Friday, March 11, 2011

Keep Tsunami Victims in Your Prayers

I'm sure everyone has by now has heard about this horrible tragedy in Japan. The video below is shocking beyond words.

As we go on break, we should keep all these victims in our prayers, and I suggest keeping an eye out for charities which will likely soon be calling for donations.

And now if that image depressed you too much, and you want a little pick me up before break (I know I needed one after that), I offer this absolutely hysterical segment from Colbert. this piece is funny regardless what side of the political spectrum you stand on.

beware weapons of mass introduction

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The best defense against extreme ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement"

The title is a quote from Rep. Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, at today's Congressional Committee on Homeland Security's hearing on the "radicalization of Muslim-Americans"

I apologize for the informality of this preface, but this video is one of the most meaningful displays of reason and emotion I have ever witnessed in a Congressional testimony.  Please take the 15 minutes to watch it.

Most, if not all readers of this blog are close with someone who over the last 10 years has developed an increasing prejudice against people who practice Islam.  With Representative Peter King holding hearings on the radicalization of the "Muslim Community" in the United States, it is the perfect time to put forth our feelings on the topic and exchange in a dialogue. 

Rep. Ellison's comments are not a condemnation for the concern about Muslim extremists in the US and abroad.  Instead, he frames reaching out to the Muslim community and being careful to separate extremists from the Muslim community as essential to our national security.  Far too often emotions get the best of Americans in the heat of political debates such as this for both liberals and conservatives.  This is an important time not to lash out, but to put forth a thoughtful plan to keeping our country safe while upholding the values that make us proud to be Americans.

The State of Our Democracy

Tonight in Wisconsin the state of our democracy has broken. 19 Republican State Senators used sneaky back door maneuvers to ram through a bill stripping away the collective bargaining rights of public unions. They did this by stripping the bill of all things fiscal, meaning that this new bill does NOTHING to balance to the budget. They have finally made it perfectly clear, that the budget has always been secondary to their foremost goal of destroying unions. While I could rant endlessly about the specifics of the bill, there are already plenty of articles by myself and fellow Lefties on that matter. Instead I want to focus on this absurd process by which the Republicans have completely circumvented the rights of the minority party and rammed through their activist agenda.

In this country, we have chosen as one of the basic tenants of our government, for good or ill, that things should happen at a slow pace. We have established a system based around the right of the minority to prevent any type of drastic change. This is what caused so many Obama supporters to to stay home this past November, having seen so little of the change they had been promised. When Democrats, including myself, grew angry about the filibuster, Republicans would say it was their protection against an activist agenda being pushed through. The minority is supposed to have this fall back. I'll admit I hated it as much as anybody when they blocked everything Democrats tried to do, but as frustrating as it was, I have never imagined a system without the filibuster. The fact is, that compromise can be incredibly constructive when the two sides decide to listen to each other and worry less about the next election, and there should be protections to prevent extremes of either party from pushing forward over strong objections of a sizable minority.

But now in Wisconsin, an activist governor has decided against the expressed will of the people in every poll that he wants to strip collective bargaining rights. The Democrats, having no chance to fairly debate this bill and being completely ignored, exercised the state level version of the filibuster. They protected their rights as a minority by fleeing the state. We often forget what filibustering really means, because both sides have accepted that the very threat of a filibuster necessitates compromise, but a true filibuster means that the party will stand and talk preventing ANYTHING ELSE from happening until either their opponents back down or they tire of talking. Republicans for the past two years just like every minority party in recent history have threatened time and again to shut down the government if the majority party tries to push its agenda without compromise. Fleeing the state was designed to hold up government in the exact same way. And the Republican response, "The longer the Democrats keep up this childish stunt, the longer the majority can’t act on our agenda." Apparently, they missed, the lessons of government 101, namely the majority does not have the right to push an agenda simply because they are the majority. Discussion, debate, and compromise are basic tenants of our political system.

Both sides have admittedly, loved the filibuster as a minority and hated it as a majority, but that's the reason it has withstood the test of time. No majority should be able to completely override the will of the minority without debate or discussion. Compromise can and should lead to good things. The Democrats in Wisconsin didn't ask to prevent the cuts to benefits or wages of union employees. Instead, they sought a middle road, in which all cuts were still enacted, thus balancing the budget, and the collective bargaining rights remained protected. But instead this activist Republican majority has circumvented the minority party as well as the popular opinion and in doing so have significantly weakened the state of our American-style deliberative democracy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Say it ain't so St. Jo!

This Tuesday, St. Joseph County Council voted 7-2 against a proposed smoking ban. The ban would have expanded upon the 2006 county ban, which still allowed smoking in designated, enclosed areas in bars and restaurants and allowed private clubs to set there own policy, to make all such establishments smoke-free.

I come from Minnesota, so I am sometimes surprised when I travel because it has been a while since I have had to request non-smoking seating.

In Minnesota smoking has been completely banned from restaurants, bars, and the like since 2007 (under the Freedom to Breathe Act). In Minnesota, it was decided that the public and employees of bars and restaurants deserved to be free from the effects of second hand smoke. All indoor, public places in Minnesota are refreshingly smoke-free.

I know that I personally will not patronize any establishments where I risk exposure to second-hand smoke.

I remember the debate in 2007, essentially the same debate occuring now in St.Joseph County and other parts of Indiana. I remember bar owners like those quoted by WNDU saying that the ban would "murder" their business. I don't remember Veterans groups expressing opposition, but it is quite possible they did.

I can understand, somewhat, St. Joseph County officials not taking the IUPU survey into full account because it is a survey of hypothetical public opinion. Though I would argue that hypothetical public opinion transitions pretty well into public opinion once you make the changes.

But look at Minnesota and other places accross the US where such bans have already been enacted. The vast majority of the public approves it, bars and restaurants still make money, American Legion and VFW organizations are still there.

The fact is, smoking bans don't "murder" anyone's business. In fact, smoking bans have been shown both to NOT negatively affect profits and to sometimes result in an increase in revenue.

I was in Minnesota from 2007 to 2010; the bar and restaurant owners stop complaining pretty quickly when they see how much people enjoy eating out without risking lung cancer.

Smokers do have the right to smoke, though they should probably quit for the sake of their health and their families, and smoking is legal. However, because second-hand smoke presents such a great health risk, smoking should be reasonably restricted.

It is legal to consume alcohol, but not to do so while driving. This just makes sense and saves lives.

It is legal to smoke, but it should not be legal to do so in places where the lives of others are put at risk.

I'm looking forward to clearing my head and clearing my lungs over spring break, and I hope the residents of South Bend have the opportunity to do the same soon.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Unions Are a Right of All Workers

This column was published in the Observer on March 8th 2011.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [or her] interests." In the U.S., we seem to have forgotten that the ability to bargain collectively is an internationally recognized right of all people, rich or poor, in the public or private sector. While workers depend on employers for wages, employers depend on workers for the labor that produces the goods and services that create profit. The two parties are co-dependent. Therefore, the working class is an indispensible part of our economic system and should have the ability to voice its needs and concerns in the only legal form available: unionization. Collective bargaining allows both workers and employers to have a voice, pursue their interests, and come to a compromise. Sounds like democracy to me.

Unions do not simply seek higher wages and benefits; they give workers a voice in the workplace and a sense of dignity. Having a voice changes the relationship between workers and employers from exploitative to mutually beneficial, where both parties respect each other and are properly represented. Without the ability to bargain collectively, the power to make decisions lies exclusively with the employer. We have allowed the corporate world to dominate the discourse about labor for so long that it now sounds absurd to claim that workers should have a voice, which, fifty years ago, was a basic element of society.

One of the central arguments in the current labor battle is that public sector union workers make excessive salaries in comparison to private sector workers. The private sector is currently suffering from stagnating wages, decreasing benefits and increasing insurance costs, while the public sector seems to avoid much of this struggle. Private sector taxpayers blame the public sector employees for this discrepancy. They are angry because they are relatively worse off, an understandable emotion.

However, the blame is misplaced. Public sector workers are not the cause of lower wages, fewer benefits, and poor working conditions in the private sector. Taking away public sector benefits and collective bargaining is not going to create better jobs for those in the private sector and is not going to grow the middle class. It will only divide the working class. It will also potentially decrease wage standards for all Americans as a higher percentage of unionization in a city often leads to upward pressure on wages and working conditions for all workers, including non-union. Creating a conflict between workers convinces the working class to vote directly against its economic interests and takes the blame away from the decision makers that create and maintain low-wage jobs.

Both union and non-union workers must come together and send the message that collective bargaining is not only a human right, but is necessary to grow the middle class and create good jobs. Workers have to stop blaming each other for their economic hardships. Weakening collective bargaining rights of the public sector is not the answer; strengthening private sector rights is. Unions are the only legal representation for workers to bargain for their fair share of the wealth, which comes from the profits of the goods and services that they produce. As the percentage of the workforce that is unionized continues to fall, real wages are decreasing, the middle class is shrinking, and the wealth gap continues to expand. Unions are the last group of organized people consistently backing the average person. They are fighting for the rights of the working class, recognizing that workers are not commodities; they are people with voices that should be heard, and they have the right to bargain collectively. As Pope John Paul II wrote in "Laboren Exercens," unions "[A]re indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions."

Budgets, Deficits, and Bull@^&%

"The Republican Party is the party of fiscal responsibility."
"American families balance their household budget, why can't we in Congress?"
"Democrats are the party of big government."
"Earmark spending is out of control"

I don't know about anyone else, but I am sick of hearing false statements. I'm sick of the unified and totally made up message of the Republican party. I'm also sick of the Democrats who don't know how to unify any real response. So now I'm just going to respond to these four Republican mantras that drive me insane.

Let's start by talking about fiscal responsibility:
"You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter." Do you know who said this? Dick Cheney. That's right the figureheads of the party of "fiscal responsibility" said "deficits don't matter". And does anyone remember the only president in recent history who balanced a budget and left office with a surplus? That would be Bill Clinton. Then along came George W. Bush. Need we say more about Republicans' "fiscal responsibility"? Well okay, I'll let this image say one more thing.

Now let's talk about balancing budgets:
I will admit I have never actually balanced a family budget before, so I could be wrong, but don't most families consider problems by trying to decrease expenditures AS WELL AS increase income? If you can fit in a couple of extra hours overtime, and make some more money, don't most families consider that option? Yet Republicans insist we have to ONLY cut spending, and we can't raise taxes at all. And no Democrats have ever suggested we can only tax our way out of the problem. There are definitely places to make spending cuts. But this rhetoric went out of control in Wisconsin, where the governor passed MASSIVE tax cuts to various special interests, then said I have a budget problem, and we need to cut union pay, only to further suggest that he couldn't just cut union pay, he also had to take their collective bargaining rights away, which had nothing to do with the budget. There is such a thing as PRACTICAL budget solving, but Republicans instead use the budget as an IDEALOGICAL tool. Have any Democrats really ever used a budget deficit to suggest the ONLY solution was more taxes? Most Democrats admit to needing to cut some wasteful spending as well as increase taxes. But why be rational when you can be an ideologue right?

Furthermore, it is IMPOSSIBLE to balance the budget through cuts without touching military spending, medicare, and social security. People on both sides of the aisle know touching any of these is general electoral suicide, but its the source of the budget problem. You can't be the party who wants to solve the budget without a plan to deal with these three problems, and frankly neither party can solve these problems alone. The only way to face the electoral suicide is with true compromise aimed at solving a real problem, and accepting mutual responsibility, credit, and blame. (please see West Wing episode: "Slow News Day". It may be a fictional show, but it makes a valid point.) But I guess that just wouldn't be as electorally useful as prolonging the problem and using it to accomplish idealogical goals under budget auspices.

Anyways now onto the big government debate:
Capitalism is not perfect. Capitalism has the goal of producing the maximum possible wealth in the system overall. It makes no promises that the wealth will be distributed in a logical or fair way, and it does not take into consideration costs to health and general well-being (which some could argue is far more important than wealth). That is why we have government. They clean our water, and protect us from poison in the food. Are some regulations unnecessary and wasteful? Undoubtedly. Should government just let capitalism completely off the leash? No way in hell. Government is designed to protect the people. That's it's job. It needs to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People without the ability to get health care are without life. When income inequality skyrockets, and social mobility nosedives, the pursuit of happiness is no longer being protected for most Americans. This is not big government, this is what government is DESIGNED to do. Big government IS bloated military spending so that we can try and wage two wars at once for little gain to safety, but incredible cost to human life. It's the government in our phone lines via the PATRIOT Act. It's the government inside a woman's body telling her what she can and can't do. It's the government giving me the option between doses of radiation and an incredible intrusive pat down every time I want to get on a plane. That's big government doing things, it WASN'T designed to do.

And lastly my personal qualm, the earmark:
Earmarks are good. Yes, every so often, one earmark funds a small bridge to nowhere (which the 200,000 some odd passengers a year who flew through the airport in "nowhere" a.k.a. Gravina Island, Alaska, probably appreciated). But for every earmark that does there are 99 really good ones. My stepdad started a non-profit organization called SouthCoast Connected designed to deal with the high drop out rate in high schools in the area of our home, New Bedford, MA. It was a program that would help fund middle school sports teams specifically basketball to help keep kids away from the gangs and in schools, which is a major problem in New Bedford. Senator Kennedy had gotten the funds via an earmark. This past year, the program nearly folded because they had to find a new source of funding, now that earmarks had become a pariah, and there was no Ted Kennedy to fight for it. This is what most earmarks do. It is small amounts money that simply go towards helping people in very specifically defined ways. And you could get thousands upon thousands of earmarks, at the cost of building one less obsolete jet that is still being built for the military because it's produced in five different states, whose representatives, don't want to see those jobs lost. Earmarks can't solve the deficit. Opposition to earmarks is simply not about practical budget control given the tiny percentage of the budget they take up. It's about painting an idealogical picture of fiscal responsibility that distorts the reality of the situation.

If Republicans decide they want to be fiscally responsible and solve the budget, good for them, but if that's the case, they better be ready to man up, and actually do something PRACTICAL and difficult, rather than waste all this time doing something IDEALOGICAL that leaves us tired of arguing and still in the same exact place with our budget that we have been since Clinton left office.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Weekly Round-Up for the Stressed Student

It's midterm season! That magical time of the semester when everyone gives up on sleep, develops a healthy addiction to coffee and retreats deep into their books and campus bubbles. For those of you way too busy to breathe, let alone check up on the news, here's a round-up of the highlights in national and world news.

The drama in Wisconsin continued this week as protesters were told to leave the capitol building and Governor Walker issued a series of lay-offs and threatened to arrest Democratic senators who fled the state. The article below offers a succinct and highly informative timeline of events as they unfolded this week.

And of course, an analysis of the Wisconsin protests would be incomplete without a cameo by Jon Stewart. In this video he examines the hypocrisy of the conservative media and makes some startling comparisons between the current protests and Wall Street executives.

This week the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church's right to picket military funerals. While I think the Church's message is unbelievably foul and misguided, I do believe the court ruled correctly in defending freedom of speech (see Christian's post below). The Christian Science Monitor covered the case and ruling here:

Fighting increased in Libya as protesters gained ground against leader Muammar Qaddafi and he in turn intensified attacks on rebel forces. Obama criticized Qaddafi for his use of air raids and politicians from both parties have universally condemned the actions of the leader. Here, opinion writer Michael O'Hanlon examines the U.S. options for intervention.

Women in the house went into fight mode this week in response to proposed cuts to Planned Parenthood funding. Rep. Gwen Moore offered a strident defense of Planned Parenthood, offering her own story as evidence of the necessity of family planning and aid. 

Republicans continued their battle against the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday when they introduced a bill to permanently stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama has promised a veto, but you can read up on it here:

Oh, and Sarah Palin tries to sound intelligent on TV and ignores the rights of human beings while definitely not angling for a presidential bid in any way.

Happy studies!