Sunday, August 29, 2010

An Unholy Alliance

When the history of the American Experiment is written, one dire scenario is the demise of the American way of life in the early twenty-first century. If that happens, it will be due to an unholy alliance of two seemingly diametrically opposed groups. In all probability, neither of these groups would succeed on their own, but the synergies between them could result in a very scary outcome.

Of course, the first of the two groups that would like to destroy America is Al Qaida and other Middle East-based groups of terrorists whose weapons of choice involve asymmetric warfare – that is, clever use of limited resources against a much larger military power. If you define terrorism in this context as the instillation of fear and the erosion of the American way of life, then the terrorists are on a winning streak. George W Bush played right into their hands by subverting the Constitution, and his Tea Party née Republican co-conspirators have leveraged the fear instilled by 9/11 at the expense of Muslims, Latinos, the poor, and other groups who don’t fit their image of the American ideal. The election of an African-American president just exacerbated their frenzy. And terrorism begets terrorism, as evidenced by the recent arson at a mosque in Tennessee. Whenever there’s an atmosphere of fear, demagogues crop up – whether they be Joseph McCarthy who took advantage of the “red menace” or Glenn Beck taking advantage of the Bush recession to promote his financial self-interest.

The other threat to the American way of life comes from within. The imbalance between the power of corporations at the expense of the power of the voter is usurping the American electoral system which is a lynchpin to an effective democracy. We already know about the evisceration of anti-trust laws with the forming of “too big to fail” behemoths – not only in the financial industry, but in airlines, energy, and media. Net neutrality is being slowly eroded, so in the coming years, these same behemoths will exert control on what you will be able to readily access on the internet. Now, another nefarious activity is slowly coming to light. As first reported by Rachel Maddow several months ago, and excruciatingly documented in Jane Mayer’s New Yorker exposé, two mega-wealthy oil barons, the Koch brothers, are spending billions of dollars on activities, cleverly disguised as grass-roots initiatives, to promote their agenda of environmental deregulation, dismantling of the Federal government, and elimination of health care for millions of Americans. While the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that everyone’s votes must be counted equally, the same court ruled in 2009 that corporations such as Koch Industries could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections. Placing the power of the government in the hands of the wealthy few instead of the hands of the many is antithetical to the tenets of a democratic society.

I’m sure the Koch brothers don’t think of themselves as unpatriotic. They are just using their vast wealth (eclipsed only by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) to promote their own political agenda. But the playing field is vastly uneven. Under the Koch plan, the rich get richer and the middle class disappears.
The American Dream becomes limited to a few fortunate people, with the corporate-controlled media serving as willing enablers.

So we have two forces at work. How do they relate? One (Al Qaida) unequivocally wants to destroy the American way of life. The other (Koch and their corporate allies) is manipulating the American voter and putting corporate interests ahead of those of the people. One is instilling fear. The other is institutionalizing disenfranchisement. The common thread is that both are playing into the agenda of right-wing militants and secessionists and encouraging them to take action. The governor of Texas actively talks about secession. Militias usurp the legitimate police powers of the government at our southern borders. Guns are prevalent at public events – creating a tinderbox ready to explode. Not since the Civil War has the threat from within been so prevalent.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lesson Noted

Cross-posted to Blue Jersey

There’s a difference between a “lesson learned” and a “lesson noted.”  When you observe a mistake and understand its root cause, that’s a “lesson noted”.  When you take corrective action to ensure that the root cause is eliminated so that the mistake does not recur, that’s a “lesson learned.”  The debacle over the Christie Administration’s mishandling of the Race to the Top application for federal education funds has an important lesson noted.

Initially, Governor Christie, whose team’s last minute changes to the application introduced errors that resulted in the state being disqualified, blamed the Obama administration and a state mid-level official who introduced the error during a last-minute frenzy to undo the agreement between the Commissioner of Education and the teacher’s union.  When the Obama administration insisted on playing by the rules, Christie asked the Feds to apologize for not ignoring the errors in the proposal.

Subsequently, videotapes of the oral presentation of the New Jersey team showed that this was more than a clerical error, and the team was unprepared to support the requirements of the proposal.   Christie, looking for a scapegoat, fired Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler.  As far as I know, the governor has yet to apologize to the Obama administration for the false blame.

Now, imagine what would have happened if the federal Department of Education had not videotaped or not released these proceedings.  Bret Schundler would still be Commissioner of Education, and the governor’s false statements would be unrepudiated, treated as truth by the mainstream media.  The public’s right to know the truth about how how their officials are performing and how their tax dollars of being spent would have been compromised.  Clearly, we need more transparency in similar types of government evaluation and decision-making.

Chris Christie ran for governor on a platform of transparency, and the Shundlergate affair shows that this is one of many campaign promises that the governor is ignoring.

Transparency is important, especially when the use of our tax dollars is at stake.  Lesson noted.  Now, we must transform this to a “lesson learned” by implementing full transparency at all levels of government.  Taxpayers deserve nothing less.

Friday, August 27, 2010

NJ-3 and Progressive Challenges

New Jersey’s Third Congressional District can be viewed as a microcosm of the American political landscape. We have (and I know personally) Tea Party extremists, moderates, and left-leaning Progressives in areas as diverse as suburban Cherry Hill, the Shamong Pine Barrens, and the shore towns of Ocean County.

First term incumbent Congressman John Adler is in a tight race with Republican ex-footballer Jon Runyan. Runyan echoes the Tea Party mantra on most issues, although there are a few exceptions such as his opposition to transferring Social Security investments to for-profit organizations. When he was in the New Jersey State Senate, Adler was regarded as one of its most liberal members. But in his current role, Adler kowtows to the right-leaning population in Burlington and Ocean counties by touting his “centrist” approach to legislating. In this day and age, “centrist” is a code word for “moderate Republican.”

It would be beneficial to the district and the nation if NJ-3 were represented by a more progressive congressman, but given the demographics of the area, big changes will be needed before this can happen. Adler’s primary opponent, Barry Bendar, would have promoted better policies, but Mr. Bendar only received 25% of the vote in a low-turnout Democratic primary.

So the $64,000 question is, “why do voters in NJ-3, and the nation overall, seem to embrace the policies of the failed Bush administration and the Tea Party extremists?” The answer is “messaging.” Tea Partiers have a great advantage in that they control the messaging infrastructure. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News (with help from their Saudi investors), right-wing hate radio, and corporate ownership of most mainstream media tend to get the message out, both overtly by sheer force of numbers , and covertly by controlling the language of the debate. The counterpoints to these behemoths are loved by their Progressive base, but how many people do you know who listen to Rachel Maddow or belong to

To transform NJ-3 and the nation will require Progressives to become more adept at explaining to the general public why our approach is best for the country as a whole. With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the harebrained Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, and the corporate lock on media production and distribution, this will be a daunting task.

I was thrilled at John Adler’s victory two years ago. While his win was clearly on Barack Obama’s coattails, it was the first time this area had elected a Democratic representative in over a century. And despite his centrist moderate Republican voting record, I’ll vote for him again. Not because I’m enamored by his performance; not because I want to vote against a tax-evading donkey-farming ex-football player; but because I think the makeup of the 112th Congress will be close. And it scares the heck out of me to think that John Boehner will be Speaker of the House and second in line to the presidency. Big change requires small steps, so I’ll hold my nose, vote for Adler, and continue to advocate for a better America for all her citizens through Progressive ideas.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is Governor Chrisie Incompetent or Just a Liar?

Those are the only two possibilities after the debacle in New Jersey’s failure to qualify for Federal “Race to the Top” education funds. This was a $400 million loss to the New Jersey taxpayer.

The Governor’s staff and his arch-enemy, the teacher’s union (NJEA), negotiated an agreement and generated a proposal which, by all indications, would have been a winner. But just like the Governor does not respect women’s health, marriage equality, or teachers’ professionalism, he did not respect the outcome of his own staff’s negotiation process and subsequently had them hurriedly re-draft the proposal over the Memorial Day weekend, without participation by the NJEA. In the course of that effort, a clerical mistake was made which cost about five points in the evaluation process. New Jersey’s proposal lost by three points.

If you watch the Governor’s 30 minute post-mortem press conference, you will see that he is more concerned with placing blame on the evaluators than fixing the root cause of the problem. Amazingly, he pointed out that one person reviewed the proposal for compliance, and his “solution” is to have two people review such proposals in the future. Now, I’ve worked on $400 million proposals, and I can attest that we have had dozens of people – people from outside the submitting agency – review these things to a gnat’s eyelash. The fact that such a blatant non-compliance was overlooked is inexcusable. The by-the-book former prosecutor deceitfully suggested that the evaluation committee should overlook the mistake, or bend the rules to allow New Jersey to submit the requested data. He certainly knows that if that were allowed, Ohio, which bettered New Jersey by only a few points, would have had a justifiable rationale for protest – after all, Ohio played by the rules.

In his press conference, the Governor disingenously admitted that the buck stops at his office, and then proceeded to blame the Obama administration and some unnamed mid-level public servant in state government. You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Governor. The fact that a public servant made the mistake is a symptom – your lack of commitment to public education is the cause.

Republicans often rail at the fact that New Jersey sends more money to Washington than we get back. Well, now they only have to look as far as Drumthwacket to understand why.

Cross-posted to Blue Jersey

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Like George Bush...

Like George Bush, Chris Christie got it right on one issue.  The Governor has accused his fellow Republicans of "overreacting" to the proposed construction of the Burlington Coat Factory Islamic Cultural Center (incorrectly referred to in most of the mainstream media as the "Ground Zero Mosque.")  After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush reminded us to continue to treat Muslims as we treat all citizens, since moderate Muslims were not responsible for the attack, and indeed many were killed in the towers.

Yet, even as we applaud Governor Christie for being on the right side of this issue, let's remember that in his short time in office so far, he is harming New Jersey by emulating the Worst President Ever.  This video is such a reminder.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wringing the Juice out of Workers

Rochester, New York has been devastated by the Bush Recession even more severely than much of the rest of the nation. As the city’s historically biggest employers, Xerox and Kodak, move jobs off shore, unemployment is high.

There’s a Mott’s apple juice factory near Rochester that has been thriving. Earnings are up in an industry that tends to feel the impact of the recession less than most. So how does Mott’s react to this situation? It demands wage and benefit concessions from its workers – even while the company is garnering record profits!

As a result, over 300 union workers have been on strike for the past three months. As corporations tend to do in this situation, Mott’s has replaced the union workers with “temporary” help who are happy to have any job, albeit below union wages, in this economy.

Situations like this only serve to perpetuate the recession. Higher paying workers tend to have more disposable income to spend in the local community, thus creating even more jobs. The current crop of lower-paid workers will struggle to meet basic needs.

In times of economic distress, unions have always been called upon to make concessions to help keep their employers solvent. And in most cases, they comply – hoping to keep members’ jobs and return to an equitable pay rate once things get better. But the Mott’s situation is the start of a disturbing trend – corporations demanding concessions even when business is booming – permanently depressing wages.

The US Supreme Court has legislated that corporations are persons. And Mott’s is not doing anything illegal. In fact it is doing what its shareholders expect and demand. So if Mott’s is equivalent to a person, it is a person without a soul.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Judging Christie

Cross-posted at Blue Jersey

The deleterious effects of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s “slash and burn” policies and his coddling to millionaires are starting to be felt, and will be with us long after he leaves office.  Libraries are closing, experienced teachers and other public servants are retiring in droves, infrastructure continues to crumble, and taxes on the middle class and the poor are going up.  Yet, there’s one other impact of the Governor’s approach that won’t be felt – at least directly – for a while.  That is the politicization of New Jersey’s judiciary.

Politicization of the judiciary is nothing new to Mr. Christie.  As a U.S. Attorney and acolyte of Karl Rove, he saw firsthand how a master of his craft can subvert the judicial system to advance a political agenda.

Governor Christie refused to nominate Supreme Court justice John Wallace last May – not because of any incompetence or malfeasance on the judge’s part, but simply to replace Wallace with a corporate-friendly attorney who would help advance the governor’s agenda.  But this was more than a warning shot over the bow for the remaining justices.  It was a not-so-implicit threat to the three non-tenured justices that “if you don’t support my agenda, you’re outta here!”

It’s uncertain whether the three “liberal” non-tenured justices refused to re-open the case pertaining to New Jersey’s “separate but equal” civil unions because of Christie’s threats.  One would like to think that their decision was based on the law, and not on their careers.  But it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room.  While Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has the power to elevate a lower-tier justice to the Supreme Court until the State Senate decides to confirm Christie’s choice, he has chosen not to do so.  Could this also be due to Rabner’s concern about the Wrath of Chris?

So what’s the solution?  In some states, Supreme Court justices are elected rather than appointed.  That’s a bad idea – it only politicizes the judiciary even further.  When a justice is selected in New Jersey, he or she must be confirmed by the State Senate.  So why not extend the checks and balances and require the State Senate to approve or disapprove the removal of a justice at the end of his or her term?  Of course, impeachment for criminal activity is still on the table.  And the mandatory retirement age of 70 would still remain.

No method of selecting judges is devoid of politics, but by adding this check and balance, we could avoid the type of political shenanigans that are practiced by Mr. Christie.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Barack Obama and John Adler

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Congressman John Adler were elected to their respective posts in 2008 to the delight of progressive democrats.  While there were numerous differences between their elections, the actions of both men have been a disappointment.

Obama replaced an unpopular incompetent president.  Adler replaced a very popular and effective retiring long-term congressman.  Both men won against moderate Republicans, although starting with his VP selection, Senator McCain has been intoxicated by Crazy Tea.

Both men ran on platforms of change - change from the "me first" attitude espoused by Republicans.  Yet, once in power, both men moved to the right to the consternation of their respective bases.  If there are any exemplars of the kind of moderate Republicans they defeated (corporatists who promote small, incremental improvements in social programs) then both Obama and Adler fill the bill. But these are not the policies that swept these men into office.

Of course, John Adler faces a re-election challenge this year, while President Obama still has two years to go.  Adler's opponent is a know-nothing unqualified celebrity who has memorized the Tea Party talking points that resonate with an electorate influenced by Fox "News" and sound bites.  While it's still early to speculate on the GOP presidential nominee, as of now it looks like Obama also will face a corporate-sponsored Tea Party sympathizer.  Adler has abandoned his base and is pursuing conservative voters who would normally vote for the Republicans.  The danger is that many Liberals and Democrats will sit out this election.  This is a danger that is magnified many times if Obama still believes he can work with the intransigent Republicans - Republicans who put defeat of the president's agenda ahead of what's good for the middle class and the nation as a whole.

Could an Adler defeat be a harbinger of what's ahead for Barack Obama?  Will anticipated Democratic losses in 2010 validate or repudiate Obama's rightward swing?  If enough moderate Democrats Republicans like John Adler lose this year, President Obama will have to work with a John "Hell No We Can't" Boehner House and will be distracted by so many GOP-run congressional investigations that it would make the Clinton impeachment circus seem like a blip.  What would it take to re-energize the progressive left that brought both men to power in 2008?  

Hang on, folks; this is going to be a scary ride.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Obama's Muslim Problem

President Obama correctly supported the plan to build an Islamic center in Downtown Manhattan despite the cries of the religious hypocrites who are ignoring the First Amendment. It is a rare and refreshing turn of events to see the president speak forcefully and convincingly on the correct side of an issue, especially one that will inevitably provide fodder for the right-wing hate mongers.

While I applaud the president’s action, I am still disappointed that he has not chosen a similar path of quick and decisive action to fulfill some of his other promises like repeal of “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell”, the closing of Guantánamo, and the rollback of his predecessor’s unconstitutional surveillance actions. In the past, the president’s tepid support for a progressive agenda has resulted in flawed legislation like the weak reforms of Wall Street and the insurance company-enriching health care program.

Over the sixteen months of his young administration, the president has unsuccessfully tried to bring in the intransigent Republicans and Tea Partiers by compromising on important issues. But compromise is a two-way street and the GOP's version of compromise is just a dead end.

Perhaps now, the president has finally realized that no matter what he does, right wing zealots will fight him not on policy, but on the principal that they want him to fail. Perhaps he has seen the collection of lunatics that the GOP is promoting in the upcoming elections and figures that it’s politically wise to move toward the left to recapture his base. Whatever the case, let’s hope that this recent announcement is the start of a new President Obama and change we really can believe in.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Driving Us Crazy

cross-posted to Blue Jersey

There’s a brouhaha brewing here in New Jersey about an anti-choice advocacy group that wants to allow residents to purchase disingenuously-named “Pro-Life” license plates for their automobiles.  State law bars such advocacy groups from promoting their cause in this manner, but the Children First Foundation is petitioning the Governor for an exception and is also resurrecting the already-decided court case.

The bigger question here is, should the state, and especially the Motor Vehicle Commission, be in the business of advertising on license plates?

Of course, this problem is not unique to New Jersey.  Recently, an Islamophobic organization fought and won a fight with New York City’s MTA to put misleading advertisements on busses protesting the construction of an Islamic cultural center in Downtown Manhattan.  This is the same MTA that rejected advertisements from another advocacy group critical of Mayor Bloomberg.

The Children First Foundation argues that its “Choose Life” license place is allowed under their exercise of free speech.  Perhaps.  Certainly the state needs whatever revenue stream it can garner from the added fees these plates provide.  But allowing the anti-choice zealots to have their way starts us down a slippery slope.  Do we allow white supremacy groups to have their logo on plates?  What about Communists?  Or Democrats?

The state and the governor should enforce the existing law, and ban all advocacy groups from having their slogans and logos on what is essentially state property.  The revenue from these plates would most likely not offset the legal fees the state will expend in the unending court cases.  If you want to advertise your advocacy for a cause, do what I do – just buy a license plate frame and send your money directly to your favorite group.

If Governor Christie allows these “Pro-Life” messages on our plates, I can see the day when I’m driving down Route 295 being passed by a “pro-life”, pro-death penalty, anti-health insurance advocate driving at 75 miles per hour through the construction zone yakking on a cell phone.  That’s not quite my definition of pro-life.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

“I knew Dan Quayle and, sir, you’re no Dan Quayle”

What’s the matter with Joe Biden? Traditionally, presidents are supposed to be statesmen – staying above the political fray – and vice presidents assume the role of political attack dogs during election seasons. Yet our gaffe-prone grandiloquent veep, Mr. Biden, has been uncharacteristically silent about the harmful and hateful rhetoric that is being spewed by the mainstream Republicans.

From Spiro Agnew’s describing Democrats as “nattering nabobs of negativism” to Dick Cheney’s visceral and bombastic hatred of everything Democratic (even after he left office), vice presidents have been the yang to the president’s yin.

With such an opportunity-rich environment of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, Glen Beck, and the other crazies, why has Joe Biden been silent? I can understand President Obama’s reticence in going after these lunatics, but has the president also muzzled Amtrak Joe?

In today’s age of 24/7 news cycles and right-wing hate radio, the Democrats need to be more effective in countering Republican Tea Party sound bites. And no one is better positioned or better experienced than Joe Biden to lead the charge. C’mon Joe – emulate your former colleague, the late Senator and VP candidate Lloyd Bentsen. Don’t wimp out on us now!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Gates of Wrath

The cuts in the budget of the Department of Defense announced by Secretary Gates are sure to provoke anger and lots of hot air as politicians of both parties defend military spending in their respective districts.

SecDef Gates
While it’s good to see that the administration is no longer treating the defense budget as sacrosanct and untouchable, the changes proposed by Mr. Gates are small – tinkering around the edges of the humongous drain of tax dollars that is centered in the Pentagon.  Gates’ approach also compounds the nation’s economic problem because it will result in more layoffs – military and civilian – just at the time the nation needs more, not fewer, jobs.

Gates is not the first SecDef who is trying to bring the DoD budget in line with economic realities.  William Perry, in the Clinton administration, attempted to save taxpayer money by repositioning the military to reflect the realities of the end of the Cold War, but was only partially successful in holding back the military spending binges of Newt Gingrich and his Contract on America.

There are two things missing from Gates’ initiative that would make it more real than symbolic.

First, the cuts need to be made based on military priorities, not the power of individual congressmen trying to keep dollars flowing into their communities.  Over the years, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) has done a fairly good (albeit not perfect) job of doing its job in the decommissioning of military facilities.  An independent BRAC-like panel should be empowered to work with the military to develop apolitical strategies for cuts, consolidation, and efficiencies.  Leaving the details to Congress will only result in protecting fiefdoms at the expense of national security and economic sense.  In addition, we need a critical examination of the rationale for having military bases all around the world when economies in Europe and Asia are doing better than ours.  Any solution must include a soft landing for those military, civilian, and contractor personnel whose jobs are eliminated.  Putting them on unemployment compensation is not the best way to accomplish this.  In the short term, we need to provide training, job placement, and stimulus projects for these American heroes so that we can improve the long term quality of life for all Americans.

More importantly, the administration needs to end the senseless wars in the Middle East.  I wish I could trust President Obama when he says that combat operations in Iraq are over, but how many times did I hear similar pronouncements from his predecessors over the seemingly endless, but now relatively short war in Viet Nam?  There are plenty of non-economic reasons to end these wars, but the fact that we are sending bombs and bullets to Iraq and bribes to Afghan war lords is a major impediment to our economic recovery and stability.

There will be a lot of hand-wringing by Congressmen of both parties if we take away their ability to distribute pork, and primarily by the Republican/Tea Party if we end the Bush oil wars.  But we need to realize that national security is not just a function of military might, but it is also a function of a stable economy and educated work force, both of which have been mishandled in the last decade.  Using some of the savings to prepare the displaced workforce for 21st century jobs is a better investment in our security than these senseless wars.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Drink Water and Get Lung Cancer

There's a disturbing article in the South Jersey section of today's Inquirer about how the state is ineffectively handling the levels of cancer-causing radon in our drinking water.  The article points out that in some communities, the level of this carcinogen in drinking water is 25 times more than that deemed "safe" by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  And this so-called "safe" level is set at a point where "an additional 1 in 2000 people would develop cancer over a lifetime of exposure."  Let's do a back-of the envelope calculation:  The population of New Jersey is 8.7 million.  I don't know how many people live in the Garden State all their lives - so just for argument's sake let's say half of them - 4.35 million.  So if 1 in 2000 would develop cancer over their lifetime, that's an "acceptable "rate of almost 2200 cancer cases due to radon in the drinking water.

Radon occurs naturally, so it is inevitable that people will be exposed to this toxic gas.  But the technology exists to mitigate its effects by filtering it out of the water supply.  According to the article, it would cost only $79 million over 20 years to make drinking water safe for the sixty percent of New Jerseyans who get their water from river sources - peanuts compared to the tax break that our Governor gave to millionaires.  Filtration systems for homes that get their water from wells could cost up to $5000 - less than the medical care for cancer treatment.

So a decade after this problem has been identified, how is the state responding?  They are "analyzing" the data!   Governor Christie and his Evian-drinking cronies are no friend of the environment, so don't look for leadership from his office to address the problem.  Fortunately, radon - unlike other nasty stuff that pollutes the environment - has no lobby, so there's a chance that progress can be made in cleaning up this toxin.

I'm glad that the Inquirer devoted space to this issue, but like other stories in this short attention span society, it will be stale and forgotten by this time tomorrow - only to be recognized by those families whose loved ones succumb to radon poisoning.  It is up to us to bring this to the forefront and ensure our legislators are aware of the problem that impacts all of us - and they take action.

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Failure to Communicate

Progressives continue to lament that President Obama has betrayed them by abandoning the agenda of change for which he was elected.  Yet, even as Obama moves further to the right, he is characterized as a Marxist and Socialist by mainstream Republicans without any pushback from the press.

The problem here is the failure to communicate.  Even though Obama’s (and the Democrats') accomplishments in his first sixteen months are not trivial, this administration is invariably portrayed as unable to accomplish any sort of agenda.

Helped along by the fact that they have their own propaganda arms in Fox News and right-wing hate radio, Republicans have always been more adept at persuading people to their point of view.  Even though today’s complex problems require us to implement complex solutions, Republicans more than ever understand that the American public responds to jingoistic sound bites.  As columnist Bob Herbert points out, the United States ranks a dismal twelfth in the percentage of students who receive college degrees.  No wonder there’s so little critical thinking in our political discourse. That’s why the GOP coins phrases like “right-to-life” and “Patriot Act” – phrases that evoke positive thoughts even though their underlying actions are detrimental and in some cases, unconstitutional.

Republican buffoons exemplified by the likes of Michele Bachman, Louis Gohmert, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Rush Limbaugh and others dominate the airwaves because their catchy one-liners resonate with the masses, even though they are not providing meaningful solutions to the nation’s problems.  Democrats, on the other hand, understand that well thought-out solutions are required to extricate ourselves from the damage wrought upon this nation over the last decade, and with the exception of Congressman Anthony Weiner (who speaks truth to power), tend to be more methodical and rational in their approach.  That’s why Democrats tend to fight among themselves – “the devil is in the details” – while Republicans just march in lock step to drink their Kool Aid.

This is a difficult problem for the Democrats to overcome.  With the preposterous Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, the primarily Republican-leaning corporations and their Tea Party doppelgängers have almost unlimited funds to ram their slogans down the throats of the American public.

So what should the Democrats do to get their message across?  Should they emulate the Republicans and boil everything down to sound bites and misleading monikers?  Or should they get their message across by trying to educate the American public on nuances and details of important issues?  In today’s world, catchy slogans always trump better policies.  Oy.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Deciminyan and Blue Jersey

We had a great time meeting with Blue Jersey, Democracy for America, and bloggers at Highlands, NJ today.  If you're not a fan of Blue Jersey, you're missing the best site for staying informed on what's happening state-wide.

Additional photos are here and here.

Nightmare on First Street NE

I’m not a pessimist by nature.  Just ask my wife or kids.  Yet, when it comes to things political, I subscribe to a corollary to Murphy’s Law – “If there’s anything that’s good for America and her citizens, somehow the Republican Tea Partiers will find a way to obstruct it.”

In a recent post titled Celebrate Victory but Prepare for the Worst, I outlined several scenarios whereby the Roberts Court could overturn the marriage equality gains that were recently won in Federal court in California.  After thinking about this, I discovered another nightmarish scenario that is in the realm of possibility.

Suppose Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision is upheld by the Ninth Circuit (which covers the western states) and is then appealed by the marriage discrimination proponents to the US Supreme Court.   Then, suppose that the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case.  Why would they do this?  There are a couple of reasons:

At least four of the justices (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia) are extreme right-wing conservatives.  And I’m sure they are all students of history.  They recognize the parallels between the struggles of African-Americans and those of gays and lesbians, and realize that their personal views are contrary to the inevitable march toward equality for all.  Powerful men (and in this case, they are all men) covet their future legacy, and they don’t want to go down in history as the Dred Scott II court.  So they decide to punt the ball to the next generation.

Six of the justices (the four previously mentioned plus Kennedy and Sotomayor) are Catholic.  Given the church’s virulent opposition to gay rights, by the criteria espoused by the marriage discrimination folks demanding that Judge Walker recuse himself because he is gay, those six Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves also.  Ain’t gonna happen.  But again, this conflict between personally held religious beliefs and the inevitable march of history may also be an impetus for Kennedy and Sotomayor to treat this case like a hot potato.

So what will happen if the Supreme Court declines the Proposition 8 case?  The Ninth Circuit ruling will stand, and marriage equality will be the law of the land in nine western states and the Pacific Territories.  In the rest of the country, equal rights would remain at the whim of the voters in the individual states.  Chances are, the Federal government would opt to recognize gay marriage country wide instead of implementing a geographically-based system for government benefits and services.  Maybe large corporations would do the same.  But for those living outside the Ninth Circuit, equal rights will still elusive.

By the Supreme Court’s rules, a minimum of four justices need to agree to hear a case, even if a five justice majority does not want to hear it.  So it would take six justices to refuse to hear the case and put equal rights into this geographically divided limbo.  You would think this is hardly likely.  But in 2000, rational people thought it was hardly likely that a conservative court would interfere in a State’s Rights issue and meddle with the Florida election.  And up until recently it would have seemed unlikely that the Court would make an irrational determination that a corporation has all the rights but none of the responsibilities of a flesh-and-blood person. 

Tea partiers and those who impose their religious beliefs on others are a mere roadblock in the inexorable march toward equal rights for all.  But I’m pessimistic that the present generation of gays and lesbians will ever be afforded those rights as the long struggle continues.  I would like to be proven wrong.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Net Neutering

The recent uproar regarding a closed-door deal between Google and Verizon) to throttle certain internet traffic (denied by both companies) points to an important issue that is not being handled well by the Obama administration.

“Net Neutrality” refers to an independent relationship between internet content providers and content distributors (known as Internet Service Providers or ISPs).  From a user’s standpoint, this means that no distinction in ISP’s bandwidth is made between the powerful news sources such as Fox News and the small independent sources such as this blog.  Elimination of net neutrality would result in fast access to those sites that can afford to pay the ISPs for priority, while other sites could be sluggish and even shut out due to internet timeouts.  The Obama administration has not stepped up to the plate to ensure that Americans have equal access to a diversity of internet sources.  FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been in talks with some of the major players, and has given lip service to the concept of net neutrality, but unless the President comes out with a clear policy on this, the corporate interests and big money will prevail.

This issue is part of a much larger problem that has been with us for the last dozen or so years.  The ongoing demise of professional fact-based hard-hitting journalism is being replaced by 24/7 talking heads, sound-bite news reporting, and right-wing hate radio and television.  Some pundits contend that the demise of newspapers is being offset by the explosion of internet services such as blogs, WikiLeaks, and Twitter.  I disagree. (To WikiLeaks’ credit, it actually used traditional media such as the New York Times to do fact-checking on its Afghanistan documents). 

The metamorphosis of the news business is just the symptom.  A major cause of this journalistic illness is the consolidation of media companies into a few for-profit behemoths.  (Here in New Jersey, this problem is being exacerbated by the governor’s evisceration of the only state-wide news source, NJN).  While consolidation may be good for the shareholders and their bonus-driven CEOs, it spells disaster for consumers.

Anti-trust laws were passed over a century ago to ensure that consumers could benefit from competition.  Monopolies would be illegal and there would be no price fixing among the major players in a particular industry.  This worked well – consider the decade-long government effort which culminated with the breakup of AT&T and the Bell System.  Most of the readers of this blog probably don’t remember the days when phone calls outside your immediate area were infrequent and special events due to their high cost.  Now, after the breakup of AT&T and the infusion of competition, no one thinks twice about calling grandma from clear across the country.

Unfortunately, we are moving in the opposite direction today.  The consolidation of content providers and ISPs will invariably limit the choices that consumers have.  Elimination of net neutrality will result in high barriers to entry of small, independent providers.

The courtship between Google (the content provider) and Verizon (the content distributor) is only one example that is bad for the consumer.  The pending merger of Comcast (both a provider and distributor) with NBC-Universal (also a provider/distributor) should be rejected by the Federal Trade Commission.  Congress should pass legislation forbidding providers and distributors to be owned by the same entity.  The rules regarding media ownership where the same company owns a majority of television, radio, and newspapers in a single city should be reinstated.  But Congress, whose lifeblood is donations from the large corporations, will not initiate this action on its own.  The President needs to show leadership and determination to ensure Americans have continued unfettered access to a diversity of media, opinions, and telecommunication services.  This is a golden opportunity for Mr. Obama to show his stripes – will the emphasis be on corporate profits or on equal access for all?

OK. Enough of the serious stuff. This is for a laugh...

(From the hilariously funny Broadway show, Avenue Q)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Celebrate Victory but Prepare for the Worst

Yesterday’s decision by Judge Vaughan Walker in the case of Perry v Schwarzenegger (declaring that California Proposition 8 limiting marriage to one man and one woman is unconstitutional) is not only a victory  for gay Americans but a reaffirmation of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and is a victory for all of us.

Reading the judge’s 138 page decision (and wading through the legal mumbo jumbo), it is obvious that the proponents of marriage discrimination had a weak case.  If you define “credibility” as relying on facts, then the “expert” witnesses who testified against marriage equality were incredibly incredulous.  One wonders why they presented such a weak defense of their position, until you realize that there is no defense for discrimination. When pressed on cross-examination by the unlikely barrister duo of Boies and Olsen, the Proposition 8 supporters conceded to most of the gay marriage proponents’ key points including the disparity between domestic partnership and full marriage and also including the undesirability for religious organizations to impose their tenets on minority groups.  Given the weakness of the side favoring marriage discrimination, it is now clear why they fought (and won) to prevent these proceedings from being televised.

Eventually, this case will be decided by the US Supreme Court.  No doubt, a sane and rational Court would uphold Judge Walker’s well thought out decision.  But the words “sane” and “rational” cannot be applied to a Court that declared that a corporation has all of the rights but none of the responsibilities of a flesh-and-blood person as the Court did in the Citizens United case.

The lineup of the Court is:
  • Four extreme right-wing activist judges: Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia
  • Four moderates described by the press as liberal: Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan
  • One swing vote: Kennedy 

So conventional wisdom is that the decision will be made on a 5-4 vote.  There is no doubt in my mind that Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia will ignore the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  Justice Kennedy (whose vote in Bush v Gore was the deciding factor that initiated the Bush presidency) will be the person who vectors the decision one way or another.

(It should be noted that in the last great civil rights decision, Brown v Board of Education, the divided Court, after some internal politicking by the anti-segregation justices, eventually came out with a 9-0 decision declaring segregation unconstitutional.  This was an important factor in the continuing struggle to institutionalize equal rights for African-Americans.)

While a 5-4 decision overturning Judge Walker’s decision is possible, there are many other perils standing in the path of marriage equality. 

One of the moderate justices could vote to overturn.  Justice Sotomayor is Catholic and Hispanic.  Catholics have been hostile toward equal rights for gays and lesbians, and support from the Hispanic community for marriage equality is virtually non-existent.  Will the new justice put the law in front of any personally-held beliefs?

Two of the moderate justices could become unable to fulfill their duties through sickness or death.  Justice Breyer is 71 and Justice Ginsberg is 77 and in poor health.  No doubt, the Tea Party would filibuster and throw other roadblocks toward any Obama appointee until marriage equality is decided, and this would set up a 4-3 unfavorable decision.

So celebrate the victory in California, but recognize that the fight is not over.  The Tea Party will use marriage equality as a wedge issue to get out the conservative vote in the mid-term elections, and of course both sides will use this as a fundraising vehicle.  A Supreme Court decision to reverse Judge Walker would be a major setback to civil rights, and the only possible remedy would be a generation-long fight for an Equal Rights Amendment protecting not only women, but also gays and lesbians.

Cross-posted to Blue Jersey

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

America's Choice

How should Americans respond to the construction of an Islamic center and mosque in Downtown Manhattan?  We can choose to celebrate the freedoms afforded to us in the Constitution and welcome our fellow Americans to worship and to gather in their native land.  Or we can emulate regimes that we abhor and preach selective exclusion and intolerance.

The terrorists who attacked on our shores on 9/11 did so because they detest our way of life.  And the ramifications of that tragic day are changing the way we live for the worse.  Our constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms are being chipped away by the so-called PATRIOT act, over-the-top airport screenings, and a deficit-inducing overblown Homeland Security bureaucracy.  Now some, especially among the Tea Party sympathizers, want us to hand the terrorists another victory by curtailing American’s Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Assembly.  Where do we draw the line?

Already, there are those so-called “mainstream” politicians like Lindsay Graham who want to tinker with the Constitution to deny American birthright.  And of course there is the ever present scourge of homophobes, femophobes, anti-Semites, and white supremacists who certainly have the right to express their sick views, but are now gaining support among the Tea Party faithful.

Mayor Bloomberg
I often disagree with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.  But on the issue of the mosque, he is absolutely correct.  Hizzonner points out that the group building its center is not only within its rights, but the facility will be a lasting monument to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  Anyone who contends that this building will be an affront to those who perished in the attacks is wrong – it will be a monument to their affirmation of what America is all about.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NOM Wants to Bring Back Slavery?

According to the Iowa Independent newspaper, the homophobic group National Organization for Marriage speciously claims that outlawing gay marriage would help the economy.  Notwithstanding the fact that gay marriage would be a boon to the wedding, travel, photography, and other industries, a human rights argument based on economic factors has no place in American discourse.  One could make a more plausible but similarly morally bankrupt argument that bringing back slavery would be a boon to the economy.  Now, I’m not accusing the NOM of favoring slavery, but their line of reasoning is no different than advocating that.

As I pointed out in a previous blog posting, prohibition of same-sex marriage is a direct violation of the 14th Amendment.  Therefore, all of the posturing of our legislators is just that – posturing.  Marriage equality is a civil rights issue and should not depend on the state one lives in.  Just like it took the courts to institutionalize equal rights for African Americans, it will be up to the courts to ensure marriage equality for all Americans.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Reagan Revolution

In today’s New York Times, David Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under conservative rock star Ronald Reagan, lays out the case that the current financial crisis was caused by and is being sustained by Republican economic policies.  Republicans, he argues, have abandoned their traditional fiscal principles in favor of unfunded wars, deficit financing, and ineffective tax cuts for the rich.  He also lays the blame on the banking sector, which uses government guarantees to develop complex non-value-added money making schemes.  All this from a Reagan Republican!

Yet, I’m afraid that the problem is deeper than this.  The GOP has demonstrated time and again that its only goal is to bring down the nation’s first African-American president.  Until very recently, the party of “no” has maintained a solid bloc to vote down any of President Obama’s initiatives.  Compromise – the engine of American democracy – is not in the Republicans’ vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the Democrats are unwitting co-conspirators in all of this.  For example, in Health Care Reform, they took the best approach, single payer, off the table even before negotiations started.  Single payer would have been less expensive and provided citizens with better services, but Republicans (and some Democrats) are too in debt to the insurance lobby to care.

Stockman is right – the onus of the ongoing financial crisis falls in the lap of the GOP.  From Bush’s unfunded wars, to ill-advised tax cuts which have been repeatedly shown to do nothing to help the economy, to a poorly designed bail out that was thrust upon the new president in his first few weeks, to a stimulus package that was watered down with tax cuts, to ongoing obstructionism in the Senate that is geared to garner votes and not help the economy.  Ronald Reagan was a lousy president, but he was patriotic, despite the litany of unethical and illegal actions in which his administration engaged.  Today’s GOP unabashedly puts party ahead of country.  Reagan must be revolving in his grave.   Heaven help America if this party of selfishness and lunacy gains a majority in either house this year.