Category Archives: Random Blogging

Wages, Poverty and Civic Participation

Pew’s Research Center recently noted that financial insecurity has a range of what it called “secondary effects” for communities, including diminished participation in civic and political life.

The question that immediately occurred to me was: is this a feature, or a bug?

Ever since Ronald Reagan identified government as the problem rather than the solution, the ascendant radical right has worked tirelessly (and successfully) to remove or reduce the social supports available to poor Americans through government.  At the same time, the GOP has worked to discourage or suppress the votes of those same Americans.

In today’s America, the financially secure have what political scientists call “voice.” Even before Citizens United and its progeny, the well-to-do could and did donate huge sums to favored politicians. The corporations that are “people”(!) can and do hire well-connected lobbyists to ensure that their interests are represented in the halls of power. As Pew has now pointed out, the financially secure are also much more likely to vote.

Voting is the only way financially insecure folks have voice. If enough poor people voted, it would be much more difficult to fashion a government protective of privilege. Keeping poor folks from the polls is thus in the (short term) interest of the well-off.

As Pete, who frequently comments here has pointed out, these aspects of our civic landscape are not the hallmarks of a democracy; they are the attributes of oligarchy.

One problem with oligarchy is that its goals tend to be both short-term and short-sighted.

If we don’t reverse course soon, if we don’t take the boots of the advantaged off the necks of the impoverished and give disheartened Americans a reason to participate in their own self-government,  that short-sighted focus on the next quarterly statement and disregard of the long-term good will take us all down.

Oligarchs included.


Are We Crazy?

A recent article posted to the website Alternet posed a simple question: Are Americans crazy?

In my long nomadic life, I’ve had the good fortune to live, work, or travel in all but a handful of countries on this planet.  I’ve been to both poles and a great many places in between, and nosy as I am, I’ve talked with people all along the way. I still remember a time when to be an American was to be envied. The country where I grew up after World War II seemed to be respected and admired around the world for way too many reasons to go into here….

In the early fall of 2014, I traveled from my home in Oslo, Norway, through much of Eastern and Central Europe. Everywhere I went in those two months, moments after locals realized I was an American the questions started and, polite as they usually were, most of them had a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy? Please explain.

The author goes on to detail the issues that make America a “puzzlement” to the rest of the world, and I encourage you to click through and read the whole depressing thing.

The takeaway–at least for me–was that this question isn’t just being posed to the six million Americans who live abroad. Increasingly, it is a question that the dwindling numbers of reasonable Americans are asking each other here at home.

How do we explain the various buffoons and zealots holding public office, and the widespread disengagement from the democratic process that placed them there? How do we explain the contempt for poor Americans that characterizes debates about healthcare, poverty and the growth of inequality? How do we explain widespread rejection of science, the backlash against women’s rights, the refusal to do anything about mounting student debt, or even to recognize that education is a public good? How can we possibly defend letting our infrastructure crumble? Or explain the respectful attention generated by chickenhawks intent upon taking us into war after war? (Yes, Lindsay Graham, I’m looking at you and John McCain and the other “heirs” of Dick Cheney.)

If all of this isn’t crazy–if Americans aren’t in the grip of national psychosis– what is it?




Wow..Talk About Your Double Standards!

The Supreme Court recently announced it will hear pending same-sex marriage cases, prompting the increasingly unhinged American Family Association to issue a press release titled “Kagan and Ginsburg: Recuse Yourselves!”

Both of these justices’ personal and private actions that actively endorse gay marriage clearly indicate how they would vote on same-sex marriage cases before the Supreme Court,” said AFA President Tim Wildmon. “Congress has directed that federal judicial officers must disqualify themselves from hearing cases in specified circumstances. Both Kagan and Ginsburg have not only been partial to same-sex marriage but they have also proven themselves to be activists in favor of it. In order to ensure the Court’s integrity and impartiality, both should recuse themselves from same-sex marriage cases. Congress has an obligation to Americans to see that members of the Supreme Court are held to the highest standards of integrity. The law demands it, and the people deserve it.

Because Scalia and Thomas haven’t given us any hints about their approach to the subject..cough, cough. (One of Scalia’s sons directs an Ex-gay “reparative therapy” group, and has declared that homosexuality doesn’t really exist.)

A few observations: first, judges (including Scalia) are entitled to have personal opinions. What we have a right to expect is that they will render decisions based upon precedent and sound constitutional analysis, rather than twisting their legal analyses to fit their policy preferences. (Hint: Ginsburg and Kagan are not the Justices most often accused of that behavior.)

Second–where were these defenders of “high standards of integrity” when their fellow-travelers Scalia and Thomas had frequent, obvious and quite real conflicts of interest?

Both Scalia and Thomas accepted speaking engagements (including cushy travel and accommodations) before ideological groups funded by the Koch brothers, although there were cases pending before the Court in which the Kochs were deeply interested.

Scalia went hunting with then Vice-President Cheney at the same time that Cheney was party to a case before the Court (another one of his sons technically worked for Cheney at the same time, as top lawyer in the Bush Administration’s Labor Department); Thomas has refused to recuse himself in cases where the outcome was very important to the (ideological) organization employing his wife. If a lower court judge refused to recuse under such circumstances, that judge would be sanctioned under the rules cited by the AFA.

I have news for the AFA: being a nice human being while serving on the Supreme Court (the conduct of which Kagan and Ginsberg are guilty) is not how we define a conflict of interest. Even being an narcissistic asshole (Scalia) or a petulant advocate of long-discarded constitutional theories  (Thomas) while serving on the Court is not a conflict.

Refusing to recuse yourself from cases in which you or your spouse have a direct financial interest, or from cases to which your hunting buddy is a party, is.

Religious Voices Sing Different Tunes

There’s a central insight that gets lost in those fabricated “wars” on Christmas and the purported victimization of “people of (Christian) faith.”

The really consequential religious battles aren’t those that occur between us secular folks and adherents of various religious communities. They aren’t even the conflicts between followers of different religions.

The real dividing line is between people who look to their religion for guidance about the nature of the good, and those who see in dogma a tool for exercising power and/or asserting superiority.

The religious folks I admire strive to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their Lord” (to appropriate a phrase from Jewish liturgy). These are people who aren’t consumed with moral certainty or pumped up with self-righteousness; they’re people looking for wisdom in managing their relationships to each other and the planet, people who understand that there are many paths to a good life, and many good people on paths different from their own.

Then there are those who use religion primarily to advance their own temporal prospects, and the zealots to whom they appeal– angry, insecure people for whom religion is expressed in fundamentalism and intolerance.

Recently, these two incompatible approaches met in Louisiana. I give you Bobby Jindal and the awesome counter to his blatant politicizing of religion. 

A group of religious leaders has scheduled a prayer rally at Southern University to rival Gov. Bobby Jindal‘s religious gathering — officially called The Response – at LSU.

The prayer rally  at Southern University will take place in the Felton G. Clark Center (Mini Dome) on the same day, Jan. 24, as Jindal’s event at the Peter Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC) on LSU’s campus. The Southern gathering is being called the “Prayer Rally for the Soul of Louisiana.”

Organizers of the Southern event have said they will focus on Louisiana’s mass incarceration rate, Medicaid expansion and the state’s failing education system. The list of issues may be a personal critique of Jindal’s tenure as governor. For example, the governor has consistently refused to accept federal dollars to expand the Medicaid program in Louisiana, even as other Republican governors have done so.

Jindal has come under criticism for holding The Response at a public facility on LSU’s campus. Some question whether the event, which is overtly Christian, should be held in a government building. Other criticism has to do with sponsor for The Response — the American Family Association (AFA) — which holds controversial views about homosexuality, Eric Garner’s death and freedom of speech. An initial prayer guide released for The Response linked the rise of same-sex marriage to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

If more genuinely religious folks protested the hijacking of religion for political purposes, religion might be more appealing to the growing number of Americans who are throwing the baby of spiritual exploration out with the bathwater of bigotry.




Alternate Realities

Monday, I posted about the seeming (destructive) human need to distinguish between “us and them.” It bears noting that those categories aren’t confined to nationality, ethnicity and religion;  back in October, I commented on the tendency of the “haves” to dehumanize the “have-nots”–

If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.

These days, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged), but blaming the poor for their poverty is seen as analysis rather than bigotry.

A recent Pew poll confirms that observation.

Fifty-four percent of the survey respondents categorized as ‘most financially secure’ said “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

If anything confirms the ability of the well-to-do to live in a reality of their own construction, the belief that poor people “have it easy” should do it. These respondents have never met Alice or encountered my students who are working two jobs and going into debt in order to get an education that they hope will help them earn their way out of poverty.

To make matters worse,

Financial security is strongly correlated with nearly every measure of political engagement. For example, in 2014, almost all of the most financially secure Americans (94%) said they were registered to vote, while only about half (54%) of the least financially secure were registered. And although 2014 voting records are not yet available, pre-election estimates suggest that 63% of the most financially secure were “likely voters” last year, compared with just 20% of the least financially secure.

The people who are least acquainted with reality are choosing our lawmakers. Explains a lot.