Sunday, December 31, 2017

2018: The Fire Next Time

It's New Year's Eve.  It's been an exhausting year.  It has, at times, been a very happy year.  But, for the most part, it feels like it has been a year of survival.

I am deeply grateful for two things, both of them grandchild-related.  My oldest granddaughter, who suffers from a series of congenital heart defects, had her third and hopefully final round of open-heart surgery this year, and came through it very well, thanks to the truly amazing physicians and medical staff of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.  She started kindergarten this past fall and, apart from a need for extra napping, she is doing very well in it.  Her life going forward is going to be a series of challenges.  But she is strong and brave and smart, and I'm grateful for each chance I get to spend with her and her younger sister.

And they welcomed a cousin into the world a little under two weeks ago!  So I now have a grandson to go along with my granddaughters.  They truly are the consolation of my later years, as well as my wife's later years.  I look forward to getting to know him better over the coming year.

It has also been a year of disappointment on other fronts.  This past fall, I was forced to resign from the board of a non-profit organization for which I had enjoyed the privilege of doing a lot of good work.  The resignation was forced by circumstances beyond my control, and finding peace about that fact has taken a while.  Frankly, it is still taking a while.  But I believe I'll get there.

I find myself still wondering when I'm going to settle down and fixate on one type of work.  I still want to be a lawyer, an actor, a preservationist, and a producer.  That's in no particular order.  I'm frankly not sure what I'm meant to be known for.  I'm 61, and I still can't figure it out.  My wife tells me that what stands out about me is versatility.  Perhaps she's right about that.  Maybe I'm not a starting outfielder or ace of the pitching staff.  Maybe I'm more of a relief specialist or a utility player; more of a Bob Bailor than a Jim Palmer or Tom Seaver.  If you can't forgive the baseball references, I'll understand.

As for politics, and the nation?

I think that it's been just about as bad as I expected it to be, with Trump and the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress.  But, lately, I've also been thinking about something else.

I was reading this article on the Mother Jones Web site, about how decades of fire suppression have made the recent wildfires in California more intense and more deadly.  I think there's a political metaphor to be found in that fact.

For almost 40 years, we have suppressed the destiny of this nation to become a more perfect union, to promote the general welfare as well as to provide for the common defense, to ensure justice and tranquility, to secure the future for our posterity.  We have stood all of these ideals on their heads, in favor of an Orwellian formulation that claims that tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves, that spanning the globe with weapons ensures peace, and that freedom of religion is really the freedom of one religion to persecute all others.

And, ironic though it may be to do so, I am forced to ask a question, one that I think the next Democratic presidential candidate should ask in the final presidential debate in 2020:

Are you better off now than you were 40 years ago?  For that matter, is America better off now than it was 40 years ago.

I think the response to that is going to be a prairie fire of populist, progressive activity such as we have not seen in almost a century.  And I think that the Republicans would be well advised to work with it, rather than suppress it, lest its energy become destructive and turn violent.  That, to borrow a phrase, is not a threat, but an unfortunate truth.

Because 40 or so years of reactionary Republican politics has pushed this 21st century back into the 19th.  Don't believe me?  Consider the fact that we have turned public welfare benefits into a slush fund for local politicians.  Or the fact that we can now allow public officials to throw people in jail because they are poor.  Or that employers can allow employees to die in unsafe working conditions, and get little more than a slap on the wrist.

Is it any wonder that, at long last, there are signs that the Trump voters are finally waking up?  And, when I say signs, I mean quite literally signs.

And is it any wonder that Trump himself feels embattled, with every day a matter of political survival?

For that matter, it's not just Trump who's in danger, it's his party as well.  Again, for the past 40 years, the party of millionaires has managed to fool people into thinking that it is really the party of working-class Americans.  But there are signs that the end of that masquerade may very well be at hand.  Maybe it doesn't help to go around talking about paying for your investor-class tax cuts by cutting Social Security and Medicare.  Maybe it also doesn't help if the party is in the middle of its own civil war over whether or not to support its own president.

That's why it's no longer time to be afraid of talking about impeachment.  Impeachment, as this author says, is just another way of correcting a mistake.  In this case, a colossal one.

And it's no longer time to be afraid of the progressive wildfire.  It will come, whether American wants it to come or not, because America needs it, or America will die.  It may die anyway, if we make the wrong response to it.

I'm betting we won't make that mistake.  I'm counting on it.  For my grandchildren, and for yours.

Happy New Year to all of you.  Thanks for reading THR.  May 2018 bring you all the blessings you deserve.

Who Does New York Really Belong To Now?

In a former and much younger life, when I had the good fortune to live in New York City (first as a student intern, and then as a civil servant), I think that what I enjoyed about it most, apart from the arts scene, was the feeling back then that the city could feel like home to anyone, regardless of background or income level.  That feeling was, in part, a reflection of the liberal tenor of New York politics.  The predominantly Democratic leadership of the City and State, and even many of its Republican politicians, understood that diversity was the key to making New York both a cultural and economic mecca.

Not so much anymore, I'm afraid.

Twenty years of Republican mayors (yes, Bloomberg was technically an independent) have shifted New York politics very far to the right.  Not quite all the way; the city's progressive constituencies are far too powerful for that.  But far enough that the cityscape is being rapidly remade to suit the needs of the 1%, with very little regard for anyone else.

Almost every day, there are Gotham press stories about some new, faceless glass tower, usually with a highfalutin' name (One Impressive Tower, or something like that), replacing spaces where people from all walks of life lived, worked, and made things a little bit better for everyone around them.  And who lives in the faceless towers?  Very often, no one.  They are little more than tax shelters for overseas investors, looking for gains in the almost always overheated Manhattan real estate market.  And the people who used to live in the spaces occupied by the newer buildings?  Where do they go?  It's doubtful that they go anywhere in the City; almost nothing is affordable.  You can track the progress of the demolition (oh, irony!) by visiting Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, if you can stand the pain of doing so.

It has, in fact, gotten so bad that the city is literally joining in the process of making itself disappear, selling pieces of itself off to private investors in exchange for a few short-term shekels in in coffers.  What happens when it runs out of space to sell?  Who will effectively be in charge of the city then?  Does anybody care?  Is anybody there? (with apologies to the authors of "1776").

I'd like to think that there's enough people to care that something can be done about it.  But, clearly, New Yorkers can no longer look to the Democratic Party for leadership on the issue of New York's livability.  Bill de Blasio is apparently what passes now for a liberal New York Democratic mayor now, but he seems to be little more than a servant of real estate interests.

It's up to you, New Yorkers.  Fight however you can, to save the City for everybody.  Including former residents and current tourists.  Like me.

Taking Income Inequality Into Their Own Hands

My blogging this year has, admittedly, been relentlessly negative.  Given the current state of our political and economic system, it's been difficult if not impossible to be anything else.  But I haven't given up on the people of this country, because I try to never lose sight of the fact that, in spite of the electoral mistakes that many of them make, over and over again, they (for the most part) still deserve better than what they get out of the horror show that masquerades as our government.

So, in the spirit of every-one-in-a-while-sharing-something positive, I offer this.

It's a campaign called Cards Against Humanity Saves America, sponsored and operated by the creators of a card game called Cards Against Humanity.  But, in fact, funded by you.  Or some of you.  Or, perhaps potentially, all of you.

The CAHSA campaign has several phases, as can be seen from its Web site.  One phase involved buying a piece of land that would be needed for Trump's proposed border wall, and then hiring a law firm to ensure that it is tied up forever in proceedings to prevent it from being condemned for the wall.  Yet another phase involves promoting alternatives to traditional homework, something I'm all in favor of, and that I wish had been around back in the day.

But the most interesting phase to me, and the part that has the greatest impact in the short run, and possibly the long run, is the effort to redistribute wealth from the campaign's richest subscribers to its poorest.  You can read about it in detail here.  And, when you do, please pay close attention to the stories of the fortunate recipients, and realize how big even a relatively small financial blessing can be.

This campaign, all by itself, of course is not going to solve the problem of inequality.  It's not really trying to.  What it ultimately hopes to do is to use small-scale change efforts to promote larger ones in the system as a whole, by reminding us that our problems are ultimately only as hopeless as the willingness of people to do something about them.  Yes, at some point, in order to make a real difference, there has to be systemic change.  But we didn't get into this mess in the first place by a small number of dramatic efforts, but through a large number of little ones.  If you read enough history, you realize that's largely how big changes take place, through little ones that lay the foundation for them.

Yes, organize, donate and vote next year, and every year there's an election.  But, in between, never forget that the power to change the world is always in one place.  In your hands.

Pandering To Those Who Await The End Of The World

Donald Trump operates at such a rapid-fire pace that it's almost impossible for anyone, including me, to keep track of all of his misdeeds.  That's actually a cardinal operating rule not only of the hard right in this country, but around the world:  do so many bad things that people can't keep up with them, and you'll at the very least get away with a large number of them.  How many of you, for example have heard about this?  Sounds like the sort of United States that you were taught to believe in during civics or social studies classes?  Sounds like the sort of thing a Democratic president would try, or get away with if he/she did?  But, for Trump, it's just another day in what is paradise for him, and Hell for the rest of us.

And, speaking of paradise ...

Trump's decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ostensibly, is about pleasing the corrupt government of Benjamin Netanyahu as well as neoconservatives in this country, who believe every penny of your tax dollars, including the ones that go for Social Security, should go for the defense of Israel, a country that possesses over 100 nuclear weapons and is in no danger from anyone except the Palestinians, whom they have basically imprisoned behind a wall that simply adds fuel to the emotional fire of suicide bombers.  Trying to build two nations on land to which both Jews and Palestinians have legitimate claims is, apparently, no longer an option, so long as oppressing the Palestinians works.  Thousands of years of history forbids me from saying good luck to that.

But, as I said, it's only ostensibly about all of that.

It's really about pleasing the true core of Trump's domestic base:  evangelical Christians.  Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, from their perspective, is just one more sign, according to a very cramped and not entirely honest reading of the book of Revelation in the New Testament, that the end times and Jesus are all coming, and they won't have to lift a finger to make their lives or anyone else's better, because G-d's going to take care of all of that.  So much for believing that G-d helps those who help themselves.  That's hard work.  Easier to believe that G-d's going to do it all, and all you have to do is trust and believe.

It's why I'm grateful not to be a part of that world anymore.  But it's why I worry about the world you and I wake up in.  Trump and his evangelical friends may yet succeed in blowing it up.  And they don't care.  Which is why you should care--and organize, donate, and vote in the new year.

John Anderson, Perhaps The Ultimate "Spoiler"

Nil nisi bonum. Say nothing but good about the dead. It is a maxim I try to honor in all circumstances. And yet, I have not always done so. Some circumstances, for me, don't seem to justify applying it. And some people, in particular, don't seem to warrant it.  Consider the case of the recently-deceased John Anderson, a one-time Republican Representative from Illinois who is mostly remembered for his run as an independent presidential candidate against then-President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

It is not entirely fair to remember Anderson exclusively for that campaign. He was a moderate-to-liberal Republican back in a now-almost-forgotten time when it was possible to be one and not be stormed by a crowd of people from within your own party armed with torches and pitchforks.  Although he was a fierce critic of Carter, he was also nevertheless capable of cooperating with him, as he showed when he supported Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union after that nation's invasion of Afghanistan.  And he was an early voice among Republicans in predicting doom for the party if it let its most extreme elements take it over--something that, sadly, he lived long enough to see happen.

But, no less sadly, he also enabled it to a significant degree with his presidential campaign.  He drew Democratic support away from Carter in a close and often volatile race--support that, had it been consolidated early in Carter's favor, might have helped him to run a more successful campaign against Reagan.  Reagan, ultimately, won with an enormous majority in the Electoral College, but a minuscule majority in the popular vote.  In truth, even with the deliberate effort by the Republicans to sabotage the election by delaying the return of the Iranian hostages, it was an election that Carter could have won.

And what a different world we might be living in if we had.  We would have had both sound fiscal and monetary policy.  Universal health insurance.  A steady stream of progressive accomplishments, without the bigotry and con artistry of the hard right, which might very well have ceased forever to be a major force in American politics.  And absolutely, positively, no Donald Trump in the White House.

Yes, hindsight is always 20-20, and their have been other opportunities over the years to derail the rise of the Republican extremism.  But, if not for Anderson, there would have been no need for those opportunities.  There would have been more positive ones--more opportunities to build a better America.

What was there to spoil, Mr. Anderson?  Plenty.  And you helped.  Rest in peace anyway.

A "Dirty Way" To Save Our Planet?

In my previous post, I mentioned the role that energy science can play in promoting economic growth through the development of new industries that can help to replace departed industrial jobs.  The truth is that the potential for this goes far beyond alternative energy for transportation.  It has the potential to do much more--among other things, benefit our ability to feed ourselves as well as the rest of the world.

This New York Times article provides one example of how this can be done.  It explains how carbon can be found not only in our air, oceans, trees and fossil fuels, but in the soil itself.  In fact, as a consequence of several millenia of farming, much of our farmlands have been heavily depleted of carbon, which is needed if the land is going to be continued in use for agriculture.  This depletion is in part a consequence of the overuse of synthetic-based forms of fertilizer, which contain no carbon.  But now, according to the article, scientists are looking at ways to use soil as a vehicle for sequestering large amounts of carbon. 

Some of this effort is taking the form of research into technology that would literally pull carbon out of the air.  Some of this technology already exists, and I think that the potential for expanding the role that it can play in our future is a potentially existing one.  The author of the article takes a somewhat different view of the potential that these technologies possess.  He dismisses it as "geoengineering" with "a high likelihood of disastrous unintended consequences."  He prefers a focus on the use of traditional natural resources--manure and compost--as a way of recapturing carbon from other parts of our environment and sequestering it in the soil.  He even makes the case that cattle, and the manure they produce, may play a role in this process, effectively taking a trope away from conservative efforts to mock climate science.

I certainly am not opposed to more natural methods of farming in any case, especially if the net effect of that is to reverse the effects of climate change and save the planet.  If that's a way that we can have an immediate impact, then I'm all for it.  However, just as Obama believed in going "all-in" on everything when it comes to developing sustainable forms of energy production, I'm a big believer in going "all-in" when it comes to the potential for sequestering carbon, especially if we can put it into places where it can do more good than harm, like our soil.  So-called "geoengineering" may very well help us do that. 

I can't help but feel that the author's take on this stems from a fear of large-scale scientific innovation, like nuclear energy, that ultimately may have done more harm than good.  While I understand and respect that perspective, fear of science is not going to help us get out of the mess that, admittedly, science helped us to create in the first place.  Every possible solution has to be on the table, especially now that we've waited this long to do anything major at all.

Whether we use new or old methods, if the best way is a "dirty way," then by all means let's follow it.  Time is no longer on our side.

Electric Cars: The Future Is Already Here

One of the most successful aspects of the Obama Administration was its ability to jump-start the alternative energy movement--in fact, transforming it from a movement into an actual business.  A short time ago, cars that ran only or largely on fossil-fuel energy were the norm, and anything else was science fiction.

Well, science fiction is now science fact.  Not only are hybrid vehicles like the Prius a standard part of the automotive landscape (I now own my second one), but all-electric cars are slowly beginning to nudge them and their gas-powered ancestors out of the mainstream of motoring.  According to a recent article in the Guardian, electric cars already cheaper to own and operate than cars that run on gas.  And, while this is due in part to the existence of subsidies, the current expectation is that, in just a few years, they will still retain their cost advantage over fossil-fuel-powered vehicles even without the subsidies.  Science fiction is now science fact.

This has the potential not only to protect the environment, but also to revolutionize the economy.  As uses for alternative energy expand beyond transportation, jobs can be created in areas where traditional forms of heavy industry have vanished.  Initially, those jobs will require subsides, but eventually, they will help to create new local economies that will thrive in part on lower economic costs from cheaper, more abundant energy.  It could very well be the case that these new economies focus on other forms of sustainable development, such as using crops and other forms of plant life to create new raw materials for heavy and light industries.

What is not a part of the future, in any case, is fossil fuel, and the underground fossils that are used to make them.  Throw aside the questions of air pollution and climate change, as our foolish (fuelish?) excuse for a President has done, out of ignorance and his racially-motivated hatred of his predecessor.  And then, consider this:  does it make sense to build an economy on resources that have a finite supply to begin with?  Perhaps more to the point, does it make sense to build an economy on those resources when there is every reason to think that we are perhaps no more than a generation from running out of them?

If your answer is yes, I can only assume that you must be a stockholder in a fossil-fuel company.  And, hopefully, there aren't enough of you to stand in the way of the only future we have.  Better that you should get out of the way--or, better yet, get on the right track, by investing in industries and research that promotes sustainable economic development.

If nothing else, buy a Prius.  They're great cars.  And they offer a taste of the future.

A Refusal To Compromise "DREAMS"

Ever since Donald Trump, by way of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced an end to the Obama-era policy of deferred prosecution of U.S.-born children to undocumented parents, commonly known as DACA, there has been a political scramble to address the problem Trump effectively created by taking this step, one that had no positive practical effect except to throw a hefty slice of red meet to his immigrant-hating base.

In the case of congressional Republicans who have at least an inkling that Trump's decision may create serious political problems for some of their colleagues in the short one, ones with Hispanic bases, and all of them in the long run, as the population of the country as a whole shifts to a point at which whites are a minority, they understand that they need to engage on the issue.  In the case of Democrats, of course, for both political and humanitarian reasons, they want a legislative solution that will protect not only all of the children in question, but also their spouses, parents, and minor siblings, by providing them with  the ability to obtain permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship.  This is why Democrats have, for several years, consistently sponsored the DREAM Act, which would do all of these things.

Unfortunately, the Republicans want to take a Christmas-tree approach to negotiating on this issue, in much the same way as they did with their recent, so-called "tax reform" bill.  They only want to grant protections for those who formally enrolled in the DACA program, about 800,000, and not all of the 3-million plus who are or were eligible to participate in it. They are unwilling to do anything to protect the family members of DREAMers.  They want to drastically curtail the ability of family members, and other residents of foreign countries, to obtain permanent residency into the United States, paving the path for a so-called "merit-based" system ("merit," of course, should be effectively translated as "money").  Above all, they want a series of draconian enforcement measures put into place--above and beyond all, Trump's proposed wall along the southern border, which is neither physically practical nor otherwise cost-effect in promoting security.

Democrats, unfortunately sound like they're prepared to cave on some or perhaps all of this.  They have a disturbing habit of going into negotiations looking needy, instead of tough.  And there's no reason to do, especially since DREAMers are strongly in favor of an all-or-nothing approach to this issue.  As are other members of the Democratic coalition.

So, Chuck and Nancy, here's my pitch.  Grow a pair of spines.  Stand up for the people who vote for you and give you money.  Don't take a deal that's less than your supporters are asking for.  And, if you have to, take the "Christmas tree" approach yourself.  Take the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill that House Republicans didn't get a chance to vote on, tweak it a bit, and say "It's THIS or nothing."

And then see what matters more to Republicans:  their beloved Trump, or the potential future voters for their party.

Facing The Truth About Puerto Rico

It's past time to re-visit Puerto Rico.  Not for business or pleasure, because the island can't handle either one of those things right now.  It's time to revisit the subject of Puerto Rico simply for the sake of basic humanity.

Hopefully, you recall Hurricane Maria from earlier this year, which devastated the island and its people, reducing its living standard to something close to prehistoric levels.  All of the things we take for granted in our lives here on the mainland--food, water, shelter, medical attention, power--can still only be brought in from the mainland, months after the hurricane swept over the island.

And months after Donald Trump visited the island, allegedly to boost the morale of the people and talk about plans for providing them with practical help.  To take care of the former, he threw rolls of paper towels into the crowds of hurricane victims who had come to see him, which made me think he'd taken those old "Bounty" commercials a little bit too literally.  To take care of the latter, he largely talked about what a great job Puerto Ricans were doing to take care of themselves, keeping the death rate well below what it might otherwise have been.  In hindsight, this seems like a pretext for doing much less for Puerto Rico than the needs of its residents dictated, by any basic standard of decency.  Trump had already dragged his feet on providing them aid and, unbelievably, is still doing so.

And the result?

Although the official death toll on Puerto Rico from Maria is 64, the actual death toll is well over a thousand.  That's because the official death toll does not take into account the post-hurricane spike in deaths that, officially, were attributed to natural or medical causes, but were probably triggered by the sudden lack of resources, or anything resembling normal day-to-day life when many people who needed help either could have gotten it on their own, or with the help of friends or family members.

It's all right here.

In the early days after Maria hit, Trump blathered a lot about the difficulties of providing aid to Puerto Rico because it was "an island" (as though he was the first person to discover that fact).  And yet, he refused to waiver a provision of federal law that would have allowed aid from other countries to arrive more quickly.  It's easy enough to attribute his indifference to the future of Puerto Rico to racism, which seeps out of every pore of his Administration.  But what about the rest of us?  What are we doing or not doing, especially in a season of giving, to help?  And why?  And why has the so-called mainstream media largely turned its backs on this story?

We should all try hard to answer these questions, going into the New Year.  And we should all make damned sure we come up with the right answers.  Here is one way to do it.  I pray that you will take advantage of it.

Monday, December 25, 2017

When A Cake Is More Than A Cake

Recently, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that, in one sense, was probably inevitable in the wake of its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case whose decision recognized a constitutional right to marriage equality.  Jack Phillips, the proprietor of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on the grounds that, as a Christian, he was spiritually opposed to their union and did not want to be force to do something that was tantamount to celebrating it. 

In so doing, Phillips he relied on the First Amendment in two respects.  He believes that making a wedding cake for a same-sex couple violates his right to free speech, by forcing him to communicate a message he would not freely choose to communicate on his own.  He also believes that making such a cake violates his right to freely exercise his religion, by forcing him to participate in a inherently religious ceremony in which he would not freely choose on his own to participate.

It's not surprising that Phillips' cause has drawn a large number of supporters.  Same-sex marriage may be the law of the land, but, as is also the case with the right to an abortion, which the Court recognized in Roe v. Wade, that doesn't prevent the law of the land from being highly divisive in the court of public opinion.  However, not everyone in Phillips' camp is an opponent of marriage equality. 

Take, for example, this recent article from the New York Daily News by two law professors, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Phillips' argument before the Supreme Court.  In the article, the authors state their support for the Obergefell decision, but essentially agree with Phillips' First Amendment argument.  Their support is based in part on what they see as an inconsistent position on the part of state regulators that permitted bakers to refuse to make cakes with Biblical quotes against homosexuality, but ruled against Phillips' refusal to serve the same-sex couple.  They see this situation as one that involves a need for the Court to balance the rights on both sides, and that this balance could be struck with a "narrowly tailored" opinion--although it's worth noting that they do not specify what the narrow tailoring should look or sound like.

Perhaps it's just as well that they don't.  Without questioning the sincerity of Phillips' position, his basic argument, upon closer examination, falls apart like a cake too quickly removed from the oven.

Let's start with the freedom-of-speech argument.  Speech implies communication, which in turn implies a message.  Phillips could have argued that any sale to the couple of any of his products for the purpose of celebrating their wedding would have required him to communicate a message he didn't wish to communicate.  But he didn't do that.  He offered to sell the couple anything else but a cake, without restricting how those other products could be used.  He could, in fact, just as easily offered to bake them a cake with no actual wedding-related details--no writing at all, no same-sex couple as a "topper"--and Colorado officials would have accepted that, because there was no message, Biblical or otherwise.  The couple, for that matter, could have gone out and added their own "topper" to communicate what the cake meant to them.

Likewise, the freedom of religion argument cannot be sustained under a more detailed analysis.  To begin with, marriage is a civil institution, and not a religious one, one that predates the start of the Christian religion.  It is this fundamental aspect of marriage that has always given the state the power to regulate it in the first place.  In any event, the portion of a wedding that is religious in nature is the ceremony itself--in which the cake places no part.  The cake is simply the focal point of the reception after the ceremony, in which any religious content is minimal or incidental in any case.

And, ultimately, to apply a little Gertrude Stein analysis to this, a cake is a cake.  It conveys no message.  It does not play an essential role in worship of a deity or observance of a faith.  It is, fundamentally, an object in commerce, being made available to all comers through a business which Phillips has made open to the public and through which he was, in fact, willing to sell products to the same-sex couple even after he knew that fact about them, without any restrictions on how those other products could be used.  In other words, Phillips' business is a public accommodation, subject to regulation by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires that "[a]ll persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation."

This puts Phillips, in my view, in the position of wanting to have the benefits of being a public accommodation--i.e., maximizing his profits and income, which he has every right to do--but nevertheless using that business to promote a message that even he concedes is against public policy and the law of the land.  As it is, he has responded in the context of his business to the controversy by no longer making wedding cakes.

This seems to me to be sadly unnecessary.  Why not just make wedding-style cakes that can be used for a variety of occasions, whether they are marriages or not?  Let the purchaser decide how the cake is to be used, and whether any additional "message" needs to be added to it.  As noted here in another Daily News article about the case, once the cake leaves the business, the maker/seller ceases to have any right of control over how it is used.

I am sadly left with the view that Phillips, or someone backing him, wants the lawsuit more than he wants an accommodation like the one the law professors suggest that this situation needs.  They want a decision by the highest court in the land that will help, incrementally, to chip away at the right recognized in the Obergefell case.  Sadly, that attitude is of a piece with the overall state of our nation.  No one seeks to reconcile their differences for the sake of forming a more perfect union.  They would rather use those differences as instruments of oppression.  We are all guilty of this, to some degree, but we seem to have no way out of the dilemma we've created for ourselves.  All we can agree on here, apparently, is that a cake is more than a cake.  And that does not speak well for the future of what may soon be the formerly United States.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Doug Jones: A Turning Point For Alabama, And America?

If, on or about December 12, you saw a flock of pigs hovering over Hell filling up ice buckets, I wouldn't be surprised.  I didn't, but I did see something that seemed, as recently as the day before December 12, every bit as likely an event:

A Democrat winning a statewide election, one that puts him in the U.S. Senate for the next four years.  And not a conservative Democrat, either.  One that supports the ACA.  Hell, one that openly supports abortion rights.

Seriously, this was not supposed to happen.  That's why Donald Trump felt so confident about plucking Jeff Sessions away from this Senate seat and making him Attorney General.  There was no danger of seeing this seat and its vote disappearing from the Republican Senate caucus.  Not at the beginning of this year, anyway.

But then, the rest of the year happened.  Day by day, Trump demonstrated what the majority of voters knew in 2016:  that, by temperament, intelligence, and experience, he was utterly unfit to be President of a washroom, let alone of the United States.  Even in a state as ruby-red as Alabama, his popularity had cratered badly.

And then, for Democrats and Republicans alike, the unexpected happened in the form of Judge Roy Moore as the Republican nominee to take Sessions' place.  A man twice removed from his post on the Alabama Supreme Court.  A man who, nevertheless, embodied the tastes the older-white-evangelical-rural vote that not only allowed Trump to put together an Electoral College majority, but has been, in fact, the backbone of the "Southern Strategy" that has allowed the Republican Party to dominate American politics for the past 40 years.  A man who, for a time, appeared to be a shoe-in, even against a well-qualified opponent like Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan in federal court.

Until he was no longer a shoe-in, due to the revelation of an earlier-in-his-life predilection for dating underage young women, some of who accused him of sexual assault.  Suddenly, it became a lot harder for white, rural, older evangelical voters to identify with Moore.  A lot of them did so anyway, unfortunately; Jones' victory over Moore was, in the end, only by a handful of percentage points.  But, given that it wasn't supposed to happen at all, that scarcely matters.

Was Moore's morally compromised past the only reason he lost?  No doubt it was the biggest one.  Alabama is still a Republican state; no one should talk about it being "purpled" just yet.  But that doesn't mean that Jones, and the Democrats, owe this victory entirely to serendipity.

For one thing, it turns out that the Democrats have developed a "Southern Strategy" of their own.

It depends in no small part on something Democrats should have done a long time ago, especially after Obama won the Presidency:  organizing the African-American vote, and making sure that it gets to the polls.  And starting that process at the beginning of the campaign, not adding it on at the end as an afterthought.  And understanding that the African-American vote includes, especially in a era in which women's needs have moved to the forefront of the public debate, African-American women.

That's a welcome sign.  The trick, however, for 2018 will be to keep that up, in every county in every state where any and every election will be taking place.  And making sure that, once in office, the Democrats who are elected as a consequence of this organizing deliver for the African-American communities.  Otherwise, you're going to see a lot more stories like this one--and there will be far fewer Democratic victories like Jones'.

There's a second prong to this "Southern Strategy" as well, however, and it borrows from the Republican playbook:  white, suburban, moderate voters who are prepared to vote for candidates who look for politicians who practice bipartisanship to get things done.  Moore clearly was not that candidate, while Jones worked hard to make it clear to voters that he was.

Democrats have had success with suburban voters outside of the South, but Jones' election is perhaps the first sign that it might work inside of it as well.  Why the change?  Perhaps it is because of what Republicans have done to themselves and to their party in the age of Trump.  Some have tried to focus on conservatism as a movement of ideas, while others have focused on their need to keep the party identified with conservatism in power, even if that means accepting the reality of a moral reprobate at the apex of the party, as well as the country.  Make no mistake:  this split is threatening to tear the GOP, and perhaps the modern conservative movement, into shreds.

If that happens, it will give the Democrats an opportunity to reposition itself in the political perceptions of voters, as a left-center party that strongly advocates on behalf of all the people, not just its most loyal followers, and focuses on working cooperatively on the best ways to help everyone.  The fact that the current government of the nation is so reflexively conservative may make it easier for Americans to make that shift in perspective, as the Republicans' priorities (think of the recent tax bill) become more divorced from the lives of working-class voters, whether white- or blue-collar.  In effect, the Democrats could do, in the early 21st century, what the Republicans did in the late 20th--become the dominant American political party.

In any event, Jones' victory over Moore may prove to be a major turning point in national American politics.  Perhaps it does reflect my own, Newtonian view of politics:  that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Eight years of Obama led to a white-nationalist uprising that produced Trump; perhaps Trump is already, without realizing it, pushing the pendulum back in the other direction.  Just ask Will Smith, an unlikely but, in my opinion very accurate political commentator in this case.  And, of course, just ask Charles Blow of the New York Times, who has been on Trump's case from the very beginning, and understands our current politics as well as, if not better than, anyone else.

If nothing else, perhaps Jones' victory shows that, even in Alabama, people are just sick and tired of fighting with each other.  They've seen the price tag for all of this, and they don't like it.  Perhaps it is most poignantly summed up here.

Let's hope, and pray, that Jones' victory leads not just to a Democratic wave in 2018, but also a "democratic" one in which we start talking to each other again, and stop hating--or worse.

The GOP Congressional Majority Cares About Job Security--Namely, Its Own

Well, it only took Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McCONnell slightly less than a year to do it, but they finally did it.  One of their top legislative priorities--tax cuts--is now the law of the land.  For better or for worse.

Which one of those applies to you?  Well, it depends.  If you're a corporation, or a limited liability company, an investor whose income largely comes from passive investments (i.e., ones that require no work), an overseas investor, or just a member of the Lucky Sperm Club with the expectancy of a large inheritance, you should be doing somersaults from sea to shining sea.  The cuts you will get from the so-called Tax Cut and Jobs Act are easily large enough to justify all of the money you've spent since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision to buy up every branch of American government, lock, stock and barrel.

On the other hand, if you are the proverbial working stiff, if you are not part of the 1%, guess what you get?  Peanuts on the dollar.  You get a tax cut that, in the best-case scenario, will give you an extra thirty dollars a week!  Oooooh.  Feel it burning in your pocket already?

Well, if you don't, you should.  Because now I come to the fiscal heart of darkness when it comes to this rancid piece of so-called "tax reform."  It is not being financed by spending cuts, at least not up front (more on that later).  It is being financed by a conscious decision to increase the national debt by over 1 trillion dollars over the next decade.  That's right--the party of fiscal responsibility is opting for spendthrift practices in order to pay for this boondoggle.  But only in the short run.  Again, more on that later.

But who will really pay?  All of us.  Including you.  Because, real-world economics being the nasty thing that it is, an increase in government borrowing will lead to an increase in interest rates for everyone.  Including you.  That credit-card debt you have?  That auto loan you'd like to pay off as quickly as possible?  That mortgage you hope you can liquidate before your lender wakes up one morning and decides that it would be fun to foreclose on you, even though you've never been late even once on a payment?  Guess what?  Those interest rates are going up, up, UP.  In other words, you can kiss that extra thirty dollars a week bye-bye.

Oh, and did I mention that, in about five years or so, that thirty dollars a week is going to go away?  You see, in order to keep the national debt from exploding even more than it will under the new tax bill, the tax cuts for working stiffs expire in five years.  Go away.  Perhaps forever.  But this is OK, per Trump and his cronies, because politics in five years will prevent this from actually happening.  Yes, that's their argument.  Not mine.

In short, this tax bill works only for the investing class.  And why should that be a surprise?  The investing class now owns Congress.  And the members of the current congressional majority have one thing, and only one thing in common with you:  they want to keep their jobs, and they will do whatever they can to accomplish that.

That is reflected in the substance of this bill, much of which is targeted against Democratic constituencies, such as states with high taxes, universities, people who depend on the Affordable Care Act, and coastal areas devastated by ecological disasters.  Under this bill, those taxes and the cost of those disasters will be less deductible, the universities' endowments will be less sheltered from taxes, and ACA premiums will almost certainly go up, thanks to the bill's repeal of the individual mandate to buy insurance.  Take a look.  Take a look again.  And yet again.

Perhaps even worse, since it directly reflects the perversion of the legislative process by which all federal bills are enacted, the desperation of congressional Republicans to keep their jobs and their majority is reflected in the lack of process by which the bill made its way through the House and Senate.  Not only was much of the bill handwritten at the very last minute, but lobbyists had copies of proposed amendments before congressional Democrats had a chance to know that they existed, to say nothing of actually being able to read them.  Again, take a look.  In our constitutional form of government, due process is meant to be substantive as well as procedural.  Under the Republicans, due process is little more than a phrase.

As for all of that explosive job and wage growth that Trump keeps tweeting about, well, you can pretty much forget about that.  Your employers are planning to turn all of that extra money not into wages, but into dividends.  As for the jobs themselves, well, those are even less certain, I'm afraid.  Those are probably going to be automated out of existence, or shipped overseas, with the aid of the money that Congress has just voted to give to its donors--er, your employers.  One more time, take a look, and yet another one.

Putting this as simply as possible: Republicans in Congress are not on your side, but on the side of the investor/donor class.  Even the so-called "good ones," like Susan Collins of Maine, will lie to their constituents, even at the risk of facing their wrath.  As for the less-good-ones, like Charles Grassley of Iowa, they will simply elect to treat them with open contempt.

Repealing and replacing this rancid bill should be the first priority of the Democratic Congress that will be elected next year, along with initiating the process of impeaching Trump.  In fact, it has been suggested that, given the way in which the GOP used their bill as a Christmas tree on which to hang other legislative priorities, such as abortion and oil drilling, perhaps the Democrats should thank the Republicans for setting that precedent and erecting their own legislative Tannenbaum.  It would be a small step toward re-establishing a level playing field on behalf of the people for whom Congress is supposed to work.

Namely, you and me.  And we'd better hope that their is a Democratic Congress.  Because, otherwise, this is how the tax bill is going to be paid for.  Again, by you and me.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The New York Times: On Bended Knee To The Right Wing

This past week's controversy over an apparent attempt by the New York Times to "normalize" a young white man who has moved from leftist to libertarian to white nationalist without the slightest understanding of how he made these shifts made me think about a book that came out in 1988, toward the end of the Reagan presidency.  "On Bended Knee" described the success Reagan's media handlers had in de-fanging the post-Watergate Washington and national press.  Success, in fact, that was so remarkable that worship of the President replaced coverage of him and his Administration, and nearly allowed a number of major scandals to slip by without notice.

The Times was rightly called out for the profile of the young man (I'm not going to help the normalization by mentioning his name), which seemed long on trivial information about his life and unforgivably short on any attempt to analyze how he made his ideological journey.  Not only was the article decried by Times' readers, but the publicity the young man received for his rancid, uncritical views of Nazism and related subjects has cost him his job and his place of residence.  Frankly, good riddance.  There is no larger First Amendment advocate than me, but it is axiomatic and settled law that the First Amendment protects ideas.  And, as I have said previously and will say again and again until everyone agrees with me, hatred is not an idea.  It is not a philosophy, a policy, or a program.  It's just hatred, and it destroys everything it touches.

But the Times has always been fussy about being pilloried by the right as a leftist rag.  That's why it employs more than one conservative Op-Ed writer, even while its local right-wing counterpart, the New York Post, employs less than one.  (I won't even get into the Wall Street Journal.)  And that's why it publishes embarrassingly bad stories like the one about the white nationalist.

Just so you can be absolutely certain that said story is not an isolated case, consider the following piece not long ago about Ben Shapiro, a young conservative social media personality who enjoys carpet-bombing campuses with incendiary and dishonest rhetoric.  The Times' writer portrays Shapiro as a logician on the order of Plato or Darrow.  The one concrete example he gives of this, on the other hand, reveals him to be little better than a grade school bully, cutting off an audience member rather than giving her a chance to blow up his argument.

Giving the other side its props when it's due to do so is one thing; going out of one's way to praise them in the absence of praiseworthy characteristics is something else.  A paper of the relative importance of the Times would do well to remember that, if journalists focus on telling the truth without fear of doing so, the fair-and balanced thing will take care of itself.  Stop bending, and start reporting!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

An Update, And An Opportunity To Say "I Told You So" ...

... when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline and its predecessor.

By far, the single biggest argument against this monstrosity, apart from the fact that building it is not going to halt the end of the fossil-fuel age, us a problem common to all pipelines.  They leak.  Especially if they are not properly maintained, or constructed in the first place.  And when they leak, they release dangerous chemicals not only into sensitive natural landscapes, but even into areas with significant residential populations.  And, worst of all in the case of the original pipeline and its offspring, the Keystone XL, they leak oil from tar sands, the most toxic and dangerous oil from the standpoint of environmental and human contact.

None of this has ever mattered to the oil industry and the politicians that love it (and who get showered back with love, in the form of campaign contributions).  "Keystone is a job-producing machine!"  (It isn't.)  "Keystone will ensure our energy independence!"  (It won't; all of the oil flowing through it will ultimately end up overseas.)  And, worst of all, especially in light of recent events, "Keystone is being built so as to be absolutely safe!  Leaks, shmeaks!"

I'd like to think that this recent leak would be strike three, and that Keystone XL is finally put out of our misery.  But, as that well-known anti-Semitic Baltimorean, H.L. Mencken once wrote, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.  Even after this fiasco, an administrative board in Nebraska approved the final leg of the Keystone XL route through its state, although they did specify an alternative route that will require TransCanada, the pipeline's owners/builders, to use land they have not already acquired.  This apparently throws the pipeline's entire future into doubt, as it increases the cost of building the pipeline even as failing world oil prices sabotage the likelihood that TransCanada will ever profit from Keystone XL even if it is built.

Perhaps the good folks of Nebraska were attempting a sneaky form of sabotage of their own, rendering a decision that outwardly appeases political interests in a heavily Republican state, while effectively laying the economic groundwork for the entire Keystone XL project to collapse under the weight of the rancid, calculating thinking that launched it in the first place. Perhaps they remembered that their state is part of America's breadbasket, and that it would be social and economic suicide to endanger that breadbasket for the benefit of a Canadian company that wants to sell oil to China.  Perhaps they realized none of this, but did a good thing anyway.  It happens; life can be charmingly random like that.

In any case, regardless of why they did what they did, I hope it destroys Keystone XL.  Not just because it would tweak the noses of Donald Trump and other Republicans, but also because it would prove that, despite the election of Trump to the contrary, history hasn't lost its ability to destroy bad ideas.

Al Franken And John Conyers: Should They Go?

So, here we are, in the middle of the most intense political debate this country has ever had about sexual harassment of women.  And, on the partisan side of things, it looks like we might be headed to a draw.

Or, perhaps, much worse.

You would think that the Democratic Party, the party that has for decades made expanding opportunities for women a signature issue, the party that in fact actually nominated a woman as its Presidential candidates, would be leading the change on behalf of justice for abused women without fear or favor, in turn being able to count on election victory after election victory as a consequence.  Think about the background against which all of which is unfolding.  A Republican President who has no fewer than 19 sexual assault claims against him (and who knows how many others?).  A Republican candidate in a special U.S. Senate race, the outcome of which may be crucial to Senate control and avoiding a legislative shutout, exposed as a serial pedophile.  And who knows how many other GOP officials who are just waiting to be exposed, like this one?

Well, however many there are, it may not matter.  The Democrats seem to be on the verge of surrendering every inch of territory on an issue that they should be able to publicly own effortlessly.  The reasons can be summed up in two names:  Al Franken and John Conyers.

Franken's story has been in the media for several weeks now; Conyers' misdeeds, on the other hand, have come to light more recently.  But both of them, perhaps to varying degrees, have probably been bad actors in their treatment of women, based on the allegations against each of them.  (Let me be clear on one point; while the allegations at this point are precisely that in the legal sense, I believe the women, in no small part because, as I have noted in a previous post, I know that it takes no small degree of courage to come forward and demand accountability with regard to sexual assault.)  Conyers faces two accusers, including one with whom he reached a settlement paid for with public funds, while Franken is facing four.

And Conyers' story has been joined at the hip by a parallel story about non-disclosure agreements between members of Congress and those who have accused them of wrongdoing, raising additional questions about the potential misuse of taxpayer money and whether the public interest is served by such agreements.  Perhaps it says something about how jumbled the politics of all of this has become that I agree with the National Review that, at some point, these agreements should be voided in favor of the accusers and their rights to a public confrontation.

What the situation shared by Franken and Conyers holds in common for both men is the reality that it severely compromises the ability of Democrats to not only hold Donald Trump, Roy Moore, and other sketchy Republicans accountable for their sketchiness, but also to otherwise advance the interests of women across the country (and indirectly, perhaps, around the world).  Franken's situation, in particular, has provided several weeks of media fodder that has allowed Republicans to deflect, to some degree, the accusations against Moore in the special Senate race.

This latter fact has been part of the case that some journalists have made that Franken should leave the Senate immediately, even if that terminates the investigation currently being made into the allegations against him, and leaves his reputation in a (perhaps) undeserved limbo.  What has strengthened that argument is that Franken's case is one of those rare instances in which Democrats can claim the moral high ground without paying a short-term political price.  Franken's replacement would be appointed by a Democratic governor from a very large pool of talent, and the replacement would then have to survive a special election in a reliably blue Democratic state.

On the other side of the question of whether Franken should stay or resign are those who feel that due process is as much of a liberal value as is upholding respect for women.  To deny Franken an opportunity to confront his accusers and ensure that the full story is told sets a dangerous precedent, one that holds the potential to turn the process of uncovering sexual misconduct into a weapon that could easily be deployed, fairly or not, against any public figure in the cross hairs of someone inconvenienced by that public figure.  In fact, at least one writer has suggested that the accusations against Franken amount to a political hole card, one that needed to be played when the Moore story exploded.

So, what should Franken--and, for that matter, Conyers--do? 

As much as part of me hates to say it, I ultimately come down on the side of those who feel that they should step aside, provided that the accusations against them are fully investigated and resolved.  As citizens, they do not surrender their constitutional rights by being elected to public office.  But the holding of public office, in and of itself, is not a right; it is a privilege afforded by the people to conduct their public business.  That business has to be conducted in such a way that the appearance of impropriety, to say nothing of actual impropriety itself, must be avoided.  The fact that we have a President who is shredding that standard of public conduct does not change the need to uphold that standard; if anything, it arguably amplifies that need, as well as the desirability of ultimately bringing him to account.  And, in order to do so, Democrats must leave no areas of its political house out of order.

Yes, it means Franken and Conyers are effectively casualties of war.  But that is how Republicans have redefined politics:  as war conducted by other means.  In war, there is no way to avoid casualties.  And, in war, there is and can be no substitute for victory.