. Jim Webb is an intriguing possibility. He was a decent if unconventional senator, without much in the way of accomplishments for his six years in the senate, but with lots of interesting ideas that succumbed to the usual partisanship. Webb seemed happy to leave after a single term. However, Webb likes to flit from thing to thing. Flitting with the presidency is his current thing. He would be the closest thing to a non-controversial and mainstream candidate that the Democrats could nominate. Hillary brings baggage.

With Hillary I think: Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps so. Hillary hits all the right demographics. She is broadly popular, particularly among women. She is well known and won’t surprise us. We know all her dirt and in particular we know all of her husband’s dirt. We have seen her as First Lady, senator, candidate and secretary of state. As First Lady she was seen as uppity and controversial. As a senator she learned to be toned down and conventional. She also made some really bad calls, such as voting for the Iraq War resolution. As a candidate in 2008 she ran an overly scripted, haughty and very flawed campaign that was as exciting as, well, my bowl of morning oatmeal. Her only real political success was as our Secretary of State. That’s not a bad asset to bring to the presidency. Like it or not, foreign policy will occupy much of the next president’s time. It’s not something that voters will care much about.

What does she bring to a campaign? She brings an I’m not one of those nutty Republicans, pretty much any of whom with the possible exception of Jeb Bush are unelectable. Mostly she brings the undeniable fact that she is a woman with a serious chance of winning her party’s nomination. Seeing the mess so many men have made of the presidency, we’d like to see a female in that post in the hopes that she would bring more pragmatism and common sense to the office. Certainly the tone would be different, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps but tone doesn’t change much. The power dynamics will not change much when Obama exits stage right and if Clinton enters stage left. The senate has a decent chance of returning to Democratic control in 2016, but unless there is a huge wave election for Hillary the House will stay with the GOP. Districts are too tightly gerrymandered for a switch there. Democrats really have to hope they can win sufficient power in key states in 2020 when the next census takes place. Any first term for Hillary Clinton would look a lot like Obama’s current term.

So electing Hillary certainly won’t solve the gridlock in Congress or change the overall political dynamics. It would not surprise me if Republican misogyny toward Hillary replaces their obvious racism toward Obama. Clinton would certainly do her best to keep the status quo in place: no major changes on the Supreme Court or changed to entitlements. In that sense her presidency would feel comfortable. The biggest political problem today is actually within the Republican Party. They don’t know what they stand for. The libertarians and Wall Street Republicans loathe the social conservatives and visa versa. The party refuses to come down to earth and wants to chase bogeymen and impossible goals. Just like modern Christianity bears no resemblance to the religion Jesus founded, today’s Republican party bears no resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the party. It’s become impossibly twisted and bizarrely out of the mainstream.

A vote for Hillary is really a vote for more of the same, which is not necessarily bad given that with the reigns of power Republicans would likely be doing insane things like turning over our national parks to the private sector. However, there is nothing compelling about her candidacy, nothing to inspire voters other than she is a woman, and no coherent and inspiring message to rally around. The power of such a message should not be discounted. It provided a mandate for Barack Obama in 2008 and both a Democratic House and Senate. Real change happens when people have a strong motivation to vote, not just for a candidate, but also for candidates supporting a distinct and credible platform.

Given Clinton’s cautious nature, we are likely to see more of her 2008 campaign. It is likely to be carefully scripted and stage-managed. It will be a cautious and focus group tested campaign rather than a bold one. If Hillary were a man instead of a woman, would any of us vote for her with the same interest and enthusiasm? I doubt it. She would be another milquetoast Martin O’Malley, but much more centrist and likely less inspiring.

So I’m not ready for Hillary. I probably never will be. I can’t see myself voting for any of the crazy Republican candidates. If she wins the nomination she will likely get my vote. Unless she can demonstrate a passion and a compelling vision I’ve never seen from her I’ll probably dutifully vote for her. I just won’t feel inspired doing so.

 
The Thinker

Indiana tries the “freedom of religion” ruse

States are starting to learn that while they have the power to legislate against people they don’t like, it’s generally not a good idea to use it.

The latest case in point, of course, is the State of Indiana. Its governor Mike Pence recently unwisely signed into law a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. It essentially gives both individuals and businesses the “freedom” to tell someone they don’t like to piss off in the name of their freedom of religion. Interviewed Sunday, Governor Pence poorly tried to defend the law. He claimed it was misunderstood, and that it was virtually the same as a 1993 federal freedom of religion law with the same name.

The federal law was never intended to allow organizations to discriminate based on freedom of religion. However, the Supreme Court has had some interesting interpretations of the law. In 2006 it ruled that the law did not apply to the states, so it is curious that Pence would use the federal law to defend his state’s law. And in 2014 it ruled in the case of the Affordable Care Act that it allowed “closely held corporations” to not include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Presumably this logic was okay because earlier in its widely reviled Citizens United decision, the court decided that since earlier courts had declared corporations were people then corporations could not be prohibited from giving unlimited sums of money to political campaigns because free speech could not be constrained.

At best, Indiana’s law is distantly related to the federal law. Indiana’s new law is allowing anyone including any corporation, business or institution to declare that its religious freedom gives it the right to deny service to anyone that it finds violate their religious beliefs. This is in effect anything they choose to declare as a religious belief. The primary targets of the law, as documented by the photos of bigots behind the Governor Pence when he signed the law, are anticipated to be gays, lesbians and transgender people. Essentially the law is a license to discriminate collectively by both individuals and non-governmental organizations under the guise of freedom of religion.

The howls of protest were immediate and appear to be unrelenting. Angie’s List is one business threatening to move out of the state. Apple CEO Tim Cook decried the law in a Washington Post editorial today. Connecticut won’t let its employees travel to Indiana because it doesn’t want to even indirectly be associated with their bigotry. The NCAA is wishing it had time to move the Final Four playoffs to a different city. These are just some of the most notable responses to the law. There are plenty of others easy enough to find if you scan the news.

While Indiana is hardly the only red state to pass a law like this (Arkansas recently enacted something similar, and is getting a backlash), the track record for these laws suggests only foolish states would pass laws like these. You may recall that Arizona passed its own version of this law a few years back, to howls of protests and a huge loss of business. Eventually, they saw the light and repealed the law. It’s not hard to predict that within a few weeks Indiana is likely to do the same. No matter how right they think they are in their convictions, the national scorn and more importantly the loss of economic opportunity in the state will force a change of heart. Right now there is talk of an amendment to the law, which probably won’t change its substance or satisfy any of its critics.

In general, red states seem to be continually refighting the Civil War, just via its state legislatures, and this Indiana law is the latest skirmish. It all comes down to one thing: they think certain “better” people have license to make the “worse” people miserable. Their successes are principally a result of the tacit or explicit approval by the Supreme Court when these laws come up for review. One recent success was the court’s overturning of aspects of the Civil Rights Act that required federal approval of voting laws in principally southern states. The rest of America, and actually much of the south itself, has rejected bigotry. The reason many southern states haven’t caught on is because voting districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the citizens cannot speak with sufficient force.

Aside from the obvious bigotry, what drives most of us nuts about Indiana’s law is that these legislatures don’t understand that your freedom of religion does not give you the right to restrict other’s freedoms. Freedom doesn’t work that way. In fact, this is the antithesis of actual freedom. If you can allow a baker to not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it is against his religious beliefs as he interprets it, the same baker could refuse to sell one to a mixed race couple using a similar rationalization. A closely held bus corporation could say that their religion requires blacks to sit on the back of the bus, or to not allow any blacks on their buses. God is telling them so! “Freedom of religion” could selectively trump any sort of public law, which would render these laws unenforceable. Yet a law must apply uniformly or it is not a law. Instead it becomes no more than a hope that everyone will play nice.

Certainly freedom gives everyone the right to be a bigot. No one can control what you believe, although law can regulate your actions. Employers cannot discriminate in employment based on lots of criteria including sex and race and that includes closely held corporations with deeply religious CEOs like Hobby Lobby.

What’s clearly going on is that freedom of religion is being used as a proxy to effectively change laws that otherwise could only be changed via a process of law. If we really want to deny blacks their voting rights, it has to be done legally. And our Supreme Court apparently believes onerous voter ID laws are constitutional exercises in the legitimate power of the state because it’s not 1960 anymore. It thus effectively legalized bigotry in that instance.

In reality, no state or jurisdiction has the right to pass any legislation that exempts anyone from uniform application of the law. It’s so important we created a constitutional amendment specifically to require this: the 14th amendment. Legally it is clear: the 14th amendment specifically applies to all the states, which means that if a state grants the freedom to one group to effectively oppress or discriminate against another group, it is not just a violation of the law, it is against our constitution.

It is this bedrock principle that the vast majority of Americans are recoiling against in this case, and justly so. “Freedom of religion” here is simply a ruse. Indiana is in the process of getting its butt collectively slapped by fair-minded Americans. I for one won’t visit Indiana or spend one dime there until their disgusting law is repealed.

 
The Thinker

47 mutineers

I was hardly the only one shocked and more than a little dumfounded when 47 Republican U.S. senators sent an unsolicited letter to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei last week. The letter said that any agreement between the United States, Iran, and all those other pesky countries (including China and Russia) working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons could easily be abrogated by the Congress, something that is simply not true.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. We have a Congress in full mutiny over this thing called constitutional government because it is proving to be inconvenient. They are in mutiny because they hate the guy leading the executive branch because he has the audacity not to agree with them on everything. Just a week earlier House Speaker John Boehner made good on his unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Hitherto foreign policy, with the exception of treaties has been the purview of the executive because, well, it’s that’s what it says in the constitution. It must be very confusing to foreign leaders. Just who speaks for the United States government? It’s pretty clear in other governments, but not in our government, not anymore.

Only it’s not just the Congress. It’s also the Alabama Supreme Court. It started when its supreme justice Roy Moore told county clerks not to marry gay and lesbian couples, this after a federal court ruled they could marry. Subsequently the entire (Republican) state supreme court backed him up. Alabama is basically telling its court clerks that its decision nullifies the federal court’s decision. This is something close to treason. At the very least it is a conscious effort to ignore the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. We fought a three-year civil war to resolve the issue of states’ rights. One can understand the impulse not to want to accept these rulings, but a court is never supposed to do anything that obviously conflicts with the settled and unambiguous law of our land. Alvin Toffler would say this is a classic case of future shock. It’s clear that Republicans and southern states in general aren’t doing very well in dealing with the future that has already arrived and won’t follow constitutional processes to change things they don’t like.

Still, what these 47 mutinous Republican senators did reached a new level of arrogance and stupidity. New Arkansas senator Tom Cotton initiated the letter. I had two thoughts when I considered how this letter got started. First was that Cotton hadn’t bothered to run it by staff first. If he had they would have doubtless provided a sanity check and told him that this was a really bad, potentially career-ending act, not to mention factually wrong. The other alternative is even more mind-boggling: his staff told him it was a bad idea but he proceeded anyhow.

The even crazier part is that 47 out of 54 Republican senators signed it as well. This included their majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, hitherto one of the rational Republicans. This wasn’t rocket science. The letter was wrong about how our constitution works. It suggests that 47 Republicans don’t even grasp the basic workings of our foreign policy and congress’s role in it. You could both see it and hear it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony. It was basically: are you really this stupid? Did you not hear the words about swearing to uphold our constitution when you took your oath of office?

Some of the signers have belatedly suggested that maybe signing it wasn’t a smart move. Editorial boards across the country were virtually unanimous in condemning what these senators did. Some of the signers of course doubled down, particularly those who seem to be angling to run for president in 2016.

None of these senators should be trusted to so much as guard a roll of pennies again. It was a potentially criminal lapse of judgment, so much so that a petition calling for them to be tried for treason has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures on whitehouse.gov. Their hatred for all things Obama and their obsessive pandering to the worst elements of their own party overruled common sense, decency and apparently clouded over basic knowledge of our federal system and constitution. These erstwhile champions of the constitution clearly didn’t bother to read it before they signed the letter.

This is another Mission Accomplished moment, something none of these 47 senators will be able to live down. For many their states are so red it won’t make much of a difference to their jobs, but they will forever be ridiculed, insulted and scorned for their mutinous act. Like Lady Macbeth, they will never be able to remove this damned bloody spot from their careers. It’s a mark of deep shame they will carry into death, to be ever recorded in major sections of their biography. The many good things many of these senators have done are likely to be overwhelmed by this egregious, mutinous and profoundly stupid act of putting their anger and partisanship ahead of statesmanship.

 
The Thinker

Hillary’s emails: what the critics are missing

The current kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Blackberry and private email server for her official business while she was Secretary of State is mostly about making a mountain out of a molehill. Nonetheless the molehill makes for a pretty interesting discussion and analysis. I have some thoughts about this coming from my time as a civil servant as well as some technical perspectives from my career in information technology that I haven’t heard in the media. Hence I’m taking some time to blog about it.

There are many dimensions to the issue. You can look at it from either dimension and feel completely justified that your side is right. Let me advocate for both of them and you tell me which is right.

First, I’ll take the critical perspective. Records should be kept of official government business. The Secretary of State does a lot of official business and it impacts national and international policy. Moreover, the email threads of these historical events may provide useful lessons for the future. The Secretary of State is essentially a civil servant. She works for the taxpayers. So her email should be archived, not necessarily for instant critique, but for history and for congressional and criminal inquiries when they are needed.

However, she was not just anyone. She was the Secretary of State. I can think of few positions in the government, including the Director of the CIA, that are more sensitive. If I were trying to have a confidential back channel communication with the Prime Minister of Israel, would I really want him to communicate with me through [email protected], even if the email were highly encrypted? Or using any state.gov email address? Would any leader outside our country want anything less than innocuous content to go through such a system? There is always the telephone, of course, and the Blackberry includes a telephone. However, a telephone is synchronous. It’s a relatively inefficient way to work. It’s much better to reply with thought and nuance when you have the opportunity to do so, i.e. use email.

The reality is that the Secretary of State (and most high level government executives) has multiple channels of communications to do their business. Email is an important tool. Staff communications happens at another level and is also vital. In general, all sorts of lower level communications have likely happened before the Secretary picks up the phone or sends an email. If there are times when a confidential email is the best choice for the Secretary, an off the record email system makes a lot of pragmatic and business sense. It’s hard for me to think of myself as Secretary of State but if I was, it was lawful and I had the money I’d probably have done mostly what Clinton did, except I’d have a separate email for strictly personal use. A private email address though was pragmatic and necessary. We should trust implicitly anyone we pick for Secretary of State. If we didn’t trust her, the Senate should not have confirmed her.

Using the same email account for both personal and public use even though it offers convenience is stupid. Personal systems are likely to be less secure as government systems, although government email systems are hardly perfectly secure. One could make the business case that overall her public emails would have been more secure being hidden on a private server inside the government technical enclave. Ideally she would use a hidden government-managed email server that was patched and highly secured.

However, those who think that she should have done all of her email using a [email protected] email address clearly don’t have much of an understanding of how impractical this is. If this was her only government email address, it would be inundated with thousands of emails every day, even after the spam filter removed the obvious garbage. She would depend on staff to sift through it and flag the ones that she would read. Staff are not perfect though and might potentially not flag the important ones. In addition, there are times when you really don’t want staff reading certain emails but you need to communicate asynchronously. So you need a channel for that. And the open nature of email means anyone can send email to anyone. In short, this approach is not the least bit practical for someone at her position. She needed an email system that only let in those that she needed to let in, and this could not be done through the technology of the time.

What she did was not unlawful at the time, but certainly gave out a bad odor. It feeds into conspiracy theories that the Clintons always attract. It suggests a need for rigorous control and confidentiality; something I argue is not unreasonable for someone in her position. Mostly though I think the problem here is that the technology did not exist that allowed her to do her work pragmatically. It still doesn’t exist. Email is not quite the right medium for what she needed, but it was a tool everyone had. A private email address and mail server was a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton is as paranoid as Republicans believe she is, and that all their theories about her are true. If so she has plenty of company among Republicans. I strongly suspect that she is guilty of being pragmatic and efficient, and using these somewhat unorthodox means allowed her to be the highly productive Secretary of State that most historians agree that she was. And given the unique sensitivity and nature of her work, I think the ends largely justified the means here. I also believe that if there were a technical solution available that would have met her requirements, she would have used it.

 
The Thinker

Future errata on the news

No special topic for today’s post, just some quick thoughts about the news of the day and what I believe the story behind the story will be. With luck my precognition will be proven by subsequent events, and these will be errata indeed:

  • On the invitation by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress: This isn’t about the supposed threat that Iraq’s nuclear weapon program poses to Israel’s existence. Congress doesn’t need additional convincing on that. This is about Republicans, and House Republicans in particular, having a snit with President Obama because basically they loathe him and can’t figure out any other way to kick him in the balls. They don’t respect him or his administration, even before he came to office. In short, this is institutional passive aggressive behavior. It is also very unwise as it sets a new and dangerous precedence that our country will speak on foreign policy with multiple voices. (Executing foreign policy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive branch.) This is also about Speaker Boehner trying to gain some leverage with his mostly out of control Tea Party wing. It helps shows that he is manly and serious in ways that they can appreciate. If I were a Democrat in Congress, I’d boycott attending. However, I don’t expect a critical mass of Democrats will do this, as they proved in the 2014 election that they are quite spineless.
  • On the allegation in David Alexrod’s new book that President Obama hid his support for gay marriage in the 2008 campaign: no duh! It was clear to us Democrats that he was for gay marriage, but he felt it was too dangerous to say so publicly at the time as it would have adversely affected his campaign. What was evolving was not his opinions, but the American people’s opinions. He was waiting for us to catch up. So, yes, he was being disingenuous, but no more than most politicians. In fact, most of the Republicans who claim to be upset about gay marriage really don’t care too much about it either; they just don’t want to upset their base, or really what the think is their base, i.e. the noisy (i.e. politically active) ones.
  • On funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February: in the end Republicans will cave, probably sooner rather than later. Even if the House bill gets out of the Senate, which won’t happen, the President will veto it. The egg won’t be on Obama’s face as it plays out, because Americans overwhelmingly support his interim steps for immigration reform. So this is a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans will probably go for a series of 30 day funding mechanisms, until enough of them realize it just makes them look stupid, and then they’ll capitulate.
  • On the Obama Administration’s hope that a reinvigorated Iraqi army — with plenty of American advisors safely out of firing range to act as coaches –will retake Mosul from ISIS: it ain’t going to happen. The Iraqi army is a joke because there is no country called Iraq and because more desertions happen monthly than recruits coming in. What there is is a marginally governable country that should be called Shi’ite Iraq. To the extent that they will retake land it will be in traditionally Shi’ite dominated areas of that former country. What’s really happening is what I predicted in 2006: Iraq is being fractured into a number of religiously orthodox and ethnically pure countries: Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State. It won’t be external forces that kill the Islamic State. It will be resistance from within when residents get sick of the overwhelming terror and (worse) the paucity of first world services like satellite TV. Neighboring countries will try to nudge this to happen sooner rather than later by making living in the IS more undesirable. The IS will either have to adopt into something marginally politically acceptable in the Middle East or it will eventually die a natural death. A state that does not operate like a state, i.e. with some uniformity and ability to provide basic services, is not a real state. I doubt it will be around five years from now regardless of what is done or not done.
  • On the reemergence of diseases like measles because certain parents can’t or won’t get their children immunized: never underestimate the power of shame and conformity. Americans are all for freedom until someone else’s freedom hurts their kids. If just one kid dies in America because someone kid’s parent refused to get their kid immunized, the remaining states will quickly fall in line and require all children to be inoculated against preventable diseases. The only question is where the set point is these days, as most Americans have no living memory of mass diseases like the measles. Smart Republican politicians are already walking back their talking points because disease knows no political boundaries. The parents of a Republican kid who comes down with the measles will be just as pissed-off Democratic parents in this situation, once they get over their own shame. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, particularly when we are certain that immunizations are safe and effective.
  • On the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as our next president: I am not convinced. The more I study her, the more things I find to dislike about her. The more Americans focus on her and the more they study her, the more that have second thoughts as well. If Republicans were smart, they would nominate a mainstream woman to run against her, perhaps Carly Fiorina to help negate the frustration by women that we never had a female president. Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans usually go stupid when picking a nominee. Still, a convincing mainstream Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Indiana Governor Mike Pence could win in 2016. That’s what the sensible establishment Republicans are figuring, which is why they are throwing money into PACs for Jeb and trying to make him the likely nominee. If Clinton stumbles, right now the Democrats best bet is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, because he is known for crossing the aisles and for taking unpopular positions, assuming Webb does not try a third party route. That’s credibility, and it’s what Americans are desperately looking for. I don’t expect though that Democrats will be in the mood to go with a mainstream candidate.
 
The Thinker

What should marriage mean anyhow?

Barring a surprise from the Supreme Court later this year, it is likely that same sex marriage will be legal throughout the entire United States by the end of 2015. This train seems unstoppable. Thirty-five states now permit gay marriage. There are lawsuits by litigants protesting bans in all the remaining states. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does allow states to ban gay marriages, it probably won’t allow states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. This would effectively mean that the only extra cost for same sex couples wanting to get married would be to go to a state that does recognize same sex marriage and marry there, presumably a minor inconvenience. Here in Virginia, which still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage that was subsequently voided by decisions by federal courts, I noticed that the state’s tax forms this year includes changes that allow married same sex couples to file as a married couple. This is progress!

Mostly absent from the same sex marriage discussion is what does it mean to be married. Those of us who are married have already figured this out: it means exactly what the two people involved in the marriage want it to mean. If, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, you interpret your marriage contract to mean you cannot sit on a sofa with any adult woman other than your wife, go for it. Similarly, if you and your spouse want to have a completely open marriage where either of you can screw whoever you want whenever you want (with presumably the requirement to inform your spouse first) it can be this as well. In fact, a marriage can be anything the two in the marriage agree it will be, and even stuff they don’t agree it will be if it is tacitly permitted. It ends with a legal divorce. Thankfully, there is no requirement for a marriage inspector to pay periodic visits to determine that you are being monogamous or that you actually live together. This is in effect what marriage has always meant, at least here in the United States for the last hundred years or so.

What should the meaning of marriage be? In some respects the question is hypothetical because what it should be and what it actually is for a couple are often two different things. There are two aspects to this question. First, it should mean whatever it means to the couple based on their agreement or expectations going into the marriage. Hopefully, they will have had many long conversations about this before they tie the knot, ideally facilitated through premarital counseling. Both of them should have a common understanding. Ideally, it would be written down somewhere so that either can refer to it, or to renegotiate the terms from time to time. Many couples choose to have prenuptial agreements that give the force of law to certain aspects of their marriage.

The other aspect is what should the meaning of marriage be to civil society at large? As same sex marriage opponents like to point out, traditionally marriage existed to provide a legal framework for children to be raised. Before looking at what is should be, let’s look at what marriage is for society.

At least here in the United States, marriage offers no particular tax advantages. In fact most married couple discover they pay more taxes as a married couple than they did as two single people combined. You can claim your children as dependents, providing you actually pay for their care. However, you can take this claim outside the framework of marriage if you pay support for pretty much anyone who is your legal dependent. There are legal privileges to being married, and they vary from state to state. For example, if you are married you are generally assumed to be the first “next of kin”. There are also contractual obligations that come with marriage. In most cases you are libel for debts incurred by your spouse.

There are certain financial advantages to marriage as well. Health insurance may be cheaper if procured for a couple instead of individually. The biggest financial advantage of marriage probably comes from sharing housing. It’s much cheaper for two people to inhabit one household than for two people to maintain separate households. Two unmarried people can of course “shack up” and achieve similar savings, if the zoning allows this, but with less likelihood that these savings could be sustained over many years.

But what should marriage mean to society at large? As with the people in a marriage, it will mean whatever government thinks it should mean. Of course, society’s expectations for marriage often vary widely from the actual consequences of marriage. This is borne out in divorce and domestic abuse statistics. Society should expect that married couples will have nurturing and healthy relationships, and because of this it will make society in general better. Society should expect that due to marriage, children of married couples should be happier and healthier than children raised in a single parent household. Crime rates for these households should be lower. Of course, at best the empirical data to support all this is mixed, although there is good evidence that crime rates are lower in general in communities where people own their homes compared to rental communities. In general though the expectation is that marriage should promote societal harmony and prosperity. This does imply though that society would be less of these if no one ever married. I doubt this argument could be empirically validated either. A lot of people get married thinking they will be happier. When they try it they often find out they were happier as singles. In truth, living with the same person for many years is more often harder than easy, at least compared with who you were before the marriage.

For me, I think that marriage should mean that two people are happier living together than apart; otherwise there is no point to being married. For society, if it actually promotes societal harmony then marriage should enjoy legal protections. The evidence here is mixed, to say the least. I don’t believe that the state should give special privileges to married couples, such as tax breaks, because it discriminates against single people. However, I see nothing wrong with society sanctioning marriage because it allows two people to have greater happiness. We formed the United States in part to allow each person to pursue happiness. If civil marriage can facilitate a sense of intimacy and closeness between two people, it’s a worthy thing for government to sanction.

Beyond that marriage should mean very little to society at large, the same way that my neighbor five doors down’s marriage means little to me personally. In short, I think marriage should mean a great deal to those who are married. For the most part though marriage should mean a lot less to society at large than we ascribe to it. Those obsessing about it should just take a chill pill.

 
The Thinker

The real price of discrimination

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.

 

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