Archive for September, 2013

Frankenstein Party

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
― Mary ShelleyFrankenstein

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, made headlines earlier this year by telling his fellow Republicans that they needed to stop being the “stupid party.”

This week Republicans are demonstrating to the voting public that they not only rejected Jindal’s characterization, they embrace it.

Here’s how Tom Friedman describes it.

We’ve got messes aplenty abroad and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is totally paralyzed. Indeed, the G.O.P.-led House has become a small-minded, parochial place, where collaboration is considered treason, where science is considered a matter of opinion, where immigration is considered a threat, where every solution is a suboptimal compromise enacted at midnight and where every day we see proof of the theory that America is a country that was “designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots.”

Before we proceed let’s recap to put this in perspective.  The Republican Party failed to win the White House in the last election even though voters were living through the worst economy since the Great Depression.  They failed to retake the Senate after winning the House in 2010 and even though there were more Democratic seats being contested than Republican.  They even lost the popular ballot for the House by 1.4M even though through gerrymandering they managed to retain their majority.

The past two elections proved that the Republican base is shrinking while the Democratic base is growing.  The Chairman of the Republican Party addressed this issue earlier this year.

The way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough…Focus groups described our party as ‘narrow-minded,’ ‘out of touch,’ and ‘stuffy old men.’ The perception that we’re the party of the rich continues to grow.

When Republicans lost in November it was a wake-up call….We know that we have problems. We’ve identified them, and we’re implementing the solutions to fix them.

If the last week is any indication, the Tea Party elected representatives in the house are still asleep.

In no particular order, here’s what we’ve seen.

SNAP cuts

The House cuts $40B cut from the food stamp program.  Conservative Republicans claim that there are people receiving food stamps that should be working, but the data doesn’t support that view.  The SNAP program (current version of food stamps) already has provisions which require those who can work to at least demonstrate that they are trying to find work or suffer the consequence of losing their benefits.

Studies have shown that SNAP is one of the most effective government programs we have.  It has an abuse rate of about 1%.  Most of that is private retailers buying SNAP benefits for cash rather than providing approved groceries.  It has a stimulus multiplier of 1.73, which means that every dollar of benefits generates $1.73 dollars in economic benefit.  That is the highest of any government program.  It’s better than corporate tax giveaways.  It’s better than military spending.  It’s better than bailouts and stimulus.

It also provides essential public health benefits to low-income people and that has an economic impact also.

The Trust for America’s Health, a health advocacy organization that focuses on disease prevention, warned recently of the consequences of cutting food stamps: “If the nation continues to underfund vital public health programs, we will never achieve long-term fiscal stability, as it will be impossible to help people get/stay healthy, happy and productive.”

Indeed, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “research shows that low-income households participating in SNAP have access to more food energy, protein and a broad array of essential vitamins and minerals in their home food supply compared to eligible nonparticipants.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “good nutrition can help lower risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis.” As it is, public healthcare expenses for diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease cost taxpayers more than $100 billion annually.

Cutting SNAP will impact the economy, cost jobs, reduce health, and increase the healthcare costs.  I’ve also posted that the stress associated with food insecurity actually affects brain development in children.  That inhibits academic success and ultimately affects employment prospects.  72% of those receiving benefits today are families with children.

We have enough food.  What we suffer from is a misguided ideology that suggests that benefits create a culture of dependency. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 30% of SNAP recipients worked in 2010, up from fewer than 20% in 1990. Most of the rest are either elderly, children, or disabled.

Fortunately the Senate will not pass this massive reduction in SNAP and a more modest reduction will likely emerge from the conference process.  House Republicans know that too.  This was an ideological vote to re-enforce the conservative Republican position that hungry people chose to be in that state because they are too lazy to find a job.

Defund Obamacare

This is a similar bit of Kabuki Theater.  Senator Ted Cruz was elected based on his pledge to defund Obamacare.  His rants and accusations finally goaded the House into action.  They passed exactly the bill that Cruz has been asking for.  That bill will expose what people have been silently saying for a while.  Cruz isn’t even close of having the votes in the Senate to accomplish what he promised to deliver.  He has already tried to lower expectations.

Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so….At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people.

Boehner would have none of it. He responded.

We’ll deliver a big victory in the House tomorrow. Then this fight will move over to the Senate — where it belongs. I expect my Senate colleagues to be up for the battle.

So at the end of the day, Cruz’s bluff is going to be called.  He doesn’t have the votes and will go down in flames as a result.

John McCain told CNN on Thursday: “In the United States Senate, we will not repeal, or defund, Obamacare. We will not. And to think we can is not rational.”

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said of the House Republicans’ strategy of threatening a government shutdown to force the defunding of Obamacare, “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”

Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, has said: “There isn’t anybody that thinks that Obamacare is going to get defunded. It cannot happen.” He added, “It is as impossible as anything can possibly be in Washington, D.C.”

Republicans may have gained some points in the process with their base, but the rest of country will be left scratching their heads over the spectacle.

Regulating Sexual Relationships

Finally last week in Michigan, Republican AG Bill Schuette argued in a brief supporting Michigan’s ban against same sex marriage that states have the obligation “to regulate sexual relationships between men and women so that the unique procreative capacity of such relationships benefits rather than harms society.”

This is really a simple calculation for any rational Republican.

How many of the 47M people receiving SNAP are going to vote for Republicans in 2014?

When the Republicans shut down the government or force the government to default on its debt obligations in an effort to stop Obamacare, how many voters are going to blame Democrats – particularly given what even some Republicans are saying?

Finally, how many people are going to support a party that claims the government has the right to “regulate sexual relationships”?

This is the logical conclusion of the cynicism that began with Nixon’s southern strategy.  Republicans exploited racial backlash to promote the economic goals of low taxes for the rich and deregulation.  They were remarkably successful in convincing low information whites to vote against their self-interests.  Instead they blamed four decades of middle class wage stagnation on the poor, liberals, and unions.  Sustaining this strategy, however, required morphing from racial fear to an embrace of fringe conspiracy group paranoia.  These fringe groups have always existed in US politics, but only gained credence as their apocalyptic fears of a black man in the White House came to pass.

Now the monster that Karl Rove and Fox News created to take back the House in 2010 and continue to promote the agenda of low taxes for the rich and deregulation has broken loose and is running amok.  Even Karl Rove can’t control it.

Any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively. The defunding strategy doesn’t. Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it.

When ideology leads to extremism, it always demonizes its opponents.  Ultimately its opponents includes its previous allies.  It narrows its focus and base of support until it finally collapses under the weight of its own self-destructive rage.  Tea Party driven conservative Republicanism has reached this point.  They are willing to alienate hungry voters and shut down the government to demonstrate the purity of their ideology.  We will suffer the consequences of their actions between now and 2014.  Then voters will hold them accountable and the Tea Party will become another footnote in history.  Frankenstein died because he couldn’t figure out how to live in this world.  Tea Party-backed Republican Conservatism is going to suffer the same fate.

New Balance

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

I am the product of Jesuit education.

Jesuits taught me to question everything and not be afraid of the consequences.  They taught me how to think deeply about my life in order to develop a set of core beliefs.  They taught me to stand up for what I believe in even if that position is unpopular.  They also taught me that being of service to others is a high calling.  Most importantly, they taught me that you can’t just talk about it.  You have to live your values every day.  I’ve found my service in speaking out in defense of poor, the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, and the imprisoned.

I was raised Catholic but some time ago realized that my church had left me.

I’ve seen that church become increasingly politicized and conservative.

So I have found my own way.

Then something wonderful happened.

The church elected a Jesuit pope from Brazil – Pope Francis.

This pope also has a commitment to the poor.  The pope also cares about the hungry, the disenfranchised, and the imprisoned.

He has refused to take up residence in the papal palace in the Vatican.  Instead he sleeps in the much more modest guest house because, as any Jesuit will tell you, words without deeds are empty.

This new pope cut right to the heart of Catholic thought in his first public interview.

In his opinion, the church has lost its way.  It is so focused on narrow political issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, that it has in his words become a moral “house of cards”.

He said the church should be a “home for all”, not a “small chapel” focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

We have to find a new balance.

This is straight out of the Jesuit playbook.

The Bible has precious little to say about abortion, gay marriage, or contraception.  It has LOTS to say about our relationships with our neighbors, those less fortunate than us, and even those who disagree with us.  The Christ-message is that we are all God’s children made in the image and likeness of our Creator.  Our job is to embrace that reality and learn to love the God-child in everyone including those who may want to harm us.

That’s what Pope Francis is talking about when he said a “home for all”.

I lived through the amazing changes that the Catholic Church went through as a result of the vision of Pope John XXIII.  He single handedly dragged the church into the 20th century.  It may be time for Pope Francis to reawaken the 21st century Catholic Church to its REAL mission.

It looks like an impossible task, but I’m sure he will take it on with determination and humility.

Gotta love those Jesuits.

Personal Responsibility

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.  Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.  Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Matt 25:31-40

For Christians, I don’t know how the message could be any clearer.  This is about salvation.  In my reading, those that provide for the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and those in prison will be welcomed into heaven.

It is also instructive that Jesus directed this advice specifically at those he called “the righteous”.  These are the people who aspire to perfection, go to church, and keep the commandments.

During Jesus time, many pious Jews thought that bad things happened to bad people.  So they felt no compassion for those that Jesus described.  Instead most blamed the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and those in prison for their plight.  The self-righteous Jews figured that these people were being punished by God for something.  And clearly who are they to question God.

Jesus was very clear in what he said.  He didn’t qualify those in need in any way.  Instead he said that their NEED is the only relevant qualification.  It doesn’t matter why someone was hungry or sick or homeless or in jail.  Our response is all that is important.  That response will determine how we are judged in the afterlife.

We find ourselves in a very similar situation today when we attempt to have a conversation about race, poverty, and crime.

First a few facts.

According to the Census Bureau, fully 38% of African-American children under 18 now live in poverty.

67% of African-American children live in single parent households, and nearly all of those doing the actual parenting are women.  The courts, according to HHS, have awarded child support to 45% of these African-American mothers, but less than half actually get any money.   Doing the math, that means that 80% of those custodial mothers get no funds from the fathers of those children.  About half of white women actually receive the support the courts have awarded.

This raises the obvious question of where the African-American men are.

A million of them are in prison.  That’s 43% of our prison population even though they represent only 13% of the population.  One out six African American men have at some time been incarcerated.  Even that is a decrease from the past decade.

Maybe because they commit more crimes?

Not exactly.

African-American defendants are more likely to be given jail or prison time for the same or similar offenses for which white folks are given probation. African-American men also receive longer sentences than white men sentenced for the same or similar offenses.

This is, in part, the sorry legacy of our failed war on drugs.  In the 80’s, “ghetto” drugs like crack cocaine carried penalties up to 100 times more severe than a similar offense for a similar amount of the “yuppie” powder version of cocaine.  When these drug laws were originally passed in 1986, the thought was that crack was more potent and addictive.  Studies have since disproven that claim.  The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled the sentencing disparities unconstitutional.

On the employment front, only 52% of African-American students graduate from high school and the rate for African-American boys is even worse according to the Department of Education. The economic consequences of that lack of formal education are well known – lousy jobs with lousier pay and a downward economic spiral from which there is no escape.  The economic consequences of an arrest record are also severe.  70% of employers run criminal background checks and 50% won’t hire those with a criminal record.

New research also suggests that children raised in poverty actually suffer physician damage to their brains which impair their cognitive abilities as adults.  Testing has already discovered that rich kids perform better than poor kids at a number of standardized cognitive tests.  Researchers have now discovered at least one cause.  During the first couple of years of life, our brains “wire” themselves based in part on the stimulation that we receive from our environment.  Stressful environments inhibit the full development of this wiring.  Even the tone, language, and vocabulary that a young child experiences during the first weeks and months of life can have a profound effect on later academic success.

It’s a statistical avalanche of negativity – grinding poverty, early developmental deficits, poor educational opportunities, failing schools, few jobs, and way too much interaction with the criminal justice system.

We cannot and should not ignore that some of this is self-inflicted even while we acknowledge the historical and socio-economic hurdles faced by African-Americans. Whether or not you respect the women trying to raise you and the young women around you, or if you stay in school, or take responsibility for your own children are all choices that can be made regardless of external pressures.

But it most certainly is not all self-inflicted.

There has to be some other reason why, for example, if a white man and African-American man with the same educational credentials apply for the same job the white man is twice as likely to get the job. Or why, when both African-American and white little girls were given a choice between a white doll or one of color, even the African-American girls preferred the white doll. Or why we still have such a profound ignorance of Africa and African-American history.

There also has to be a reason why race and poverty have become so politicized.  Why African American voters, for example, voted in higher rates than whites in the last two elections.  One opinion is encapsulated in a Romney quote that became a pivotal moment in the 2012 election.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney was correct in suggesting that 47% of those who file income tax forms pay no net income tax, though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t tax payers.  Two thirds of those paying no income tax did pay payroll taxes (FICA and Medicaid) and virtually everyone pays some state and local taxes/fees.   He was also wrong in suggesting that this cohort votes primarily democratic.  55% of the “47%” are elderly.  They voted 56% to 44% for Romney.  Roughly 60% of the “47%” had incomes above $50,000 a year.  They supported Romney 52% to 46% and those with incomes above $90K supported Romney 54% to 44%. 

So what segments are left that voted for the president no matter what?

The voter segment that gave Obama the largest margin of victory was African Americans (93% – 6%).

Even though Obama won two elections, this open issue has not been resolved.  It remains the most difficult one that I think our democracy faces.  One only need look at the range of responses to the Treyvon Martin killing to understand the depth of the division.

What do we do as a country to deal with the stark realities of institutional poverty, crime, and violence in the African American community?

One choice is to blame African Americans for their condition.

This view was summarized by Ted Nugent in his comment about problems of crime and violence in the African American community.  He said African Americans could “fix the black problem tonight,” if they would put their “heart and soul into being honest, law-abiding, [and] delivering excellence at every move in your life.”

And

“racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late [19]60s” and by the 1970s, “nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American’s dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.”

There is great risk, at least for Christians, in this choice as Jesus explained.

The other choice is to follow Jesus recommendations.  Feed the hungry.  Help the stranger.  Clothe and shelter the homeless.  Heal the sick. Care for those that are in prison.

That’s not to say that these aren’t complex issues.  They are.

This is also not to say that all people need to develop individual responsibility.  They do.

But Jesus said clearly that the individual responsibility He is concerned about is that of the righteous.  THAT responsibility is to care for the less fortunate regardless of how they got there.

Jesus never said this would be easy.  But he did promise that the reward for those willing to take on this task would be great.

He provided every righteous Christian a choice.

Just like any other issue of personal responsibility, how you respond is up to you.