A New Kind Of Pope.

Much has already been written about Pope Francis, but I can’t resist adding my two cents worth. For much of my life I found myself contrasting various religious leaders. The most remarkable contrast was between the Dahli Lama and Pope Benedict XVI.

Where the Dahli Lama sought to find the similarities of all religions, too often Pope Benedict focused on issues that divide. While the Dahli Lama dressed in the simple robes of a monk and eschewed the trappings of power and wealth, Pope Benedict seemed to embrace them. While the Dahli Lama displayed humility and humor, Pope Benedict too often allowed the Church to condemn those who strayed too far from his conservative viewpoint. Indeed, under Pope Benedict, the Vatican chastised a group of American nuns for placing too much focus on poverty and economic injustice, the core teachings of Christ.

Under the leadership of Pope Benedict, many bishops and priests felt comfortable engaging in partisan politics; some even threatening parishoners that they would “go to hell” if they voted for the wrong candidate. Worse yet, under Pope Benedict, several Archbishops continued to give cover to predatory pedophiles within the Church.

Enter Pope Francis.

Suddenly, we have a Pope who speaks for the poor and the downtrodden. In fact, he intentionally chose to be called Pope Francis in honor of the patron saint of the poor. This is a Pope who denounced runaway greed and economic inequality; who condemned the “idolatry of money;” who stated that the Church has spent too much time focused on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage; who even went so far as to say that atheists and non-Catholics would be redeemed by doing good. He has embraced the homeless and even washed the feet of prisoners. Pope Francis not only speaks about the principles of Christ. He follows them.

What a refreshing change!

I’m not Catholic, but I believe that our purpose in life should be to help others; to be kind. And I agree with author Thomas Cahill who said, “There are really only two movements in the world. One is kindness. And the other is cruelty.” Let’s all try to embrace the first.

For more insights into the “People’s Pope,” I encourage you to watch Bill Moyer’s interview with Cahill. I’m sure you will enjoy it.

Environmental Suicide.

Many years ago, a scientist named Paul Ehrlich convinced me of the dangers of uncontrolled population growth. He helped create an organization named Zero Population Growth (ZPG) which called for couples to have no more than two children – the number needed to replace the parents while maintaining the existing population. At the time, the world’s population stood at approximately 3.6 billion.

In 2011, the world population exceeded 7 billion!

Even today, few of the world’s governments have taken serious action to limit population growth. Discounting the effects of our never-ending wars, the exception is the one baby policy instituted by China and Indonesia. By enforcing a policy of one baby per couple, the governments hoped to improve economic conditions for their people while preserving dwindling resources. Although the populations of China and Indonesia have continued to grow, by most accounts, the policy has worked. China claims that 400,000 births have been averted. As a result, it recently announced that it will begin to relax the policy.

It seems that one of the biggest obstacles to population control is the lack of access to contraception. Population Action International estimates that as many as 215 million women around the world who want to prevent pregnancy need contraception. Many of these women are denied access to education and contraceptives by religion. This is even a problem in the Americas, especially Latin America.

That’s because the Vatican and other religious leaders have called for a ban on contraceptives and family planning. (It seems they believe that only God can decide the number of children to be born.) These religions often consider science the enemy of faith. Further, many of the same religions tell us that we have nothing to fear from over-population; that if the Earth is destroyed, the faithful will all end up in heaven. Indeed, some religious leaders are anxiously awaiting the “Rapture.”

The attitudes of politicians and corporations are nearly as bad.

In the US, some conservative politicians are trying to ban access to both contraception and abortion. In addition, many corporations see population control and environmental regulations as threats to sales growth. Any real effort to stop global warming would curb the sales of the oiligarchy. And how would corporations continue the escalation of their share prices if they couldn’t clear-cut forests, extract minerals, pillage our oceans, and create sprawling subdivisions?

Large profits require large populations.

Meanwhile, scientists the world over are screaming about the effects of over-population and the increased burning of fossil fuels. They point to alarming evidence that our environment may soon reach a tipping point. They cite statistics of rising temperatures, rising sea levels and shrinking ice shelves. They warn that lost species are like canaries in the coal mine; that the extinction of such species is a precursor to the extinction of our own.

If none of that alarms you, maybe this video will. The scientist in the video makes one of the most compelling (and frightening) arguments yet.

The Conservative War Against Labor.

In the years following the Great Depression, labor unions were popular and thriving. The Wagner Act of 1935, also known as the National Labor Relations Act, guaranteed workers the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. As a result, union workers, particularly those in mining and manufacturing, experienced dramatic gains in salaries and benefits, along with safer working conditions.

Corporations didn’t give up these things without a fight. But public sentiment was temporarily on the side of workers and World War II demanded unity between corporations and unions.

The end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War gave corporations a new opportunity to undermine unions with the rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and his House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC). Likely emboldened by President Truman’s loyalty program intended to discredit Democratic rival Henry Wallace (former V.P. to FDR, nuclear disarmament advocate and pro-labor candidate) prior to the 1948 presidential election, McCarthy launched a witch hunt in search of communist sympathizers. News of the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear capability spawned a national paranoia that allowed McCarthy to portray labor unions as a communist front .

By the time McCarthy’s lies and un-Constitutional tactics were exposed, hundreds of Americans had been imprisoned, thousands more had lost their jobs and tens of thousands had been investigated. The victims included those who had supported Wallace, civil rights leaders, union leaders…even the unions’ rank and file.

The unraveling of the HUAC may have posed another setback for corporations and the wealthy, but McCarthy’s accusations left many suspicious of organized labor, even as labor unions continued to help build the middle class. Finally, in the 1980’s, anti-union forces suceeded in electing a president sympathetic to their cause – Ronald Reagan. When the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike, violating a law banning strikes by government workers, Reagan fired all 11,345 members who failed to return to work.

Reflecting on the event, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan commented, “His [Reagan’s] action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”

The war against unions resumed in earnest.

Corporations began sending jobs offshore in search of labor willing to work for low wages and without benefits such as health insurance, disability insurance and unemployment insurance. The export of jobs also eliminated the need for worker pensions. (In the years since Reagan’s election, more than 85,000 defined benefit pension funds have been eliminated.) Many of the jobs that can’t be exported, like those at Walmart and McDonald’s, now pay so little that their employees require public assistance. And with fewer workers eligible to pay dues, many labor unions have been weakened.

Meanwhile, management compensation has soared. The savings on labor costs has resulted in million dollar annual salaries and bonuses for executives.

With money comes influence allowing corporations and industries to successfully lobby Congress for subsidies, tax write-offs and lower tax rates. In addition, many corporations have been allowed to avoid taxes by creating Post Office box “headquarters” in off-shore tax havens. The resulting drop in tax revenue led to increased deficits and greater debt. But, rather than rewrite the corporate tax code and raise taxes on those who could afford it, conservatives have seized the opportunity to cut social programs. They not only cut food stamps. They have targeted Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, as well.

Not surprisingly, conservatives have also taken aim at the labor unions which represent government workers, such as teachers, firefighters and police. In particular, they want to eliminate government pensions. The argument is that, if private workers don’t have pensions and benefits, why should government workers? If successful, conservatives will have turned the clock back to the gilded age; the days prior to labor unions; the days of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.

Some say that we already have two Americas. I would argue three.

One is the America of the one percent; those who make lots of money and pay little to no income tax; those who can buy influence by donating to political campaigns and build new businesses with government subsidies financed with the taxes paid by others.

The second is the America of hard work, limited upward mobility and shrinking investments. In this America, you work ever longer hours in order to meet the corporate demands of increased productivity. Each year, you are forced to do more with less. For you, retirement may be little more than a dream. And for your children, college will become a financial burden they may never be able to repay.

The third America is one in which people work for so little money they can’t afford many of the necessities of life. According to the Working Poor Families Project, one in three American families are now among the working poor. One in six Americans and one in four children don’t know where the next meal is coming from, or even if there will be a next meal. In this America, more than 630,000 are chronically homeless and 3.5 million will experience homelessness in a given year. For many of these people, there is little hope that their circumstances will change. They not only lack political influence, many face new laws and obstacles intended to discourage them from voting.

Both President Obama and Pope Francis have recently called economic inequality the biggest problem we face. But President Obama can’t reduce inequality in America by himself. We will need a Congress that represents all Americans. We will need a sympathetic and unified citizenry. And we will need organized labor.

(As a footnote, I should make it clear that, having become part of middle management almost immediately following college graduation, I was ineligible for union membership. But, like most Americans, I was able to take advantage of the improved working conditions, salaries and benefits negotiated by labor unions.)

Dumb Dynasty.

Last week, social media were overwhelmed with the Duck Dynasty scandal after the program’s “star,” Phil Robertson likened homosexuality to bestiality and talked glowingly about the days of Jim Crow. In an interview with GQ, he said, “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once … They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

It seems that Robertson missed the Fifties and Sixties when black people were beaten or lynched for being “uppity.” Apparently he missed the entire civil rights movement when dogs and fire hoses were aimed at those participating in peaceful marches; when black churches were bombed or burned; when organizers were murdered for registering African-Americans to vote.

But Robertson’s failed memory isn’t the real scandal here. Neither is the fact that a ZZ Top lookalike said something stupid, insensitive and hateful. Nor is the fact that his employer chose to “suspend” him for his statements. It is somewhat more scandalous that the program is on a network named Arts & Entertainment, and that Robertson was interviewed by a magazine named Gentleman’s Quarterly. But none of those things represent a real scandal.

The real scandal is that anyone actually cares.

Contrary to the beliefs of its supporters, Duck Dynasty is not a reality show. Most of it is as phony as the family member’s beards which were grown just for the program. It doesn’t represent the South or American family “values.” What it actually represents is the further dumbing down of America. Centered on a family that made a fortune by making and selling duck calls, the program’s alleged entertainment comes from watching a wealthy family act like spoiled, overgrown children imparting hillbilly homilies. It is, in fact, a prime example of what former Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Newton Minow once condemned as television’s “vast wasteland.”

As for conservatives who have their tighty whities in a bunch over A&E’s “suspension” of Robertson, they can relax. The network has already announced that Robertson will not miss a single episode, and publicity of the controversy will likely only increase the program’s ratings. Further, the “suspension” was not a violation of Robertson’s First Amendment right to free speech. He was admonished by his employer, not the government. (Get back to me if he’s ever arrested for making dumb statements.)

Don Imus, Keith Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Alec Baldwin and many others have been removed from the air and lost substantial income as the result of making insensitive statements in public. On the other hand, Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, the pundits of Fox News Channel and other conservative icons never seem to face any real consequences for being chronically and publicly stupid.

Putting Pagan Back In The Solstice.

It’s that time of year when, once again, we are treated to the annual Fox News Channel “War on Christmas” diatribes. For some reason, the Fox pundits believe that wishing someone “Happy Holidays” is an insult to Christianity. It’s not. It’s simply a sentiment intended to include those of all religious backgrounds. Certainly, the majority of Americans call themselves Christian. But our population also includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans, Atheists and more. If you don’t know someone’s religious beliefs (and not everyone wears a necklace with a cross, a star or other symbol of faith), wishing them “Happy Holidays” is not insulting. It’s simply being polite.

This year, the Fox nitwits have become even more extreme than usual. They now claim that Santa Claus (a largely mythical and secular character) is white. They have also stated that Jesus was white. (Yes, white as in Caucasian white.)


The story of Santa originated with Saint Nicholas, a man of Turkish origin who was known for his generosity to the poor. His ancestry would indicate that he was not white. And, although the real St. Nick was always depicted with a beard, he was hardly the portly, cherubic character that most kids think of today. Since today’s Santa Claus is a figment of the imagination, people can imagine him to be white, black, brown or green. It really doesn’t matter.

As for Jesus, he was Jewish, not Caucasian. Even the most devoutly revisionist Christians should know that! Yes, over the centuries, artists have often portrayed Jesus as white. But artists tend to represent historical figures according to their own cultural heritage. Such renderings should not be confused with reality.

Moreover, few historians believe that Christ was actually born on December 25. The exact date of his birth is unknown. Historians have placed the date sometime between March and October from 7 to 2 BC. Likely the celebration of his birth was moved to December 25 in order to coincide with the Winter Solstice, thus encouraging Pagans and others to adopt Christianity without giving up the celebration of one of their most important holidays. When we celebrate Christmas on December 25, we are also honoring an important tradition of Pagans and other ancient cultures.

The point of all this is that, if it wants to be taken seriously as a news source, Fox should get its facts straight. And it should stop trying to pit one religion against another and one group against another. It causes me no harm if you want to put the Christ back in Christmas. Nor does it cause me any harm if you want to put the Pagan back in the Solstice. However you celebrate the season, it should be a time to gather with family and friends. It should be a time of happiness and joy.

Happy Holidays everyone!

We Could All Learn From “The Jerk.”

The Jerk, starring Steve Martin, has long been one of my favorite movies. Not only is it filled with great comedy, it is filled with wisdom and life lessons. One such lesson is represented by the scene in which Martin’s character, Navin, first sees his name listed in the phone book. “I am somebody!” he exclaims.

That should be meaningful to all of us since it represents the human need for acknowledgement and respect. In fact, I believe respect is one of the most basic of human needs right after air, food and water. None of us want to think that we will journey through life without leaving a mark or even being noticed. Indeed, many human conflicts could be avoided by simply showing respect for others.

Street gangs are formed as a result of seeking a sense of belonging. Usually, they band together when the individual members feel disrespected by others in their community. And they are willing to fight and die when they are disrespected by other gangs.

Likewise, consumers experience frustration and anger when corporations and other institutions treat them as mere sources of money instead of actually working to fulfill their needs. Workers feel unappreciated and disrespected when they are paid too little money, or when extra effort goes unnoticed. Civil rights issues, such as gay marriage, are as much about respect and fairness as they are about freedom and personal liberty.

The need for respect even leads nations into war when they feel that others are trying to take advantage of them. For example, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States began as the result of President Truman’s bellicose and belligerent statements that showed contempt for our World War II ally. Truman thought that, since we were the only nation to hold the secret of nuclear weapons, he could use that power to disregard prior agreements and exact new concessions from the Soviets.

In other words, Truman ignored the Soviets’ need for respect.

This is a lesson that should be considered as we enter negotiations with Iran and as we press for new trade concessions from China. It’s what both Democrats and Republicans need to consider if they are to accomplish anything that will benefit our citizens during the next session of Congress. It’s what we all need to keep in mind as we interact with each other. Not just during the holiday season, but year ‘round.

As Aretha Franklin sang, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T…I got to have a little respect.” It’s what everyone needs and deserves.

Prisoners Of Greed.

Contrary to popular belief, crime does pay. But not in the way you think. It’s not necessarily the criminals who profit. It’s the corporations that imprison them. You see, more and more of our states are replacing state-run prisons with prisons run by private corporations. And since the US has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and only 5 percent of the population, prisons have become a very big business.

Although crime is generally going down and the number of prisoners is shrinking, thanks to intensive lobbying efforts, we are still building more private prisons. To make matters worse, the prison corporations have contracts that dictate that they will not accept any prisoners with chronic illnesses. Their contracts guarantee 85 percent to 100 percent occupancy. Yet it has been shown that private prisons cost significantly more per prisoner than public prisons.

But cost is only one of the problems associated with private prisons. It has been reported that 78 percent of those entering prison have drug problems. Indeed, addiction is one of the contributing factors to most crimes. Yet only 6 percent receive treatment while in prison despite evidence that every dollar spent on drug treatment saves $18.02 in the cost of enforcement, court cases and incarceration.

50 percent of those in prison have committed non-violent crimes, many of them minor. But, because of its Three Strikes and You’re Out law, California has some people serving life sentences for such crimes as stealing a $69 jacket. This is not only inhumane. It’s ineffective. Criminologists know that the peak ages for crime are between 16 and 25. They also know that there is an optimum amount of punishment needed to prevent recidivism. That time varies according to the crime and the individual. If you keep someone in prison for too long, they are more likely to be violent when they get out. And since 93 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, you can see the potential for problems.

If you treat people like animals, they tend to act like animals.

Nevertheless, many politicians continue to push for more severe sentences and harsh conditions for prisoners. The mentality is to house criminals rather than rehabilitate them. Criminologists can prove that such policies don’t work. But their knowledge is often rejected because politicians have found that being “tough on crime” helps their chances for re-election.

Further, such “get tough” policies are good for the profits of private prison corporations. And the private prison corporations often contribute to political campaigns.

Unfortunately, our enormous prison population is damaging our country. It has not only harmed our human rights reputation around the globe. It has destroyed families and entire communities. 1 in 33 school children in the US have at least one parent in prison. 1 in 4 Americans have a felony record.  Moreover, a study by the Pew Research Center found that if you arrest 500 people in a community of 100,000, you disrupt the entire community. Yet there are many communities in which we have arrested as many as 750.

Criminologists know that the best deterrent to crime is certainty of punishment more than the length and severity of punishment. But our politicians pay no attention. We also know that education prevents crime. Yet we now pay 40 percent more for prisons than we do for education.

Our priorities could not be more upside-down.

The Privatization Fraud.

For many years, the GOP has called for smaller government while, at the same time, extolling the virtues of privatization. GOP politicians have pushed for private schools through tax incentives and vouchers. In many states, they have turned the operation of prisons over to private, for-profit corporations. And thanks to the GOP, many of the operations once provided by military personnel are now provided by private contractors, such as Halliburton and Blackwater.

More recently, the GOP has pushed for privatizing Medicare through a voucher system and privatizing Social Security through private financial institutions.

The argument is that private companies can always perform tasks better and cheaper than public institutions. But before you jump on the privatization bandwagon, maybe you should ignore the rhetoric and look at studies which compare the costs and quality of services provided by private institutions with those provided by government.

Let’s begin by comparing charter schools with public schools. A 2009 report entitled Multiple Choice Charter School Performance in 16 States by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than public schools while 47 percent performed at roughly the same level and 37 performed worse than public schools! This is in spite of the fact that charter schools often get to select students and usually provide few of the extra-curricular activities that public schools do.

As for prisons, a 2012 study by the Tucson Citizen found that private prisons cost the State of Arizona $3.5 million per year more than public prisons even though private prisons do not take high security prisoners or those with chronic illnesses. Ironically, the one exception is Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City. Like the name suggests, Tent City is a series of canvas tents in the desert with no heat or air conditioning. The bathrooms are portable toilets. Prisoners are made to wear pink underwear. And prisoners are served two meals a day. One meal consists of milk, juice, porridge and a hard roll. The other consists of a green baloney sandwich. Yet, despite the primitive conditions, Tent City costs more per prisoner than any other jail or prison in Arizona. Worse, recidivism is 14 percent higher than the national average.

Sheriff Joe may be the self-proclaimed “nation’s toughest sheriff” and an extreme conservative, but he is a failure as a steward of taxpayers’ money.

Nevertheless, the biggest waste of money is the privatization of our military. During the early stages of the Afghan war and the Iraq war, the Department of Defense (DoD) awarded no-bid contracts to Halliburton for everything from food service to transport and supply. In addition, the DoD handed out lucrative contracts for security services to Blackwater. The expectation was that privatizing such services would cost the US substantially less and allow the DoD to focus on military operations. But, after examining the DoD’s own documents, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) found that private contractor employees cost 2.94 times more than an average DoD employee performing the same job!

According to POGO, in 2010 the DoD spent $254 billion for contract employees compared to $108 billion for civilian personnel directly employed by the DoD and $150 billion for military personnel.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. After all, the primary difference between a service provided by government and a service provided by a corporation is profit. The corporation must deliver profits in order to pay dividends to shareholders. And the corporate CEOs tend to pay themselves salaries that are many times those of government leaders. In most cases, the only way private corporations can compete with government is to reduce the scope and quality of service.

Imagine what will happen if they ever get their hooks into Medicare and Social Security!

Affluenza: Too Rich To Jail.

The young Texas boy who was given probation for killing four pedestrians and critically injuring two of his companions while driving drunk is less the exception than you may think. Certainly, his defense of pleading guilty to being a spoiled brat is unique. But the end result was not. Instead of going to jail, the Texas youth will be forced to suffer the indignity of attending a $450,000/year California treatment program complete with martial arts lessons and private chef. The horror!

Fact is, the rich and the privileged have always received special treatment.

Likely, most of us can recall at least one incident when someone in our school or community was treated differently because his or her family had money or knew the “right” people. It might have been an athlete before a big game. It might have been the child of a community leader who got a grade they hadn’t earned. Those kinds of things are bad enough. But when they extend to our justice system?…

There are people from poor communities who received life sentences for petty, non-violent crimes while the Wall Street goons who stole trillions from homeowners and investors received six and seven figure bonuses. (Most have not even faced charges, and likely never will.) While the poor rot in prison after being caught with crack cocaine, the rich caught snorting powder cocaine are released with a fine and probation…or sentenced to a spa-like treatment center. Many of the wealthy have even gotten away with murder thanks to their highly-paid “dream” teams of attorneys and consultants.

In some cases, the perps don’t even have to be rich to receive special treatment. After finally being indicted for shooting an unarmed boy, George Zimmerman was allowed to get away with murder thanks to his team of lawyers paid for by the gun lobby.

Of course, the same kind of special treatment extends to large corporations.

After it was determined that a Koch refinery carelessly spilled aviation fuel into the ground water and tried to cover it up, the company was fined…wait for it…a sum equal to less than one day’s net profit from the refinery. And, while BP was forced to pay more than $42 billion for the Gulf oil disaster, a US district court ruled that the company originally responsible for the leak and ensuing explosion, Halliburton, will not have to share in the costs. (It wouldn’t have anything to do with Halliburton’s connection to former V.P. Richard “The Dick” Cheney, would it?)

I guess money and influence can buy happiness, after all. Obviously, they can buy special treatment.