The Dismal State Of Our Union.

Upon listening to the last day of Neal Conan’s Talk of the Nation on NPR, I was surprised by Ted Koppel’s response when asked about the future. Turns out, Koppel shares many of the same concerns as I do. For what it’s worth, here is a compilation of my own views of the current state of our union and its future.

Civil Rights – How depressing that people are still struggling for civil rights nearly 150 years after the end of slavery! The Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act was a huge setback, unleashing red states to suppress minority votes.

Abortion – Although abortion was made legal in 1973, women are still fighting to wrest control of their own bodies from the old men who control our political system. Amazingly, women are now forced to fight for access to contraception!

Environment – Most Americans say they’re concerned about our environment. They just don’t act like it. Most refuse to sacrifice anything on behalf of our planet’s future.

Hunger – In the richest nation on Earth, 50 million people are unsure of where they’ll get their next meal. That includes 17 million American children!

Energy – Nearly 40 years after President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House, we’re still addicted to fossil fuels. We spill more oil than most other countries use.

Healthcare  – The dirty secret is that we have no healthcare system. We spend more than twice as much as other advanced nations, yet achieve worse outcomes. And we spend more on pharmaceuticals than the rest of the world combined.

Wall Street – Greed has turned large banks into high stakes casinos. Their gambling habit not only cost individuals and pension plans trillions…many families lost their homes. Yet any attempt to regulate these banks has been undermined by millions in lobbying efforts.

Income Disparity – The US ranks among the world’s worst nations for income inequality. 400 Americans control more wealth than half of our population, and the gap is growing. Yet Republicans believe that 47 percent are sponging off the rest!

Jobs – Simply put, we don’t have enough of them. And far too few of them pay enough to support a family. Corporate leaders and politicians, on the other hand, each make enough to support dozens of families.

Privatization – We’ve privatized prisons, prison healthcare, schools, our military, even our intelligence efforts. Although all of these efforts have proven to cost more than publicly run institutions, Republicans are pushing for even more privatization.

Pensions – We lost tens of thousands of employee pensions over the past 40 years, replaced by IRAs and 401Ks which were originally intended to supplement defined benefit pension plans. The money once used for employee benefits now lines the pockets of CEOs, executives and investors.

Politics – Our politics have continued to move to the right, even though our population hasn’t. When Republicans are in control, they unabashedly cram through partisan legislation. When Democrats are in control, they tentatively nibble around the margins instead of doing what they were elected to do. Both parties rely on large corporations to finance their political campaigns.

Tea Party – This is a relatively small group that has had a large impact. Based on lies and meanness, it seems its goal is to take us back to the 16th Century.

Surveillance – Following 9/11, we traded privacy for increased security. The NSA tracks records of our phone calls, search engine terms and emails. Banks and credit card companies track our purchases. And surveillance cameras are everywhere.

Guns – While the NRA works to increase the availability of guns, even for criminals and the mentally ill, manufacturers make guns ever more lethal.

Education – Thanks to conservatives, public education is underfunded and teachers are woefully underpaid. Enough said.

Science – Many now claim that evolution is merely a theory. But so is gravity! Of course, these people also deny man’s affect on climate change. (See education.)

Religious Intolerance – Islam is not the only religion with extremists. The intolerance of all religions seems to be growing.

Anger and Pettiness – Within 20 years of the end of the Fairness Doctrine, 91 percent of talk radio was conservative…mean, angry, venomous Rush Limbaugh-style conservative… and it’s getting worse. (See Tea Party)

War – There’s no denying it. The US absolutely LOVES war. We glorify soldiers and their war machines with military-style ceremonies and flyovers at nearly every large event. And we spend hundreds of billions on “defense” to build bigger, badder war toys.

Iraq – Iraq cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. The result of our sacrifices is that we have turned Iraq into a vassal state of radical Iran.

Afghanistan – Despite setting a deadline for withdrawal, there is no clear outcome for this war. We may leave the country no better off than it was when we arrived.

Syria – Yet another opportunity to dive into a war with no real reason or plan. But it is a war and some of our politicians don’t want to be left out.

War on Drugs – This “war” may have ruined more lives than the drugs themselves. It disproportionately affects minorities, filling our prisons to overflowing. Indeed, we have a larger prison population than any other nation.

Militarization of Police – As our soldiers return from war, they’re increasingly hired by police departments. As a result, police become ever more militarized…with assault weapons and assault vehicles…and further removed from ordinary citizens.

Journalism – In the 1980’s, TV networks began measuring the success of their news organizations by ratings which instantly sensationalized the news and created the “sound bite.”  Worse, most news groups have lost their independence as they were gobbled up by conglomerates.

With all this, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future, but the pendulum may soon swing the other way. I hope so.

The States’ Rights Court.

Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on three highly controversial cases, it seems that the decisions all have one thing in common – a desire to protect states’ rights. Even though the justices behind the majority opinions changed from one case to another, the Court showed a willingness to defer, when possible, to the states.

In the case of the VRA (Voting Rights Act), it seems that the majority believes that the VRA is an intrusion on the affected states. In voiding the criteria for pre-clearance of changes in voting laws in states that have a history of discriminating against minorities, the Court challenged Congress to create new criteria that reflect today’s political environment.

Disregarding the fact that the VRA has been a target of John Roberts since 1980, the majority opinion seems to be a win for those who believe in states’ rights. Unfortunately, on the issue of voting rights, many of our states have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to protect the voting rights of minorities. In states like Alabama and Texas, the ink on the Court’s opinion wasn’t dry before Republican legislators introduced new efforts to suppress minority votes. Indeed, the Republican Party has been trying to suppress minority votes across the country.

If the Court was serious about protecting voting rights, it would have subjected all states to pre-clearance of changes in voting laws. It most certainly wouldn’t have passed responsibility along to our dysfunctional Congress.

In the cases of Prop 8 and DOMA, a different majority of the Court ruled. But the outcome was much the same.

On Prop 8, the Court ruled that, since the State of California chose not to defend the constitutionality of its own law in court, surrogates could not. On DOMA, the majority ruled that the legality of gay marriage is up to individual states, and it ruled that the federal government cannot deny benefits to gay couples who have been legally married.

As you can see, both of these rulings also seem to support states’ rights.

If the Roberts Court is so committed to protecting states’ rights over the federal government, a position most famously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the justices would be wise to remember what Jefferson wrote in defense of separation of Church and State: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The same reasoning would be well applied to all civil rights. To paraphrase: The right of other citizens to vote, or to marry whom they choose, does me no injury. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Let’s Sit This War Out.

By my calculations, the US has been at war all but 33 years of our existence. And that doesn’t even include many of the “police” actions and minor intrusions into other nations.

Now many in Congress are beating the war drums again. They want us to do more to help depose Syria’s al-Assad by creating a no-fly zone and providing even more weapons to the rebels. But which rebels? Al Qaeda? Hezbollah? Those who cut out the hearts of their enemies and dined on them?

Fact is, there are some very bad actors involved in the Syrian killing fields, including President al-Assad’s forces. Moreover, Russia has decided to support al-Assad by providing more sophisticated weapons, including ground-to-air missiles.

Do we want to provoke a conflict with Russia? With neighboring Iran? Do we want to embroil the entire region in the conflict? Do we want to sacrifice the lives of even more of our soldiers? Do we want to pour billions more of our taxpayers’ money down a Middle Eastern rat hole? I think not.

It’s not cowardice to refuse to fight a war that lacks a clear objective and a predictable outcome.

The South Will Rise Again!

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to shoot down sections of the Voting Rights Act may be one giant step backward in our nation’s centuries-long fight for equality and civil rights. It also represents an unprecedented power grab by the Court.

The Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson to prevent widespread voter suppression throughout the South. The law required offending states to obtain pre-clearance by the DOJ (Department of Justice) for changes in voting laws, including any attempts at redistricting aimed at marginalizing the minority vote. For years, this mandate has not only helped African-Americans and Latinos vote, it has helped them get the representation they deserve.

Yet, despite the law, states have never stopped trying to block minority votes.

For example, just last year, the DOJ prevented Houston, Texas from reducing voting centers from 84 to just 12. The plan was to eliminate voting centers in predominately African-American areas of the city. And last year, Teapublican-controlled legislatures throughout the country imposed strict new voter ID laws aimed at reducing minority voter turnout for President Obama. They also drastically reduced polling hours in some states, forcing minorities to stand in line up to 6 hours in order to vote.

All of this has been done under the guise of “vote integrity” to prevent felons and undocumented immigrants from voting, despite the fact there is absolutely no evidence of such illegal voting.

In gutting the Voting Rights Act, which was renewed by Congress in 2006 with near unanimous support, the Court has, in essence, overruled Congress. And, by stating that it is now up to Congress to come up with a new and more equitable way to enforce voting rights, it has given Congress a task the Teapublican-controlled House and the filibuster-prone Senate are clearly not capable of handling.

As a result, racists in Congress and in legislatures throughout the nation, particularly in the Old South and in Arizona, will feel free to run amok again. If you doubt this, all you have to do is to look at the way Teapublicans have pushed through Voter ID laws and anti-abortion laws with an array of bullying tactics and parliamentary tricks.

Pope v. Vatican.

After being named Pope, it seems that the Holy See is seeing some things the Vatican doesn’t like. During his homily at Mass in Rome, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of doing good as a principle that unites all of humanity

The Pope said, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

In other words, you don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to go to heaven. Wow! I bet that left a mark on the Vatican!

And that’s not the only controversy created by Pope Francis. A few weeks later, he acknowledged the existence of a gay lobby within the Vatican. Oh my! He even ordered the Vatican to act on sex abuse and take action against pedophile priests. That’s a refreshing change from the seeming indifference of Pope Benedict and his predecessors.

Pope Francis has even ruffled the feathers of conservative followers by speaking out against the “tyranny of money,” urging more state control of free markets in order to cut global poverty. He (gasp) spoke of the need to protect the environment. And he encouraged followers to bring hope to others, “especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”

Given the conservative direction the Church has taken during the past decades, these admonitions are going to be tough for many Catholics to accept.

America’s Most Centrist President.

In history, no president has ever nominated more than two members of the opposing party to his cabinet…until President Obama.

While Republicans call Obama an extreme liberal, a socialist, a communist, and worse, the president continues to nominate Republicans to important posts. He nominated Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation, Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary (although Gregg later withdrew his name from consideration), John Huntsman as Ambassador to China and John McHugh as Secretary of the Army. He also nominated Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. (Although Gates is a Republican, he changed his registration to independent in order to give the appearance of impartiality.)

And that was just the first term.

So far in his second term, President Obama has nominated Republicans Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and James Comey as Director of the FBI. That’s a total of seven Republicans nominated for important positions in his administration. And there may be more to come.

If that’s not the definition of a centrist, I don’t know what is.

By comparison, Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated two members of the opposing party over three terms. Eisenhower nominated one for each of his terms. John F. Kennedy nominated two, Nixon one, Carter two, and Reagan nominated one who later switched affiliations to become a Republican. George H.W. Bush nominated no members of the opposing party. And both Clinton and Dubya nominated one apiece.

So if, according to Teapublicans and their right wing media whores, President Obama is pushing an extreme liberal agenda on Americans, he’s had a whole lot of help from conservatives.

It’s Difficult To Disprove A Negative.

Whenever someone accuses the government of a scandal, it’s almost impossible to disprove it. That’s because the accusation makes headlines. The truth doesn’t.

Nobody understands this principle better than Teapublicans.

When Bill Clinton was elected to the White House, he was forced to disprove a constant wave of scandals created by the GOP. Now it’s President Obama’s turn. That’s why we’ve seen a flurry of scandalous accusations about Fast & Furious, drones, Benghazi, the IRS, and NSA.

The headlines have been damning – based on outrageous claims by Rep. Darrell Issa, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Mitch McConnell and others. The truth has been less interesting.

For example, Issa made claims that Fast & Furious was a large scale gun-running operation overseen by Attorney General Eric Holder. The reality is that it was a small localized operation by a unit of the ATFE frustrated by Arizona’s lax gun laws and the inability to prosecute straw buyers.

Issa and others made the sensational claim that the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored the danger to diplomats in Libya then covered up their failures. The reality is that Ambassador Stevens twice rejected increased security and the talking points released by Susan Rice were crafted by the CIA and mid-level State Dept. officials.

Teapublicans claim that IRS scrutiny of Tea Party organizations seeking nonprofit status was orchestrated by the White House and President Obama. The truth is, the IRS director was a Bush appointee and, according to testimony by an IRS supervisor in charge (who is, incidentally, a self-described conservative Republican), the scrutiny of Tea Party groups was not ordered by the administration and was not politically motivated.

Teapublicans and many Democrats claim that NSA collection of data demonstrates that President Obama is an authoritarian fascist operating in defiance of the 4th amendment of the Constitution. The truth is, the NSA program began immediately following 9/11 and the Obama administration reigned it in, eliminating warrantless wiretaps and clearing the collection of data through the FISA court and Congress. Interestingly, the people of Europe were aware of our program long before Snowden’s revelations and the overwhelming majority approve of it.

All of this proves that, now that our press is driven by ratings and sensationalism rather than a desire to inform, unscrupulous politicians can take advantage of it. And no politicians are more unscrupulous than today’s Republican Party.

Arizona’s War On The Environment.

Arizona has a long love affair with the gun. Its legislature even named the Colt .45 as the state’s official gun. Gun shops are everywhere. And there’s at least one gun show in the state every weekend. On the other hand, there are few gun clubs or official firing wages.

So where do Arizonans go to fire all of these weapons?

They simply go into the wilderness. They shoot virtually anything in sight, whether it’s legal or not. They blast away at targets and bottles, leaving spent cartridges, broken bottles, targets and other trash in their wake. Increasingly, they leave the forest smoldering.

Over the last few years, dozens of wildfires throughout the West have been caused by hot lead. It’s difficult enough to keep Arizonans from camping when there’s fire danger; from starting campfires; from off-roading; even from flicking cigarette butts out their car windows. But no one’s going to keep Arizonans from exercising their “God-given”, Constitutional right to set the wilderness on fire.

A case in point is the Doce wildfire near Prescott. It has already been determined that the fire was human caused, but it’s not yet certain that it is the result of gunfire. What is known is that the fire has consumed thousands of acres, threatening homes. And that it began in the Doce Pit, an area popular for target shooting.

Visit To The Border Exposes The Complexity Of Immigration.

My wife and I recently traveled to the border town of Douglas, Arizona. Along the way, we passed dozens of Border Patrol pickup trucks and two checkpoints. Upon arriving in Douglas, we were greeted by an imposing wall stretching along the border and a town in visible decay.

You see, Douglas was once a shopping destination for Mexican families. Many drove for miles to purchase items that were difficult to find or too expensive in their own country. Many walked across the border to work. Families lived on both sides of the border. All of this is readily confirmed with a quick glance at many of the business signs, which are in Spanish. Not English. After all, this land was owned by Mexico long before it was transferred to the United States.

Unfortunately, much of that cross-border commerce seems to have come to an end. Many of the storefronts are empty and many buildings are boarded up. It is now much more difficult to cross the border and there are far too many incidents in which Mexican citizens have been detained or threatened. It appears that many Americans have also avoided the area.

These are just a few of the consequences of our failed immigration policy.

Other consequences include the blight of our modern day “Great Wall” or “Iron Curtain.” It’s nearly as expensive and no more successful. The wall has reduced the number of migrants crossing the border illegally. And it has blocked the traditional migratory patterns of wildlife, maybe speeding some desert animals on their way to extinction. But it hasn’t stopped the traffic of illegal drugs. It has simply funneled them into a concentrated area which has posed a danger to ranchers and other residents in the area on both sides of the border.

This is no way to deal with immigration.

If we’re to get a handle on the issue, we must pass legislation that creates work permits. We must create an effective national ID system. We must make it easy for businesses to verify workers before hiring them, and we must make it easy to prosecute businesses who hire undocumented workers. We must create a path to citizenship for those who are already here, especially the “dreamers” (those who were brought here at an early age by their parents). And we must stop our large agribusiness corporations from dumping subsidized corn into Mexico and Central America, making it impossible for small farmers to make a living and forcing them to seek employment elsewhere.

Perhaps, most important, we should decriminalize drugs and make them available with a prescription from pharmacies. That would take the profit out of the illegal drug trade and force the drug cartels to find a new occupation. It would depopulate many of our prisons, saving billions in taxes. It would also eliminate the need for “users” to deal with criminals and to commit crimes in order to purchase their drugs.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

Organized Bank Crimes.

After an ill-advised investment in grain futures in the late 80’s, I became more convinced than ever before that small investors are at the mercy of large investors. Not just in commodities, but in other markets as well. If your timing happens to coincide with that of the large corporations and the wealthy, you profit. If not, they take your money.

In other words, all markets are inherently rigged. Because large corporations and the wealthy gamble such large amounts of money, they control the price of commodities and securities.

We’ve seen this play out in a variety of ways since 1999. That was the year President Clinton caved to the big money lobby (reported to have spent $300 million over 25 years) and a Republican-controlled Congress by signing a bill that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. According to the likes of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Senator Phil Gramm and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, repealing the law would “free” Wall Street from onerous regulation so the banks could “innovate” and grow.

A year later, Clinton signed another such onerous bill, The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Ironically, that was also the year of the crash.

Our financial markets have taken us on a frightening roller coaster ride ever since.

In my opinion, these bills turned financial markets into international high stakes casinos with a variety of complex games that allow the house and the big players to constantly adjust the rules in order to skim more money from suckers like us.

We’ve seen the big players run up the price of commodities, such as gold and oil, at the expense of ordinary citizens. We’ve seen them pump up the real estate market with subprime mortgages designed to fail. When the inevitable happened, the institutions holding those mortgages were bailed out by taxpayers. They then stepped in and snapped up foreclosed homes at a fraction of their actual value. These events also resulted in the loss of trillions by pension plans and the holders of 401ks.

So, thanks to the gambling of financial institutions, millions of ordinary citizens lost their homes and their financial futures at the same time.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was designed to protect us from such risky and unethical behavior by financial institutions. Signed into law in 2010, Teapublicans have not allowed the act to be fully implemented. Even worse, they are working on behalf of their Wall Street benefactors to dismantle the bill. Even some freshmen Democrats seem to have fallen under the spell of Wall Street and the promise of campaign contributions. They recently voted for a bill written almost entirely by the banksters’ lobbyists that would water down Dodd-Frank.

For their part, financial institutions seem totally unphased by any regulations. In the past year, we learned that financial institutions manipulated LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) the benchmark interest rate that determines the international cost of borrowing. After stealing billions, a handful of the big banks involved in the scandal have paid fines that amount to a stern slap on the wrist. Of course, such penalties only encourage financial traders to continue their games.

Now we’re learning of yet another rigged game – the currency market (aka the Foreign Exchange market). According to a Bloomberg report, “traders at banks around the world have regularly worked together for ‘at least a decade’ to move a key benchmark currency rate in ways that profit them and hurt their clients.”

It seems the old adage that “it takes money to make money” has never been more appropriate.