Saturday, March 25, 2017

How do we take big money out of politics? You just did.

The defeat of the American Healthcare Act (aka TrumpCare, RyanCare, or TRyanCare) was a win for people who don't want to see tens of thousands of people left out of a basic need of all citizens.  But it was more than that; it was the culmination of three months of concentrated grass roots engagement and activism by voters who, like me, just showed up.  And that's the bigger lesson in all of this.

Campaign finance is a mess.  Corporate and fringe political interests have held sway for far too long.  But in 2017, people have proved that no amount of money can outweigh genuine engagement on the part of the electorate.

Our message was clear.  Our efforts were focused.  Our determination was palpable.  It changed things.  And it didn't cost a dime.

The conversation around politics has changed since election day.  The ubiquitous "they" is no more.  We are talking about policy in the first person.  "How will this affect us?"  "Do we need this?"  "What can I do?"  There is no greater power in the American model than an informed and energized voting public.

This is just the first step.  A victory feels good.  But now the veil has been pulled back.  We see the bad actors, the gross incompetence, and the real interests that are driving our legislatures and national government into the ground.  There's a lot more work to do.  So, take a moment, look around, and savor the victory.  Then roll up your sleeves.  We've got more to do.  And we can't be bought.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Finding the Zebra Among the Stripes

The poor zebra is the perfect metaphor for where we are in America today.  One side looks at it and says "it's black with white stripes"  while the other says, "No! It's white with black stripes!"  Both are arguably true and neither one can be objectively disproven.  We are diametrically opposed!  There's just no middle ground.  

The part neither side seems to want to admit is that they are BOTH looking at the same zebra!  

And that's how it goes.  Whether it's an argument about civil rights, justice, school choice, healthcare, marriage equality, or women's reproductive rights, we are fixated on the stripes.  Nobody wants to talk about the zebra.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not a Red country with some Blue people.  Nor are we a Blue country with some Red people.  We are Americans, lumped together in this messy, chaotic grand experiment of liberty first envisioned almost a quarter millennium ago.  But we have been sold a lie.  Or, rather, two of them.  The red and blue stripes are an illusion.  They've been crafted by micro-targeting, big-data, big-money interests who only want their fringe version of America to ascend.  DON"T. LET. THEM!  It's time to recognize the zebra for what it is and stop arguing on behalf of people that just want to keep you in line.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Liberal America's "Entitlement Problem"

Go ahead and do a Google search for Liberals and Entitlements.  I'll wait....

Did you get it?  Not pretty, is it?  Apparently we liberals just LOVE to give away the store to all those lazy, fraudulent, and whiny people out there who just won't work for themselves.  Which, obviously, is why we liberals also LOVE taxes.  Okay, I fess up; you got me.  I just thrive on laziness, fraud, and taxes.

What a crock!  I mean, what an absolute, steaming pile of myth!

First of all, there's the word: Entitlements.  In conservative parlance, they take it to mean "free stuff" or, worse, "freeloading".  But an entitlement is, by definition, something you earned.  Social Security and Medicare are programs we all pay for.  7.6% of every single paycheck goes to pay for these programs for your entire working life.  When needed, basically, you withdraw against that balance.  I'm pretty sure every American feels like they are owed (or entitled, if you will) a part of those benefits when the time comes.

For the record, these programs alone comprise half of the federal budget.  And there isn't one politician out there willing to jump on the third rail of Social Security reform.  No other program, including Defense, comes close.

The conservative rant against so-called (but mis-named) entitlements seems to focus on a few specific programs:  unemployment, welfare, and food stamps (SNAP).  These are the punching bags of the "laziness narrative".  Conservative forces want you to think of a fat, lazy alcoholic sitting on his porch, eating Pringles and drinking a beer on your dime while you work your butt off.  This fictional sloth slaps on a phony back brace every time he waddles out to collect his next check and laughs all the way to the bank.  I'm sure there are a few of these characters out there, but that's not what most welfare recipients look like.

What's really interesting is those same interests that like to attack these low-income assistance programs are also the ones that are fighting tooth and nail to keep the minimum wage where it is.  If you want to look at assistance programs, wages HAVE to be a part of the conversation.

Here in Arizona, the living wage for a household of three where both parents work is about $52k per year.  And living wage ain't "living large".  That's enough for a basic apartment and a reliable used car that you both share (which is fun when you both work).  The MEDIAN wage in Arizona is $51k.  You're reading that right.  At least half of the people living here earn less than the minimum needed to sustain a basic normal lifestyle.  Quite a few make a LOT less.  And minimum wage (which we FINALLY passed a measure to increase) doesn't come close to cutting it.

What's you're point, Mike?
Just this:  If you're going to talk about limiting assistance programs, then you HAVE to talk about wages.  People work to support themselves and their families.  If you don't pay people enough to do that, then they are going to need help.  Period.  The math simply doesn't add up any other way.  And that is to say NOTHING of the need for people to save for retirement, their kids' education, and just everyday emergencies that hit us all.  46% of Americans can't absorb a $500 hit to their budget on any given month!  70% have less than $1,000 in the bank.

"There is one thing we are all entitled to: the simple dignity of a means to survive."

Free markets can't be "empathy free."  And individual responsibility can't be "sucks to be you."  We are more than a governmental system.  We are more than a capitalist system.  We are a society of citizens.  There is one thing we are all entitled to: the simple dignity of a means to survive.  It's time for the conservative think-tanks, Super-PACs, and bumper sticker factories to put up or shut up.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lessons from Moscow: Obliterating Terrorism

One of this president's top priorities and promises has been to "obliterate ISIS."  Since 9/11, the shadow of terrorist attacks from extreme Islamist elements has certainly loomed large over our nation.  But how do you kill an ideology?  Is it even possible?

One could argue that the reason we have not been successful in "obliterating" terrorism is that we haven't been aggressive enough in prosecuting the war.  Our foreign policy has certainly wavered under both of the previous administrations at different points.

Fortunately, we have other examples to learn from.  One big one is Russia's efforts to stamp out their own Islamist extremist group in Chechnya.

Now, nobody could accuse Russia of being reluctant to prosecute this war.  Over the course of the last 17 years (pre- 9/11), over 50,000 people have been killed on both sides, many of them civilians.  Exactly how many and on which sides varies based on who you ask, but all estimates are well north of 50,000.  That is a level of commitment that America hasn't come close to delivering in 45 years.  The Russians are serious.

So what have they gotten for their efforts (besides killing 50,000 people)?  Here's just a brief list of things:

  • Chechen fighters have become some of the most hardened mujahedin in the world
  • Fighters from other nations, including Afghanistan and Syria, have come in to fight alongside their brothers, bringing networks and knowledge with them (and taking them home again).
  • Chechen fighters have gone to Syria and Afghanistan during surge periods to shore up their ranks
  • Grozny, the capital city of the Chechen Republic, is essentially a pile of rubble
  • And, they're still fighting.  In fact, indications are, as the Syrian conflict takes a turn, many fighters are returning to Chechnya to fight another day
Long story short, a full-fledged aggressive military campaign has not successfully eliminated the threat from these extremist elements.  And that says a lot about how mujahedin operate around the world.  They are the ultimate opportunists, seeking (and sometimes cultivating) conflict in areas where they can lend their lives to the cause.  The conflicts don't normally start out with jihadis, but they wind up with them.  They form, scatter, and re-form wherever strife exists.  They come in like Robin Hood's band of Merry Men, distributing money and support, recruiting new fighters, and tipping the scales.  All the while, they promote the most extreme version (or perversion) of basically 14th century Islam.  

But these aren't the only examples.  Consider the revolution in Northern Ireland or the battle with the communist FARC in Colombia.  These conflicts, too, lasted for years upon years, and ultimately were unsuccessful, militarily speaking.  You simply can't kill an idea.  

Does that mean that there is no place for military force?  No, it doesn't.  Von Clausewitz said "war is diplomacy by other means."  He was a smart guy.  He realized that the ultimate end is always diplomatic, and that military force is applied for the purpose of making the alternative unacceptably costly.  But it starts and ends with the tools of State.  

An all-out war on ISIS will certainly kill a lot of those fighting today.  But it will also kill tens of thousands of civilians in its path.  And will certainly cement the idea for yet another generation that America is an enemy worth hating and worthy of jihad.  And, like past ones, this new generation will come from all corners of the earth to join the fight.  Fear-driven warfare is not the solution.  It is the recipe for an entirely new round of conflict that will consume the best years of our millennial generation.  

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Dark Side of Federalism

American Federalism, in simple terms, is maintaining the balance of power between the States and the federal government.  It's long been touted by conservatives as a pillar of liberty and, as such has been plastered on pretty much anything they don't like about liberal policies.  "It's a State's Rights issue," they say.

Since the 2016 election, Democrats finally woke up to realize that they were surrounded.  That state legislatures and governorships were overwhelmingly red, and that, by ignoring local races, they've lost tremendous swaths of influence (not to mention a ready pool of candidates for national office) across the country.  They've also lost connection with the electorate itself.  

Speaking for myself, I truly believe the cliche that "all politics is local."  And I'm happy to see the Dems finally getting a dose of a little "old time religion" and turn their attention once again to state and local issues.  But, that's not to say that Federalism is somehow inherently virtuous.  In fact, for much of our history, it's been used as a shield to protect some of the ugliest and most shameful aspects of American society.  It's important, going forward, to call out the difference between being connected and engaged locally, and a political pivot to justify fear and hate.

"State's Rights" protecting hate since 1787
The origin of Federalism sounds noble enough.  On one hand, it was intended to prevent tyranny from a single, centralized ruler.  In the early days of our nation, nobody actually knew whether George Washington would actually step down at the end of his term.  People were terrified at the idea of leaving one monarchy just to create another one in America.  But that's only part of the story.  

From the earliest days, the issue of State's Rights was also very much a North vs South argument.  Northern states opposed the practice of slavery and wanted it abolished.  The South argued that their "peculiar institution" was a state issue, and none of anybody else's business.  For nearly 200 years, the pattern of advocacy of State's Rights has been inextricably tied to those who opposed the advancement of civil rights and the elimination of second-class citizens.  The name of the party may have changed over the years, but the agenda has always been the same.  "You can't make me change."

To counter this, progressive elements have always sought to override local hatred with national policy, whether through the federal government or the courts.  Since the 60's, that work has fallen to the Democrat Party, pushing the nation forward, kicking and screaming, to respect individual rights, dignity, and justice.  Election cycle after cycle, this process has repeated itself, until Democrat leadership became almost exclusively nationally focused, while Republicans took on the mantle of federalism and started building from the ground up. 

Keep your eye on the ball
In today's politics, the State's Rights argument is still used to thwart civil liberties.  From marriage equality to voting rights, issues that can't win on the national stage are stamped with the "State's Rights" label to preserve the status quo.  Just last month, the transgender access to school bathrooms order was rolled back, using this very justification.  But, as bad as these things are, there's an even darker side to it all:  the utter co-opting of state politics by corporate interests.  And that, my friends, should anger conservatives and liberals alike.  

While the average American's eyes are glued to national cable news networks, state legislatures, fueled by corporate-sponsored bill farms like ALEC, are quietly pushing through BOATLOADS of identical legislation in dozens of states, right under our noses.  Politicians, bought and paid for through these lesser-known avenues, are trumpeting "small government" and federalist principles, all while making national policy, one brick at a time.  Simply put, nobody is minding the store.  Here in Arizona, those "small government conservatives" introduced 1,100 bills in the course of three months.  Can you imagine that there are over a thousand laws we need that we don't already have???

Yes, we should at least try to address as many issues as possible at the local level.  Each state has different strengths and challenges and one size rarely fits all.  Much of what needs to be done probably isn't government's job at all. But, more than that, liberals and progressives need to take their seat at the local table to expose and put an end to puppet politicians who are too busy lining their pockets to actually lead.  How do we do that?  Get organized.  Get informed.  Get involved.  And run for office.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Trump, The Russians, and the Null Hypothesis

In the last six months, a nebulous and nefarious Russia-Trump connection has been dogging at the heels of our current president.  Conservatives are calling it conspiracy; liberals are calling it grounds for impeachment.  Yet, for all of the circumstantial threads, there has yet to be a smoking gun.

One way or another, the future of our nation hinges on the truth of the matter.  If, in fact, the administration is in cahoots with the minions of Vladimir Putin, then that's a threat to the integrity of our democracy.  If not, we owe it to the stability of our constitutionally appointed and duly elected government to do their jobs without this cloud hanging over them.  If not, everything they do will be viewed through the lens of possible collusion.

Let me be absolutely clear: I'm not happy about any of this.  It gives me no joy, regardless of how this turns out.  Either it has been the most reckless case of political innuendo ever, or our electorate have allowed an adversary to literally plant their cronies at the highest level of government.  Either way, this is an extremely dire sign of the state of our democracy and institutions.

I've written a series of short posts on Facebook, titled Debunking 101.  One of those posts was about the "Null Hypothesis".  It's an analytical approach where, being stuck on a problem, you work to prove the opposite is true.  If you can find proof of the Null Hypothesis, then you have to abandon your theory.  So that's what I'm going to do here.

Theory:  Donald Trump is NOT in collusion with Vladimir Putin.  
Likely Indicators:

  • Support for NATO - America's premier military counterpoint to Russia
  • Opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, most likely through supporting ongoing sanctions that have been levied in response
  • Actively supporting the Ukrainians in repelling Russian aggression
  • Condemnation of a Russian intelligence and propaganda campaign to influence our election in 2016
  • Statements clarifying the administration's position toward Russia
  • No associate connections to Russia or Russians
  • No financial connections to Russia or Russians
  • No philosophical connections to Vladimir Putin, Russia, or Russians
  • A sense of transparency and trustworthiness in general
If all, or even most of these are provably true, then we have to abandon the idea of the Putinized President.  

On NATO, the president has been quite muddy.  Since taking office, he has referred to NATO as "obsolete" but later expressed his support.  On the campaign trail, he was consistently anti-NATO.  His cabinet and VP Pence have worked to shore up the appearance of support for NATO, but it really remains to be seen which of the president's positions will emerge as the "real" policy.  

As for the Ukraine, the president has yet to make a public statement.  However, it is noteworthy that military action in the eastern regions of that country increased in the days following his first phone call with Vladimir Putin.  And no criticism has been heard from the administration in response.  The Russian version of the readout  of that call mentions the "importance of restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic ties," but goes no further.  We are told that Mike Flynn discussed sanctions during a phone call with the Russian ambassador, but we don't have any details about what was said.In a private, off-the-record meeting with a Ukrainian official, the president is said to have told her that he "would not abandon" the Ukraine.  Still there are no more details and no public statements.  We do have increasing evidence that elements of the Republican platform supporting the Ukraine were removed at the specific insistence of the president. 

On the subject of the Russian hacking and propaganda campaign during the election, the president made a single statement in public.  "He shouldn't have done it.  I don't believe he will be doing it more now."  That was in response to press questions on the subject in his first press conference after the election.  I understand that this is a politically awkward position, as he tries to defend the legitimacy of his election while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that the election itself was the subject of influence from a foreign power.  

On Russia in general, the president has been very equivocal.  He'd like to do a deal, wants to have better relations, but hasn't gone out and done anything to either blatantly soften or strengthen America's stance toward Russia.  Not much to go on here.  

When it comes to Russian contacts and connections, there's something you need to understand.  There is almost no distinction between private and government actors in the Russian system.  Communism may be officially dead, but all successful institutions in Russia operate with the explicit blessing (and to the benefit) of Vladimir Putin.  Private citizens often operate at the behest of the state, and the intelligence directorate is literally everywhere.  So when you look at associations, it's very difficult to separate legitimate private actors from state-sponsored ones.  

Still, you have a string of actors on this stage that raise questions.  Manafort is deeply connected to pro-Kremlin actors.  Flynn worked for state media, RT. Carter Page worked for and with GAZPROM.  Rex Tillerson is a recipient of the Russian Medal of Friendship.  And Wilbur Ross co-chairs a bank in Cyprus with at least one Russian Oligarch that is known to deal with vast sums of Russian money.  None of these high-level associations help disprove or even dissuade any Russian associations.  

Finally, we come to transparency.  There isn't any.  The president has either ignored or circumvented tradition and law that requires disclosure of finances and removal of conflicts of interests.  It's not unusual for large and wealthy companies and operators to use shell companies to compartmentalize and shield assets from liability.  But without tax returns and other disclosure, it's impossible to know where these rabbit holes lead.  The president has had a demonstrable issue with the truth in ways small and large.  In specific relation to Flynn and other revelations, there has been a pattern of strong denial until the point where the facts are revealed in the press.  These patterns make it extremely difficult to discern what is true in his statements.  

So, what are we left with?  There are definitely some nods toward the Null Hypothesis, but nothing particularly solid.  So, while we don't have a smoking gun in favor of the "collusion angle," we certainly don''t have enough to discard it either.  As American citizens, we must know the truth.  Party and politics aside.  All of us should be pushing our elected representatives to investigate the entirety of this matter as quickly and thoroughly as possible.  And we should all continue to gut check against the Null Hypothesis to make sure we aren't chasing shadows that just aren't there.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Change, Fear, and the Myth of the Zero Sum

The conservative machine loves to call liberals "snowflakes" and "cry babies".  For some reason the belief is that we are scared of our own shadows, likely to melt in the sun.  But if you look at the politics of the left as compared to the right, it sure seems to me that the opposite is more likely the truth.  Based on the policies they are championing: CONSERVATIVES. ARE. TERRIFIED.  So-called "extreme vetting," a 2,000 mile wall, getting rid of all the "bad hombres," not to mention the inexplicable fervor to send our sons and daughters back into the furnace of war to obliterate an enemy that nobody else seems to want to deal with.  Everywhere you turn, the conservative media outlets are pushing a "boogey man" narrative that keeps voters coming back.

But our country IS changing.  Probably at a level not seen since the industrial revolution.  Our economy is transforming into the beginnings of what it will be over the next 100 years.  Old industries that were once the staple of our economy are decaying.  New industries are still finding their way into the mainstream economy needed to support them.  All the while, our demographics are evolving with them.  Baby boomers are retiring (or should be if they were able to save enough).  And as that generation slowly makes its way off the stage, a multi-racial, more diverse and socially liberal generation is on the ascent.  In short, the way we work, live, interact, love, and thrive is quickly changing in fundamental ways, never to return.

And, for many, those less equipped to join the new economy, to relate in a browner, more accepting nation, that's scary as hell.  It feels like the country is slipping away from them.  Then, add on the conservative media's constant whipping up of fear about terrorism and immigrants.  You're losing your job, your neighborhood is changing, AND they're all coming to kill you??!!  No wonder people run to the strong protective embrace of the right.

The narrative is a sham.  Seeing new trends and new faces emerging around you doesn't lessen your ability to thrive or pursue your own life and dreams in the same way you always have.  It just means people that choose to do so differently are likely to be doing their own thing in neighborhoods like yours. And terrorism?  Look, I grew up in Germany in the 70s and 80s.  Lybians, the Red Army Faction, and others were setting off bombs in discotheques and on airliners.  We didn't cringe in fear then; we faced them down with vigilance and determination.  That was the proper response to terror.

The underlying belief making all of this change especially frightening is the idea that prosperity and fulfillment in America is a zero sum game.  That, in order for some people to win, others have to lose.  That's simply not the case.  Sure, sometimes things play out that way.  But most times, in America, there's enough prosperity to go around.  We can celebrate Kwanzaa without taking away one single Christmas tree or piece of tinsel.  We can recognize the right of all people to marry without lessening the value of your marriage or anyone else's.  One person can make a pile of money and their next door neighbor can go out and make a different pile in a completely different way.  We are not a "zero sum" nation.

The narrative of fear is not going away.  It's too easy and too tempting to tap into.  Watch the coverage coming out of conservative outlets and you'll see these themes play out over and over again.  You can't reason with fear.  You have to reject it.  Face it head-on and reject the fear-baiting. And don't let anybody tell you that standing up for your beliefs (and the rights of others to live according to theirs) makes you weak.