Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Real Issue in 2016 - Electing a Democratic Congress

In the recent Democratic presidential primary debate, the candidates trotted out programs that they would sponsor to address a variety of problems our nation is facing.  But an article in the New York Times  astutely noted that no one said anything, nor were they asked, about how they would get these programs through Congress given the current control of the House by Right Wing Republicans.  

An excellent point.  Whether it’s Bernie Sanders with his more liberal ideas or Hilary with her more centrist policies, none of them could get through a Congress where the Right Wing has a virtual veto power over any proposed program through their de facto control of the House despite their small numbers.  

If the public elects the Democratic candidate President because they want his or her programs to be enacted, then they have to elect a Congress where Democrats have majorities in both houses.  And if the Democratic candidate does not want to have a presidential term like Obama’s, then that candidate needs to make changing the makeup of the House and Senate a high priority.

At a minimum, no person who votes for the Democratic candidate should vote for a Republican for Congress.  This should be obvious, but the voting public needs to be reminded that this isn’t like the old days when a split in the control of government was often considered good by many because it resulted in more tempered, centrist policies.  Given the current nature of the Republican Party, we have seen that split control means total deadlock.  A government in total dysfunction.  A government by crisis.

But these votes won’t be enough to bring about the desired change because many House districts have been redrawn in such a way as to make them “safe” Republican seats, and so not in play for the Democrats.  Short of changing those district lines, the only tool the Democrats have is to convince droves of traditional non-voters to register and vote.

Even in Presidential election years, voter turnout ranges from bad to worse.  In a good year, like 2008, the turnout rate was 58.2%.  That means that 41% of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  In a bad year, like 2000, the turn out rate was only 51.2%.  So 48.8% of eligible voters … almost half … didn’t vote.

But here’s the kicker … studies consistently show that non-voters are disproportionately poor or less well-off, younger, and tend to favor higher taxes and more government spending.  For example, 46% of nonvoters have household incomes below $30,000, while the percentage among voters is 19%.  43% of nonvoters are people of color, while only 22% of voters are.  And 34% of nonvoters are under 30, while only 10% of voters are.

For it to work, this has to be more than your traditional get-out-the-vote campaign.  Not even resurrecting the Obama coalition will suffice, although that’s going in the right direction.  These traditional non-voters need to be touched by the campaign and galvanized to vote.

The Democratic Party has to find a way to convince these voters that their vote would make a very real difference to their lives and to get them to the polls, even with reduced hours, voter IDs, and all the other barriers Republicans are setting up.  Given the experience of the past 6 years, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of our country’s welfare hangs in the balance.

To accomplish this, the reference point for the campaign should be the equality and value of all citizens as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and the policies that logically flow from that premise as stated in my book, We Still Hold These Truths.  See also my post, “Growing a Stronger America - More Self-Sufficient, A Stronger Citizenry, a World-Class Infrastructure,” September 15, 2015.

This need not and should not be made to sound like a class struggle.  This proposed strategy is not anti-rich nor anti-big business.  This country needs a strong business community to provide good jobs for our citizens, and so government policies need to continue to support business growth.  

All this policy is saying is that the influence of big corporations and wealthy individuals on government policy has increased too far to the point that they for all intents and purposes control it.  And so the balance between private rights, government, and the public good is currently out of whack.  The influence of big money in elections and the influence of lobbyists in Congress has rendered meaningless the concept of one man, one vote.  A proper balance needs to be restored.

Every citizen should be valued and have a voice.  But almost one million children are born into poverty each year.  22% of all children, around 18,000,000, live in poverty.  Because of this accident of birth and the poor education and other negative life factors that typically come with it, these children do not have a meaningful equal opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  

Many people who had been solidly middle class and had enjoyed the fruits of their labor now find themselves as a result of globalization and the recent recession to be struggling to keep their heads above water financially.  They are no longer middle class but teetering on the edge of poverty.  

As part of the responsibility of being a citizen, those who have made it big because they have been able to take advantage of our system, and yes their hard work, need to give back more.  Both to help the government provide those less well-equipped for the economic struggle with the foundation needed to have a meaningful equal opportunity, and to enable the government to replace our archaic and crumbling infrastructure with one that will support a strong economy into the future. 

This proposed policy is ultimately about fairness.  It does not “gouge the rich;” they will remain very wealthy even after paying their fair share.  It is about treating our fellow citizens with humanity rather than cruelty.  It is about being true to the maxim found in the core morality of all the great religions and any civilized society … do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It’s about being true to the principle first trumpeted in our Declaration of Independence … that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Poverty and Homelessness in the Land of Plenty

I recently moved to Philadelphia and am living in what is called “center city.”  It is, for the most part, a lovely area of quaint, historic row homes, lots of character, plus a few parks and of course commercial streets.  But …

Philadelphia is the 5th largest city in the U.S. with a population of over 1.5 million.  Yet in many ways, it feels like living in a 3rd world capital.  Why?  The poverty and its impact on all parts of the city is overwhelming.

Of the top six US cities, Philadelphia has the lowest median income, the highest official poverty rate, and by far the highest percentage of black residents.

                                 Median Income     Poverty Rate   Demographics
                 Blk Hisp

NYC 50,711 21.2 26  26
Los Angeles 55,988 22 10 47
Chicago               38,625 23 32  28
Houston               42,877 22.9 24 44
Philadelphia 34,207 28 42  12
Phoenix               43,960 22.8   7  41

As the data show, Philadelphia may be the worst, but it’s just a matter of degree.  All these cities have serious problems with poverty and homelessness.  The difference is that I lived in Chicago for almost 30 years, and have spent a good bit of time over the years in New York, and I have to say that I have never seen (as in, “in your face”) so many homeless people, such poverty, and so many angry young boys.

How can a nation as rich, in every sense of the word, as the United States and the leading democracy in the world accept a poverty rate that is this high?  Compared to the other 31 OECD (developed world) countries, the US has the 3rd highest poverty rate … and that is with “poverty” being defined the same way for all countries.  Using their definition, the US has a poverty rate of 18%.  The median poverty rate for all these countries is around 10%.

How can we accept the problem of homelessness?  How can we not respond to the suffering of the homeless?   How can we accept that almost 1 in every 5 people, 1 in every 4 children, live in poverty in the US?  Those numbers are huge! Yes, the poor have access to consumer goods and other elements of modern life … as some point out who would argue that poverty in the US is not really that bad … but the poverty they face is soul-crushing nevertheless.

In one sense, every city should be like Philadelphia because the problems are impossible to ignore.  And if they were, I can’t believe that attention wouldn’t be paid to remediating these problems (poverty can’t eliminated).  But for the wrong reasons, unfortunately, and so the “solutions” would be wrong as well.  Attention would be paid because the homeless are discomforting, an inconvenience.  It’s an affront to our national pride.  And so the effort would be to get them off the streets, not to solve the problem of homelessness.

Where is our humanity?  The answer is that we have lost almost all of our humanity in our culture’s obsession with the “I.”  We seem to have no concern for how others are doing; our only concern is for ourselves and our immediate family.

The answer is not to build more shelters or increase welfare payments.  These efforts all rob people of any sense of self-respect and independence, which is why they fail.

This post is not about the government providing … whether it’s housing or money.  It’s about the government assisting people to fend for themselves, and to gain self-respect, through a combination of targeted education and jobs programs.  One  more change that’s needed in our approach to our fellow man and to government.  One more change that won’t happen until the power center shifts in Washington from corporations to the people. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Mirage of Civil Rights

It is not uncommon for white people, especially Republicans, to ask what black people and other people of color are complaining about.  “They have all the civil rights of white people, and even had advantages vis a vis whites when affirmative action was a major component.  If they’re still living in less than desirable conditions or don’t have good jobs, it’s their fault.  They’re lazy.”

Talk about the inability to see past your own hand.  Talk about ignorance.  Any objective observer looking at the social/economic/political scene in the United States in 2015 would come to the conclusion that while there indeed are laws on the books that protect the civil rights of people with color, and many have made advances in the past 50 years because of those laws and the change in some people’s attitudes, the vast majority of people of color still suffer from daily discrimination in almost every sphere of their lives.

The fact is that civil rights, or equal opportunity, for people of color is a mirage.  Regardless what area of life one looks at … education, housing, health, employment … people of color, and especially blacks, continue to suffer from substantial discrimination and an almost total lack of meaningful equal opportunity.

In my post, “Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System,”  October 2, 2015, I discussed this lack of meaningful equal opportunity, the causes for its continuing presence, and the proper role of government in changing the status quo.  And so I will not enter into a detailed discussion here.

There is little one can do to stop de facto discrimination in the short run, because people’s attitudes are hard to change.  It is, however, the responsibility of government, civic, and religious leaders to speed up the process by raising the visibility of this issue by speaking the truth about equal opportunity and forcefully denouncing discrimination as unacceptable… not just once or twice, but on a regular basis.

But as I made clear in that post, the problem is not just discrimination “on the ground” by white people against people of color.  The problem is in large part institutionalized discrimination that is the result of unequal funding of education for people of color and a health care system that remains unequal despite the improvements of Obamacare.  

With regard to institutionalized government discrimination, I quote the closing of that post:

“If we are to reclaim government of the people, by the people, and for the people. then we must find a way to get big money if not totally then mostly out of politics.  Public financing of election is one obvious way.   There may be others, but that is not the topic for this post.

This will require an aroused electorate, because this will be the first test of the power of the people v the power of corporations.  (See my post, “How the Koch Brothers Hijacked the Middle Class Revolt and How To Take It Back.”)  Only if there is a popular movement so strong that members of Congress know that if they do not implement the will of the people they will be turned out of office does this have a chance of getting passed into law.”

People of color must join forces with poor whites and the diminished middle class to fight for this common cause … the return of government to the people by getting big money out of politics and the political process.  There is no more important immediate goal for those interested in creating a more just America.  Until that is achieved, little or no meaningful progress will be made on the various individual substantive goals.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Problem Isn't Capitalism, It's Our Society

People often rant against the evils of capitalism … exploitation of workers, people in general, and the environment.  But the problem is not so much capitalism as the social structure in which capitalism has operated. 

In the United States. the structure has been one which exalted individualism and correspondingly had a laissez faire attitude towards business.  It was a conservative social context in which each person was pretty much out on their own.

It was only after the turn of the 20th century, when the excesses of the industrial robber barons became egregious to society, and during the Depression, when capitalism clearly failed to provide for the people, that the government stepped in.  It regulated private enterprise, became an employer of last resort through efforts such as the CCC and WPA that produced lasting accomplishments, and provided various forms of assistance to those in need.  

Those actions indicated a partial change in the social context … what’s been termed the progressive movement … into one where it was felt that government had to play a role to stop the excesses of private enterprise, to level the playing field between employer and worker as well as between producer and consumer, and to help those in need.  All for the common good, in keeping with the Declaration of Independence's dictum that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We still had a capitalist system.  But now there was an overlay of government regulation and action because it was realized that the profit motivation that lies behind all actions in a capitalist system would frequently not operate to protect the common good, meaning the wellbeing of all in society.   It is worth noting that corporations are a creature of the law and are granted their license because of the benefit that society as a whole should derive from their operation, not just for the accumulation of wealth by their owners.

In the years since the Reagan administration, however, the progressive movement has receded and the individualistic, laissez faire society has come to the fore again.  Most recently we have seen the Radical Right push to dismantle most of what the bipartisan progressive movement built to improve our society over the previous 100 years.

But even at its broadest expanse, the progressive movement was not all-inclusive.  We were never a community, except perhaps for a brief period during the Depression.  The difference between a communal society and an individualistic society is that in the former, every person has a role to play and every person is valued.  No matter how simple or mindless their role.  And if someone cannot play a role due to physical or mental infirmity, they are still valued as human beings who are part of the community.

Conservatives used to point almost with glee to the failure of Communist systems, not just economically, but especially as relates to the abuse of their own citizens.  But this is just further confirmation of the point made initially in this post, that it is not the economic system but the social structure that determines whether people and the environment are valued.

The experience of both the Soviet Union and China show, for example, that although ownership and the political/social structure changed dramatically, one elite just replaced another.  While the Soviet Union did in a limited sense live up to its Communist underpinning and provided for all the people, in both countries the political/social structure valued neither people nor the environment; both were exploited, just for a different end … not profit but state power.  Not surprisingly, the introduction of socialist capitalism in China hasn’t changed that.

In our society, and in every country around the world - for there are no communal countries - there are millions of people who are not valued.  Who do not have a place at the table.  And even most of those who are at the table, who help produce the product and are paid for their work, are not valued in any humane sense of the word.  They are just viewed as expendable cogs in the machine.

In short, we live in a society in which, while people may rant about the value of life in certain contexts … abortion, death with dignity, when human action collides with God-given directives …  they really place no value on life.  They have no concern or feelings of responsibility for the welfare, the quality of life, of their fellow citizen.   There is no sense of community.  The social contract is in tatters.

The problem of poverty and homelessness in the US is not due to a lack of resources.  The problem of racism and other discrimination is not one that is inherent in man.  The social problems we face are a direct result of the social system we have built.  And thus the answer to our social problems lies in rebuilding or redirecting our social system and reinforcing the role of government in advancing the common good.

I’m not talking about a utopia.  I’m just talking about a society that is humane, that values the life of everyone who is a member of the society … at a minimum everyone who is a citizen, but ideally everyone who lives here regardless of their status.  And finds a way to implement that humaneness by making everyone feel valued rather than feel like refuse, whether it’s through the educational system, housing, social services, whatever.  

Capitalism and a humane society can coexist and support each other.  They are not mutually exclusive.  But it implies capitalism with a social conscience, not unbridled capitalism such as was evidenced recently by several in-name-only pharmaceutical companies that bought existing low cost name drugs and then raised the price dramatically to an exorbitant amount, endangering people's lives.  It implies capitalism where maximizing profit is not the sole operating goal.

Bottom line, everyone … child and adult … deserves to feel like they are a human being and are valued and respected by others, whether it’s immediate family, peers, or the broader society.  So many people are broken because they have had life experiences that do not make them feel valued and respected.   And so they come not to respect or value themselves.  That not only harms them, it harms society; it is a drag on society.

This is a failure of society.  And only society can fix it.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Bible - God’s Word or Man’s?

“What,” the reader may well ask, “is a post on this topic doing in this blog?”  Many of the problems that the world experiences, both today and over the millennia, are a direct result of religious teaching, or the cynical use of religious teaching.  Why does religion continue to hold such sway when in many ways the power of religion is weaker now than ever?  (See my post, “How Faith in Consumerism/Technology Replaced Faith in God.)  

Orthodox believers of Christianity and Judaism believe that the Bible, the Old Testament, is God’s revealed word.  Their certainty in their perspective of right and wrong, their self-righteousness, and their disapproval of all who do not follow God’s word/law as revealed in the Bible is based on that belief.  For Muslim’s, the same is true for the Koran, but this post deals solely with the Bible.  (I am not in this post going to discuss how these very same people/groups typically pick and choose those sections of the Bible they choose to follow and those they choose to ignore, which if it’s all God’s word I don’t understand, but that is another matter.)

Until the 20th century, this was actually the generally held belief …because all believers were orthodox.  And it still is the position of most Christian denominations and Orthodox Judaism.  While many Christian believers nevertheless adopted a more modern view of the Bible during the 20th century which did not interpret it literally or see it as God’s word, in recent decades those that adhere to orthodoxy in Bible interpretation have been increasing in numbers, voice, and power.

But is the Bible God’s word?  Recently, I came across a passage from Genesis that to me proves that the Bible, or at least parts of it, is not God’s word revealed to man but is man’s word.  The passage is Genesis 1:28.  “And God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish in the sea, and over the foul in the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth.”  [emphasis added]

There in a nutshell is the spiritual basis for what has become man’s relationship with himself and the rest of planet Earth.  Man is the controlling force on Earth.  Everything else that God placed on Earth is there for man’s benefit and use.  End of story.

Later in Genesis, after having seen the wickedness of man and sending the flood to destroy all living beings save those in the ark, God repeats this message with an even stronger statement.  “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs.”  Genesis 9:1-3

How convenient for man that God gave him such license.  Could the contemporary despoilers of the Earth come up with any more powerful and unquestionable language to spiritually legitimize their actions?

If one believes this is God’s word, well, there’s probably no arguing the point.  It either is or it isn’t.  You either believe or you don’t.

But even if you believe in God, it should be legitimate to ask whether the Bible is indeed God’s word as revealed to man, or whether it is just man’s word.  Thus the question arises … if God created the world and all that is in it, whether in 7 days or over millennia, would God have had such little regard for all the life and beauty that He created, for the miracle of life, that He would essentially say to man, do with it what you will, subdue it, rule it?  Especially having just had experience of what wickedness man is capable of.

I think not.  I would argue that if the Bible were indeed God’s word revealed to man, it would say something more like, “Be fruitful and multiply but always be mindful of your duty to your fellow man, your fellow creatures, and the bounty of the earth that I have created.  Every living thing must be honored and respected; no life shall be taken by you except when in need.  Use the bounty of the earth for your benefit but in so doing you must honor and respect it; any action by you should leave the earth whole and pure.”

Now that sounds like something God would say.  But the Bible doesn’t say that because it would be inconvenient for man.  It would not give him free reign over the creatures of the earth and its riches.

A believer would probably counter that because God created man in His image and is the highest life form, the language in Genesis is consistent.  Even assuming that, however, I still would argue that God would not be so cavalier with the life and bounty that He created.  But in fact this is just another example of the Bible being man’s word.  What conceit and brilliance to make the creator of the universe and man one in physical form.  And not just a man but a white man!

I would thus argue that, assuming there is a God, the Bible is not God’s word revealed to man but man’s word, at least in part.  That as such, the Bible is not sacrosanct or infallible.  Important parts of it are instead an exercise of man’s duplicity in his desire to use the power of faith to uplift himself and control all else.

The Bible has in fact been so used.  It has been a powerful weapon of control over the ages, and not just of God’s other creations but of men as well.  It has been interpreted and used to sanction man’s perspective … no, better put, the perspective of the male establishment … everything from the divine right of kings to slavery, the secondary status of women, and the pariah status of gays.  Such interpretations and misuse of the Bible have caused millennia of suffering for mankind.

But if you subscribe to my reasoning, that time is past.  People may choose to follow certain customs because it pleases them to do so.  But they cannot say that it is God’s word.  People may, for example, hate gays, but they cannot say that it is God’s word.

Instead, if one is a true believer, you will find in your heart a respect and compassion for all of God’s creatures and creations.  I must note that as a Buddhist I am not a believer, but I do have respect and compassion for all creatures and all elements of the universe.

None of what I have written here is to gainsay that there is without question much spiritual teaching in the Bible that mankind would be wise to follow.  Whether these lessons are the product of holy men or the revealed word of God should not matter.  The West, however, has always needed their spiritual guides to have a private line to God, either as His prophet or as His son or, these days, just being reborn.  It is that connection that legitimizes their teaching.  In the East, the Buddha did not claim divinity or that he was a vessel for God’s word.  It is not the source but the wisdom of the teaching that should be of paramount importance.

The Bible should be used as a tool to lift man from his earthly ego and open his eyes and heart to his true spiritual nature, his goodness.  The essence of the Bible is the Golden Rule … do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  

Indeed, Christian believers could do no better than follow the popular slogan of the 90s, “What would Jesus do?”  Regardless whether dealing with personal matters, or larger issues of domestic or foreign policy, the Bible’s central lesson of not doing harm to others but rather help them would result in a far more just and humane world.  The Bible should not be misused, in decidedly unspiritual ways, to subjugate human beings or the environment.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shell Withdrawal Not a Victory

After Shell recently announced that they were ceasing all exploratory work in the Arctic, I received a flood of emails declaring “victory” from the various organizations who had been trying to pressure the Obama administration to not let Shell drill.  This was as deceptive as Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” fiasco in the early days of the Iraq war.

While I am relieved that Shell has left the Arctic … for now … it is not a victory in any sense of the word because the efforts of those organizations to convince the government to not allow any drilling were unseccessful.  

Shell made its decision for two reasons.  First, after spending a reported $7 billion over several years trying to find oil in the Arctic, it had come up dry.  Second, given the current downturn in the oil market and the assessment by many that the market will not recover for some time, it was not economically prudent to continue drilling.

So this “victory” is a false one.  Shell just made a pragmatic economic decision.  It was not the result of a government resolve to not endorse further oil exploration, at least in environmentally sensitive areas, and certainly not a decision on the part of Shell that public opinion was so against the project that they best withdraw.

The power of big oil in governmental energy policy decision-making remains as before … great.  Nothing has changed other than the economics.  And one can be assured that within a few years the price of oil will be sky high again, leading the companies to dust off their plans for exploration of more expensive extraction locations.

So what to do now?  One thing is clear.  The American public will not support any effort to either cut production or decrease use of oil.  They are totally addicted to it.  They will not wean themselves from oil until they are forced to by ever-increasing prices caused by the diminished supply after peak oil.  

Although we were at or almost at that point, the fracking venture has turned the tables so that now there is a glut of oil and it will be some time till we are there again.  In the meantime, climate change will continue on its deadly path.

Obama has been able to move against coal through executive orders only because nobody really cares about coal anymore outside of those states that produce coal.  The power companies don’t need coal because they now have cheap natural gas thanks to fracking.  And the public will feel no pinch from the reduced use of coal.

One should not take heart from polls showing that more people now believe in climate change, even a majority of Republican voters.  It is one thing to believe in climate change, that what man is doing is causing this change.  It is another to believe that the possible future consequences are so dire that it warrants a major change in energy policy and in how we live.  It’s far more likely that these voters will support various efforts to adapt to future climate change, which efforts are already underway in many cities and countries.

So even assuming the public “revolution” that I have argued for in several recent posts occurred and the political power of major corporations and the wealthy was thus greatly reduced, on this  particular issue, where the public attitude and corporate interest are one, it is hard to see how any real progress would be made, absent a catastrophe of truly epic proportion.  And by then it would be too late.

I can see only one practical opportunity.  If fracking were banned, the oil glut would disappear and the price of oil would rise quickly and substantially, even with the global economy in its current state.  That sharp and quick increase in price, at least to the point where it was previously, would bring about renewed pressures both to develop alternative sources of energy and transport as well as to conserve.  Of course big oil would see it as an opportunity to explore more expensive extraction and return to the Arctic.

But how to achieve that aim?  For some reason, which I don’t understand, the evidence that fracking is an environmental disaster has not come together in a compelling way.  Some organization needs to gather all the facts about the actual environmental damage caused by fracking and put it together in a compelling way and convey that information to the public

Also, Congress must be pressured to reverse its position, pushed through by then Vice-President Cheney, that oil companies are exempt from the Clean Water Act requirement of disclosing what chemicals they are putting into the ground when they frack.  That that exemption still stands is a disgrace to our political system, and makes it harder to arouse the public.

With both those pieces of information in hand, the public would need to be mightily aroused and hopefully would then strongly support a ban on fracking.  That is the only hope of countering both the corporate and local business forces that gain from this dreadful practice.

This would not be an answer to the problem, but it would be a major step forward.