Saturday, November 14, 2015

Let's talk about terrorism, Islam, and France

Well, that didn't take long. The French authorities had barely cleared the bodies of the victims from the massacre scenes in Paris before US politicians started turning tragedy into an opportunity for grandstanding. I'd act surprised, but really I'm not. Those issuing policy statements today in the aftermath of these attacks are some of the most classless politicians we've got. Specifically, Trump, Carson, Cruz and Gingrich. They were not alone, they were just some of the most egregious. Their statements varied from "see, that's why we can't help the Syrian refugees" to "this is why Muslims are so dangerous" to "if the French were allowed to carry more guns this might never have happened." I'm not going to repeat the exact statements, but these are the main messages. NBC has the details here. Take a hard look at these statements, because so many of them are simply variations on "we need more war" and "don't trust brown people."

I saw several friends post a piece by Dr. Omar Hamada, an OB/GYN from Tennessee (and special forces veteran, I'm sure he was never exposed to any propaganda...) who wants to help Christians out there be extra Jesus-y in their response to this tragedy by pointing out that "Islam is a religion of death, violence and subversion." Praise be to Him, and thanks for the 5 second, inaccurate lesson in comparative religion. Psst, you may want to look into a little thing called "The Crusades" there, Mr. Good Christian, before you go talking about violent religions.

Most Americans dislike the French. We make fun of them mercilessly. Everyone seems to know a joke about how the French military never wins any wars, how they're a snobby culture who are lazy at work or whatever. I, on the other hand, have been to France, and I can confirm that it's impossible to get anything done quickly at work there. They take August off. No shit. They're also some of the warmest, friendliest people I've ever worked with. They know how to enjoy life. We make fun of their worker's benefits because were jealous. Our employers treat us like shit, and we're used to that. They start with 6 weeks vacation, 6 months maternity leave, and this wacky thing called job security. I remember when Leo Apotheker (HP CEO) woke up one day and gave all US workers a 5% pay cut, but he had to ask the French if they wanted to volunteer for it because they have actual worker protections.

I also learned that every French town has an "Avenue des Etats Unis" (US Avenue) in much the same way every US town has an MLK drive. Why? They never forget how we helped them defeat the Nazis. It's part of their history, and they are genuinely appreciative of our efforts in WWII. How many Americans know that we absolutely would not have won the revolutionary war without the French? I guaran-damn-tee you that every Army historian knows it, because it's true. The freedoms we celebrate with flag t-shirts and fireworks would not exist without major assistance from the French, yet most Americans are completely ignorant of that.

It gets worse, actually. Let's hop in a time machine and go back to early 2003. We were on the war path, trying to rally a coalition of the ignorant to buy into our absolute bullshit intelligence that Iraq had WMD as justification for an immediate invasion. Colin Powell did a good job peddling that bullshit, and got a few allies to join us. France was not one of them. They urged restraint. They said that war was premature, that it would turn into a real shit show. This wasn't just then-President Jacques Chirac; 75% of French citizens agreed with him. Turns out they were right. It has been a shit show. We've lost a TRILLION dollars and a few thousand lives, all while creating a power vacuum across the region that allowed ISIS to form. And how did we respond to France in 2003 when they dared to oppose our lynch mob? Freedom fries.

Oh yeah, remember that little episode? I do. Congressman Bob Ney (R-OH), head of the House Committee on the cafeteria menu (no shit) decided to rename French Fries to Freedom Fries, officially. He also renamed French Toast to Freedom Toast, just for good measure. "Ney, whose committee has authority over the House cafeterias, directed the change, after colleague Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, circulated a letter suggesting such a move. Jones said he was following the example of a local restaurant owner in his North Carolina district." Shortly thereafter, Jim Saxton (R-NJ) introduced a bill that would prevent French companies from getting any contracts for reconstruction of Iraq. Odd that, before we even ramped up the war, we were already thinking about how lucrative the contracts to rebuild the place would be, so much so that we were considering protectionist legislation to be sure those contracts get funneled to our campaign donors right here in the USA ...

So while the current crop of windbags leading the GOP has rushed to use this as a campaign opportunity to point out that it's not just the Mexicans we need to worry about, let's remember our history. If we'd listened to the French, and not gone to war until we had real evidence of WMD, maybe we could've saved a trillion dollars and not helped create ISIS, and maybe a handful of assholes claiming allegiance to ISIS wouldn't have massacred Paris Friday night. After 15 years of endless wars in the Middle East, maybe more war isn't the answer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Call a spade a spade

I talk a lot about politics because I love this country, and because I believe that an engaged and informed citizenry is one of the most important things we can have to ensure our future. Because of this, I find the current state of political discourse in this country alarming.

  1. At some point it became "impolite" to talk about politics. Our founding fathers would be furious at this, because it's the ability to freely talk politics that separates us from fascist, totalitarian regimes. 
  2. The media is a circus, and we can't wait for the next act. Good journalism is nearly impossible to find. The republican debate last week was more like Wrestlemania than a proper political debate. 
  3. Ignorance has become fashionable. Don't understand the issues? Don't care for science? No time to actually research a topic? Can't be bothered to know US History? Welcome to American politics in 2015 where you'll fit right in!
I know this stuff isn't new this year, but it seems to have reached a boiling point, or maybe a point of no return. In an environment like this, I find the rhetoric coming from the GOP candidates particularly objectionable. I know it's campaign season, and politicians have been exaggerating and lying for years, from all parties. Still, the commentary, positions, and lack of civility have convinced me that the GOP is officially off the deep end.

I caught some flak from friends on facebook a few weeks back when I stated that the GOP leadership hates black people. True, I was guilty of a lack of civility myself in making such a comment, but that general sentiment is supported by a growing mountain of evidence: voter ID laws, mandatory minimums, drug testing welfare recipients, refusal to raise the minimum wage (when even Wal-Mart has now done so). "But those laws don't target black people!" Actually, they do, but you either already knew that because you look into the issues, or you listen to Faux News in which case a freight train of truth wouldn't change your mind from what Hannity & O'Reily tell you to think of as reality.

This week, the broader political conversation took a turn for the worse when Donald Trump failed to correct a town hall questioner who made two false statements about the President and then went on to say that Muslims are one of the problems that America faces today. If you're at the podium when someone says things like that, you correct them, I don't care if the setting is the international pure-bred poodle convention, because that's called intolerance and it's unamerican regardless of your political affiliation. Let's list some countries where cultural and religious intolerance existed: Nazi Germany, Iran, North Korea, As much as I don't like Chris Christie, I will give him credit for calling Trump out on this.

A couple days later, another GOP candidate, Ben Carson, was quoted as saying that we should not have a Muslim President. He said it's inconsistent with the Constitution. Yet the Constitution clearly states that there can be no religious requirements to hold public office. Also, that's yet again an intolerant, ignorant position to take. No one called him out. No one from GOP HQ said "hey, quit calling yourself a Republican, those aren't our values, we respect all faiths."

Then there's the "kick 'em out and build a wall" rhetoric around immigration. That IS unacceptable, yet the GOP candidates try to out-do each other with xenophobic comments. Scott Walker even suggested building a wall with Canada. CANADA!

If you don't like other religions, other cultures, other races, that's your choice. Contrary to the most common GOP rebuttal, no one is trying to force everyone to like everyone else, that would be silly. If you think Muslims and Mexicans and "the gays" are what's wrong with this country, then you're woefully ignorant, but you are still entitled to your opinion. But for a major political party to accept, tolerate, and even promote that kind of thinking is a national shame. If you're a Republican and you're not speaking out about this craziness, then, like it or not, you're part of the problem. I am a Republican at heart who will continue to operate as an independent until the GOP returns to its senses. The GOP candidates are spreading messages of intolerance, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia, and those are not representative of my values. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Surrounded by idiots

Two news stories caught my attention today:

1) Scott Walker says that building a border fence on the Canadian border is a good idea
2) Chris Christie says he wants to hire FedEx to track immigrants

The only people to whom "ideas" such as these appeal are idiots. "FedEx tracks stuff, let's hire 'em to track those Mexicans!" Yeah, brilliant idea. You willing to get a tracking number assigned so that the guv'mnt can track you? Didn't think so. Me either, really. The idea of tracking humans, citizens or otherwise, is so fundamentally un-American that it boggles the mind. Let's talk about civil liberties, freedom, small government, and the ability to move freely across borders. These aren't just rights that we believe American citizens should have, they are rights we believe every human has. These are our principles. Of course, the GOP never let a double standard get in the way of some good ol' xenophobia.

And a fence on the border with Canada? Are you nuts? Because Donald Douchebag revives the 100 year old argument that we should build a wall with Mexico, Scott "I can see Canada from my porch!" Walker has to up the ante to get some media coverage so he unrolls his build a wall with Canada idea. Actually, Our border with Canada is the longest border in the world at 5524 miles long. Fencing from Lowe's is $30/section, so that adds up to $214,529,613 in materials + $729,996,600 in labor so let's call that a cool billion. Oh, you wanted something more sturdy than powder coated steel? And it'll take more effort to install than the one in my yard? Considering I crossed the border in question myself once, in a @#$% CANOE, yeah, it might take some engineering. At least now the residents of Wisconsin can commiserate with the residents of Louisiana in the contest for governors who are stupid AND out of touch.

In what twisted, ignorant world do ideas like this actually WIN you supporters, rather than losing them? Ah, that would be today's GOP.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Yes, governor Jindal, we should talk about mental health

This month's mass shooting event, oh wait, we've had two. I mean the one in Lafayette, Louisiana. Fun fact: over the past twenty years, the average number of days between mass shootings in the US has been cut in half. This one in Louisiana was committed by a guy that had definite mental health issues. Mental health is often a factor in mass shootings (for the record, guns are a factor in 100% of them). Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's governor, in his terrible press conference about the event, noted that we should have better screening for mental health issues before we sell people a gun. Oddly, this makes him a left wing nut relative to the rest of the GOP field. The NRA is ready to run him out of town on a rail for suggesting something that most Americans, and even most gun owners, think is pretty logical: let's not sell guns to crazy people.

Here's the rub - governor Jindal himself just finished cutting mental health benefits state-wide. He did this to compensate for the spectacular revenue shortfall that he himself created by making some big tax cuts. He's not alone in this:

"national and state level Republicans have consistently attempted to slash government spending on mental health care and public employees like police.
The biggest expansion of mental health care in recent years came in the Affordable Care Act, which, of course, Republicans tried to fully repeal. Many House Republicans also voted against a Bush-era move towards requiring insurers to treat mental illness like physical illnesses.
State Republicans have frustrated another major attempt to increase access to mental health services: the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Medicaid is the single largest payer of mental health care in the country, as treatment remains prohibitively expensive for many poor and middle-class Americans. But only one Republican Governor has agreed to accept federal funding for expanding Medicaid services.
The Congressional GOP’s plan to block grant Medicaid would only exacerbate this problem. Moreover, budget cutting during the Great Recession has slashed state funding for mental health care, a steep decline that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) proposed to accelerate after the shooting in Connecticut." (full article here).

It's also important to note that those with mental illness are not necessarily violent. While some conditions have a greater pre-disposition to violence, most do not, so we don't want to get in the business of assuming that the mentally ill are all waiting to arm themselves and go postal. It's the hypocrisy that gets me though: let's blame the mentally ill and then cut the funding to treat them. #GOP_Logic.

Since 80% of these mass shooting events are done with guns obtained legally, we need to talk about gun laws and mental illness together. They're not mutually exclusive. The GOP/NRA arguments against better gun control have been proven illogical time and again. In fact, most gun owners support better safeguards specifically designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. It's 1% of gun owners and 1% of gun shops that cause the majority of issues. That, plus the NRA successfully convincing people that "gun control" means Obama is coming to your house to take your guns.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The war on common sense

My favorite Senator (don't get me wrong, I can't stand either of them, but Rand Paul is absolutely @#$%^& nuts) has taken a bold, creative approach as he pretends to "fight the good fight" and "save coal." He's decided to paint it as a "state's rights" issue. Mitch is a master politician, I've always given him credit for that, and he definitely understands the importance of good marketing. Framing this as "don't let the big scary Federal government boss you around, governor!" allows him to divert attention from the facts surrounding the issue, namely:

  1. Presidents don't control energy markets. There are actually 9,000 more coal miners working in the US today than the day Obama took office, they're just not working in Kentucky.
  2. Coal has been a dying industry in Kentucky for all 30 years that Mitch has been in office, so apparently the "war on coal" started with Reagan.
  3. The biggest reasons we have a dying coal industry are a) the coal in Kentucky is harder to extract than in other states, so it's not price competitive on the open market b) fracking has dramatically dropped the price of natural gas, which I can use to run power plants that are MUCH cleaner than coal plants. 
  4. Coal fired power plants actually do pollute the air
  5. Wind tends to not respect state borders - pollution made in one state will carry to whatever neighboring state the prevailing winds blow towards. 

I know the GOP these days is fiercely anti-science, but let's review some quick facts. When you burn coal in a power plant, that's what's called a "chemical reaction" and it creates these wacky things called "by-products." Specifically, you end up spewing hydrogen sulfide, CO2, Mercury, and Arsenic into the air. These things are each bad on their own, because they either poison people or the atmosphere or both. There's a reason you don't walk into a bar and say "I'd like an Arsenic and Mercury on the rocks, please."

The courts have ruled that the federal government can regulate air pollution because it's a matter of interstate commerce. New Jersey can't just throw whatever pollution it wants into the air, knowing it will fall on New York, and claim "state's rights!" If you've ever worked in a cubicle and had to smell someone else's nasty lunch leftovers they're eating at their desk, you understand this concept (and how unpleasant it can be). Well, pretty much anything that crosses state borders is in the domain of the federal government, and that includes air. So the EPA has limited how much CO2, Arsenic, and Mercury you can spew because otherwise some states would be the asshole office mates that stink up the whole place.

Mitch isn't denying that coal is being killed by market forces. He's not denying that coal pollution is bad for people and for the environment. What he's pitching to various governors is that they should ignore the EPA rules (and even giving them a legal framework for how to make that case) because big bad tyrant Obama is trampling on states rights by trying to regulate interstate commerce, something the constitution explicitly authorizes the federal government to do. Basically, he's saying who cares if there's an actual health and environmental hazard here, we need to make a stand for state's rights. Idiot.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Politicians + Curriculum = Disaster

One topic that has been in the news lately is the trend of state legislatures wanting to dictate school curricula that align to a particular political ideology. If that sounds like a terrible idea, that's because it is. I love a good political debate as much as the next former PolySci major, but the place for that debate is in coffee shops and on facebook, not in our classrooms where it affects our kids. Period.

In addition to the usual suspects for curriculum debate (sex education and evolution), there are two newcomers these days: history and climatology. Here is a summary of recent history on the matter.

Issue #1 - NGSS: Next Generation Science Standards. 26 States collaborated with the National Science Teacher's Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop these standards. This process was supported by wacky left-wing organizations like GE and DuPont. The goal is to provide students with world-class, benchmarked science education. The lightning rods here are evolution and climate change. The standards were finalized in 2013 and have since been formally adopted by 13 states (including Kentucky, home of the Creation Museum) and Washington D.C.. A GOP legislature in Wyoming explicitly prohibited the adoption of these standards, though that "ban" is in the process of being reversed. West Virginia adopted them, but modified them to include their own fairy-tale explanation of climate change. After much public outcry, WV backtracked and adopted them as written. Michigan tried to ban them, thanks to Republican State Representative Tom McMillan.

For review, 97% of climate scientists agree that the Earth is getting warmer AND that this warming is "very likely" caused by human activity. That number comes from a review of "21 years of peer-reviewed scientific papers published on global warming and global climate change, culminating in a 2013 report that found that more than 4,000 paper abstracts authored by almost 10,200 scientists stated a position on human-driven climate change. More than 97 percent of the time, the position was that humans are contributing to a global rise in temperatures." Most of us see something like that and think, ok, that's settled. It takes someone with an axe to grind and/or a penchant for conspiracy theories to look at data like that and say "wait a minute, I smell a hoax."

Enter Wade Linger, an independent on the WV Board of Ed who thinks this is all a crock. Wade is a living proof point for a 2013 study that explains why conspiracy theorists don't trust science. People like Wade think that these 10,000 scientists are part of a vast conspiracy on the topic. They're making this up because it's in their best interest - it gives them something to study, it's job security, if they weren't studying global warming they'd all be unemployed. People like Wade seek out like minded individuals and come up with their own theories of climate change.

These people are almost never trained climatologists, or if they are, they're in the 3% who say this is all a scam. One such climatologist, Willie Soon, was recently outed for having accepted $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry as compensation for his articles talking about how this is all a hoax. Since 2008, Soon received more than $800,000 from ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the electric utility Southern Company Services Inc., one of the nation's largest operators of coal fired power plants. They create an echo chamber to reinforce each others' views. You can find people who don't believe in climate change. You can also find people who believe in aliens. In fact, statistically, there's considerable overlap.

Newsflash: West Virginia is coal country. If humans cause climate change, the coal industry becomes even more of a villain than it already is. Wade doesn't want to teach WV kids the truth, because it would mean badmouthing the state's biggest industry. Either that, or he's right, and NASA + 97% of scientists are wrong. If you are a parent who lives in West Virginia, you ought to be scared to death that Wade is setting a curriculum for your kids based in fairy tales rather than facts.

I'm picking on Wade, but he's just one example. Other states have their Wades, with various reasons for actively promoting the notion that 97% of climate scientists are full of crap. Heck a US Senator brought a snowball to the Senate floor last week to say "see, I've got a snowball here, therefore global warming is a hoax." You can't make this stuff up. These people must not be allowed to set education policy (or energy policy!).

What we're really talking about here is something between propaganda and brainwashing.  Let's review definitions, I don't want to be accused of exaggerating. Propaganda is "information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view." Branwashing is when you "make (someone) adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure." That's exactly what these people are doing when they promote a curriculum that goes against the consensus of experts. We've got new science standards here that could help us compete better in the global economy, and a hand full of yahoos in 3 states are trying to ban them.

Issue #2 - evolution. You'd think this one was settled with the Scopes trial 90 years ago, but far from it. 13 states are allowed to teach creationism AS IF IT'S ACTUAL SCIENCE. If you want a religious education for your kid, by all means get one, at a private school or at Sunday school. Use of public funds to promote a religious agenda is illegal. Use of public schools to promote "the bible = science" is just plain wrong. You bible beaters ok with me teaching your kids the Qu'ran and the Torah and calling it fact? Didn't think so. We're all entitled to our beliefs. None of us is entitled to force our beliefs on someone else's kid.

True, evolution is a theory, and that word has a specific meaning to those of us who like science. Einstein's theory of relativity is still just that, a theory. Same with plate tectonics, the theory that continents were at one point joined in a single land mass. There is observable evidence to support them though, and they are both widely accepted. To less-religious people like myself, teaching that the world is 6,000 years old is as absurd as teaching that we get lightning when Zeus throws a lightning bolt. Sure, a lot of Greeks believed that, but then we learned stuff and realized that's completely bogus.

Issue #3 - sex education. Really, I could just say, see Issue #2 above. Sex education is something that varies widely across the states. As of January 1st of this year:

  • 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education (20 of which mandate sex education and HIV education)
  • 33 states and the District of Columbia require students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS.
  • 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. 
  • 37 states require sex education that includes abstinence, 26 of which require that abstinence be stressed as the best method. 

Statistically though, we know that states which stress abstinence have the highest birth rate. States which promote comprehensive sex ed, including education about contraception, have the lowest rates. If we agree that teen pregnancy is a problem and something we want to reduce, we can't logically allow states like Mississippi to continue promoting abstinence as the "best method" when we have an abundance of evidence demonstrating that approach DOESN'T WORK!!!

Issue #4 - US History. This one is a real head scratcher until you review the definition of propaganda: biased information used to promote a particular political cause. There is a movement in this country, exclusively among Republican politicians, to re-brand the teaching of certain chapters in American history as un-patriotic. Basically, they want to only tell kids that America is awesome and it's totally the best country ever, we can do no wrong. Any account of US history that talks about oppression or exploitation is misleading and has a liberal bias.

AP History has been around since I was in high school, so it's old. It's a way for good students who like to work hard to earn some college credit before they even get out of high school, while taking an in-depth look at US history. Republican legislators in Oklahoma, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Georgia have all attempted to either eliminate or change the AP History curriculum. The two commonalities among all these cases are 1) they are led by the Republican party, a private organization with a specific political agenda and 2) the complaint that AP history fails to sufficiently emphasize the notion of "American exceptionalism," which is basically the notion that America is extra super special.

These debates are being falsely framed by Republicans as issues of states rights; "keep the big bad federal government out of our schools!" This couldn't be further from accurate, but as you've hopefully learned by this point, accuracy is not a goal of the GOP. I have no problem with states setting their own education standards, quite the contrary, I think that's appropriate. The problem I have is with states who want to make up their own facts, and politicians who want to use curriculum as a way to promote a particular agenda. In some cases here we see both of those - a politically motivated promotion of non-facts. And yes, I'd be equally upset if the Democrats were doing this. The fact is, they're not.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Republicans create budget deficits and hurt kids

The title really says it all. As the media begins to spew talk of the 2016 election cycle at us (ALREADY?!), let's review some recent examples of the differences in the parties when it comes to fiscal responsibility. If you think Republicans fix budgets, you're just plain wrong. If you think tax cuts spur economic growth you're also wrong. There's simply no evidence to support either point. I can, however, show 6 examples of Republicans cutting taxes where the result was a ruined budget AND zero economic growth, often where the state education system is ruined in the process.

Sam Brownback, Republican governor of Kansas: cut taxes, resulting in a $278 million budget shortfall, which he's going to address by not spending money on infrastructure, cutting education spending, and further depleting the state's already under-funded pension plan. He inherited a budget deficit of $60M, so he's increased that 400% in just four years; impressive! 71 of the state's 105 counties have had to raise property taxes to pay for things the state used to cover.

Bobby Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana, inherited a $1 BILLION surplus from his predecessor, cut taxes 6 times, and now has a $1.6 BILLION deficit. The icing on the cake is that he's actually also made cuts to healthcare and education (Louisiana is known for its spectacular public schools ... oh, wait). Meanwhile, he subsidizes Duck Dynasty to the tune of $330,000 per episode with taxpayer dollars, and has paid Wal-Mart, yes Wal-@#$%^&$-Mart $700,000 from the state coffers to subsidize the construction of their stores in the state. I guess those numbers are pretty small when you compare them to the $1,600,000,000 deficit, but "come on, man?!"

George W. Bush inherited a $128B surplus from Clinton's last budget, and left Obama with a $1.4 TRILLION deficit. Three big reasons for this include: 2 rounds of tax cuts, 2 unfunded wars, and the passage of a Medicare prescription drug benefit without providing any funding mechanism for how to pay for it. That last part could effectively be re-named "the best thing that ever happened to big pharma, because it guarantees them access to old people who need lots of drugs, while simultaneously forbidding Uncle Sam from ever negotiating with them on pricing."

Scott Walker, Republican governor of Wisconsin cut taxes until he had a $1.8B deficit. He tried to cover it up by cutting... education spending.

Tom Corbett, Republican governor of Pennsylvania, cut $1.3B in taxes (corporate and income), now faces a $1B budget deficit, and ... decided to cut education spending.

 During Chris Christie's tenure as New Jersey's Republican governor, their credit rating has been downgraded not once, but twice. He's proposed two massive tax cuts that have been thwarted by his legislature. He's trying again this year.

But by all means, let's vote GOP, because they're all about "fiscal responsibility."