Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not every rainbow is gay

A brand of milk products in Russia uses a rainbow in its package design. That has anti-gay activists in a snit. Rainbows are such the international symbol for gay! Yeah, it is a very homophobic society -- St. Petersburg has (and all of Russia might have) a law that bans "propaganda" promoting the acceptance of gay people.

Maybe not the rainbow, but the orange and purple cows in the image… Well!

Financial literacy

A cover article in today's Sunday Free Press is about the Emergency Manager law we'll be voting on in November. Sorry to whet your appetite and not deliver, but I haven't read it yet. Perhaps I'll report on it later this week. At least there is lots of discussion of the topic. However, I have read a post on Michigan Radio that lists Three Things to Know About Emergency Managers. They are:

1. Michigan's cities have giant infrastructures and tiny budgets. I'm most familiar with Detroit which is big enough for 1.8 million people (the giant infrastructure) but currently has a tax base of 0.7 million (the tiny budget).

2. To be a city council member one only need be old enough and a registered voter. Yet the city council must act like the board of directors for a multi-million dollar corporation. Financial literacy just isn't there.

3. The EM law does provide for the EM to leave behind a multi-year budget for the city council to follow. That's good, but with the way city revenues keep shrinking those projections may not be all that helpful.

The second item in this list makes me wonder if education is the answer. Instead of having an EM take over city gov't is it possible to send city council members to an economic and financial boot camp? Would that be enough? Has it been tried?

President busking for tips

Terrence Heath writes such good essays it is sometimes a shame to summarize them. This one was prompted by the GOP members of the House who passed a bill that tells rich people that if they are feeling generous they can donate to the US Treasury. They named it the Buffet Rule, though it is nothing like Warren Buffet's plea to tax wealthy people at least as much as those in the middle class.

Here's the summary: Democrats say, "We're all in this together." Republicans say, "I've got mine. Too bad you don't have yours." But our national shared resources, safety net, and educational support of the next generation cannot be maintained when the president must busk for tips. And to all you rich people: You would have not gotten as rich as you are without America, the place you now refuse to support.

Go read a banned book

This is the start of National Banned Books Week. To commemorate (I'm not sure this is something to celebrate) the week pull out your favorite banned book and read it. You won't have to go any further than the Harry Potter series, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, Captain Underpants, and And Tango Makes Three (which is gay-themed). Some libraries are hosting events where banned books will be read.

I've read through the list of the most challenged books for 2011 and, amazingly, none of the top ten were challenged because of homosexuality. No doubt gay themed books have a strong showing in the other 326 recorded challenges during the year (the least number of challenges since 1990!). The top reason for challenges in last year's top ten is the usual bugaboo, "sexually explicit." The list of the top ten is here. I'm familiar with only a couple of them. Then again, I don't spend time in a public school library.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Evaluating your hospital

Let the marketplace weed out the bad performers! That's another favorite refrain of conservatives these days. But that assumes the consumer can be well-informed about choices in products and services.

In some cases, we do. Consumers Reports extensively reviews products such as automobiles. Their analysis of products, especially if they find something unacceptable, can sway buyers. Manufacturers scramble to fix problems.

But in at least one glaring case, we don't. And it is killing us. That case is the safety and effectiveness of hospitals. Marty Makary, M.D., wrote a summary for Newsweek of his new book Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care. He tells a few horror stories to make his point that the current practices make money at the expense of our health and the overall cost of health care in America would drop if hospitals had to report to the public on their successes and failures.

Makary knows this will work because the state of New York made that requirement in the early 1990s. One hospital had an 18% mortality rate in heart bypass operations. In six years it was cut to 1.7%.

Democracy is a competitive disadvantage

Terrence Heath has a couple essays about Romney and his now famous "47%" comment. First, an important clarification. These people pay taxes -- at least state, local, sales, and payroll (if they're employed) taxes. What Romney was referring to (though didn't say) was income tax.

There is the important question. Why don't these people pay income tax? The answer is simple. The amount of tax they are to pay is lower than the amount of tax credits they receive. Short answer: They don't make enough money.

Next question: Why don't they make enough money to pay income tax? Because people like Romney shipped the good paying jobs overseas. That leaves Americans with lousy paying jobs. The kinds of jobs Romney wants credit for creating.

Heath's second post features comments by Sara Zacharias. She discovered she is part of the "lazy" 47%, one of the "victims," and is insulted to be spoken about like that. Lazy she is not. And she refuses to be anybody's victim.

Heath's first essay linked to one by Dave Johnson of Campaign for America's Future. He continues the discussion of why so many Americans don't make enough money to pay income tax.

When people are able to have a say in society they say they want such things as decent wages and benefits, good roads and parks, clean environment, standards for safety and decent treatment from businesses. All those things cost money. When people don't have a say in society they are told they can't have all those same things.

"Globalization" and "free trade" mean only a trade in who does the manufacturing work. Factories were closed in places where people have a say and opened in places where people don't have a say. We let those companies "escape the borders of democracy." And because it costs less to exploit workers and foul the environment, allowing companies to escape responsibility means democracy is a competitive disadvantage.

Another reason why so many people don't pay income tax is because so many companies, like Wal-Mart pay just above minimum wage (well below a living wage), requiring their employees to make up the difference with the same gov't services that Romney wants to eliminate.

Nobody helped me!

A favorite conservative talking point is that the speaker (whoever it is) made it on his or her own, with no help from the government. They imply (or say) that since they didn't take handouts then handouts shouldn't be given to anyone.

But (as you guessed) the logic can get rather bizarre. Example 1: Golfer Jack Nicklaus made the claim. But he went to Ohio State University and paid lower tuition because of government support.

Even more bizarre is Example 2. Makes one wonder why there is such a disconnect between government programs and the perception that it doesn't come from the government. Craig T. Nelson said, "I was on food stamps and welfare, and nobody helped me!"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Playing the roles a republic demands

Krissy Clark starts a feature on Marketplace Radio by trying to define the middle class. She runs into difficulties, but that's OK. The rest of the feature is about the need for the middle class and the history of it. And that is interesting.

According to Michael Lind in his book Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States the founding fathers recognized that for democracy to work America needed a lot of people with enough economic independence and security who were "capable playing various roles that society in a republic demands, whether as a voter or as a juror." Meaning: a middle class.

But back in the 1790s a middle class was hard to come by. So one was created out of farmers through public policy -- public education and free land through the Homestead Act.

That lasted to about 1900 when farmers shifted to factory work. But low-wage workers wouldn't have the same stake in a stable society as land-owners. The middle class was dissolving. It took 30 years to figure out how to turn factory workers into the middle class. It was done through gov't backed mortgages, Social Security, the New Deal, the GI Bill, and laws pushed by unions.

But manufacturing jobs are disappearing. The middle class is shrinking again. How to replace it? That is the big question of the campaign. Obama champions education. Romney trumpets entrepreneurialism. Lind says neither is enough. So the question is how to turn workers in personal service jobs like elder care, child care, janitor, and restaurant server -- jobs that can't be outsourced -- into the new middle class?

I wonder, though, whether many of the 1% don't want a middle class because they don't want democracy.

The non-(highly)-partisan ballot

The major political parties have released their slate of candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court and various university boards of regents. All of these races are listed on the ballot as "non-partisan." Don't believe it. The Sunday Free Press (alas, the link is probably now behind a paywall) notes the Supreme Court candidates have to work the room at the GOP state convention. That means they tell delegates how much they will work to maintain conservative principles in their decisions as they solicit votes.

Since I profoundly disagree with conservative and GOP ideals, here are the candidates nominated by the Democrats -- the ones to vote for.

Michigan Supremes
Shelia Johnson
Connie Kelley
Bridget McCormack

WSU Board of Governors
Sandra Hughes O'Brien
Kin Trent

MSU Board of Trustees
Joel Ferguson
Brian Mosallam

UM Board of Regents
Mark Bernstein
Shauna Ryder Diggs

State Board of Education
Lupe Ramos-Montigny
Michelle Fecteau

Between the Lines, Michigan's gay newspaper, has a big article about Bridget McCormack for Michigan Supremes. The article also says a bit why the vote is important to the Michigan gay community. The top issue is joint adoption by gay couples, but there are several other issues to come before the Supremes.

BTL also offers a voter guide. Alas, it isn't online and one must sign up for it. I don't know how the guide will be delivered.

Robust and objective science

Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell have written Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left. The disdain the GOP and their followers have for the science, especially of evolution and global climate change, is well known. So a book about similar disdain among liberals would, of course, attract attention.

It attracted the attention of Alison Fairbrother of the Public Trust Project. She read the book and wrote a review for the Washington Spectator (alas, no link). The book covers such topics as genetically engineered salmon, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the plastic BPA in baby bottles. All of these causes are promoted by deep-pocket corporations. In each case Fairbrother found the same thing.

The book's authors claim liberals don't like science because liberals don't automatically embrace the corporate-sponsored science that is produced to "prove" these various causes and products are beneficial (or at least not harmful). Those pesky liberals insist on proper review of environmental impact statements and other documents that force the government to get concurrence from independent sources.

A scientist involved in the FDA review for the GE salmon noted the corporation's research would not have been accepted in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The Left anti-science? Nope, they're anti sloppy and biased science. They trust robust science that can stand up to objective scrutiny.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Mitt Romney's campaign has been under fire all week about comments he made to supporters last spring that were captured on video. He said 47% of the people in this country were going to vote for Obama because they felt like victims and the gov't owed them a living. Rob Tisinai does a bit of compare and contrast from what the candidate said last spring and what he said this week trying to dig out of the hole his campaign fell into. From this week's press conference.
My campaign is about helping people take more responsibility and becoming employed again, particularly those that don’t have work.
From last spring's video:
I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Tisinai concludes:
Romney’s whole campaign is about something he believes he can never achieve. Think about that.
Yeah, Romney named a big problem in American and has told us he isn't the one to fix it.

Tisinai is good at capturing that contrast in a visual image.

One responder notes that while Romney may not be able to "convince" people to take personal responsibility, there are solutions, such as using force. Is it enough force to simply dump them off all gov't assistance? Or does Mitt have something stronger in mind?

A reminder why I volunteer

I get invitations to a variety of fundraising parties for area gay organizations -- Affirmations LGBT Center, Equality Michigan, and Ruth Ellis Center. Paying $175 or more for a meal, booze, speeches and entertainment doesn't seem like my idea of fun, even though I donate much more than the ticket price to all of these organizations.

But volunteering to help put on one of these parties -- to help raise money -- is a different matter. So I worked at the Ruth Ellis Center event last evening at MOCAD, Museum of Creative Arts Detroit, and featuring Wanda Sykes.

My part of the event started a week ago at a volunteer meeting at the Center. We met Jeanine, who was the organizer, and heard about our tasks. Jeanine would get to MOCAD before noon with the wine. Somebody was donating 35 cases of white wine (as well as red) and there was a big discussion about keeping it chilled. Incompletely chilled white wine was a big issue last year. Companies were hired to set up a small stage area, supply food, supply flowers, provide web streaming, provide security, provide valet parking, set up the bars, and set up a tent over the sidewalk. In addition GM would park a Cadillac in the middle of the side street (closed off). A few kids from the center created some art work, mostly photographs, and that had to be hung for the silent auction.

Yeah, that looks like a lot of money going out the door, but the event last year cleared $100K.

In addition to all that, center volunteers and youth did set-up, helped with the silent auction, ran the check-in desk, handed out gift bags, served as doorkeepers, ran the three bars, and took photos of the event.

I had to teach yesterday afternoon, so arrived at MOCAD after 5:00. I was assigned to help with the auction, but there really wasn't a lot to do.

At 5:30 the VIP guests started to arrive (I think their tickets were $375 each). They were promised a bit of face time (perhaps photo time) with Wanda. I just stood near part of the auction display, though I suppose I was "helping" to keep the crowd out of the main room, or more accurately standing near the woman who was saying, "This room isn't open yet."

When the rest of the guests were allowed in at 6:30 I was stationed by the big door to make sure everyone had a name tag, the proof of payment for the evening. If there was no nametag, I directed them to the check-in tables down the sidewalk.

I took a break shortly after 7:00 to get some food. For a while I felt a little guilty about eating the fine food when I hadn't paid for it and hadn't done a lot of work that evening. But then I thought of the many weeks over the last four years I've worked at the Center and donating to them for the privilege. I stopped feeling guilty and enjoyed myself.

The speechifying started about 7:30. A couple board members expressed their welcome and regret that, Laura, the executive director was in the hospital. Then Wanda came on. She's a lesbian comedian, but didn't launch into an act. Instead, she told how she became involved with Ruth Ellis Center -- Laura had invited her -- and how much she was affected by meeting the kids, many of whom are homeless because they are gay. It was a touching story.

Wanda then served as master of ceremonies. She introduced a representative from PNG Bank, who announced a donation of fifteen thousand dollars. Wanda said, "And I'll match that. You said, 'fifteen dollars.' Right?" That got a good laugh.

Wanda then introduced a short video about two Ruth Ellis Angels. These were board members who have been with the Center since it was founded more than a dozen years ago. The board members spoke and stories were also touching, a good reminder why I go there nearly every week. I knew one of those board members, but had never met the other.

That was about it for the program. Guests dispersed slowly and the auction was officially closed at 9:00. It was then I helped with the auction. I cut the plastic ties that held the photos to the wire mesh they were mounted on.

At one point after the program I talked to Rosemarie, the woman I "helped" during the first hour. One of her four sons is gay and another does publicity for the Center (alas, he was in San Diego). Rosemarie said she felt called to help out at the Center and, in particular, felt called to be "mom-in-the-kitchen" cooking meals for the kids. You can be sure I connected her to Henry, the volunteer coordinator. And he doesn't let volunteers slip away. That little discussion -- hearing her passion and his ready acceptance -- was another high point of the evening. It looks like I'll be sampling some of her meals, then washing the pots she used.

At 9:30 it was time to clean up. There wasn't a lot for us volunteers to do, because each company packed its own stuff. I headed to my car at 10:00.

Would I help at another such event? Probably. Would I pay money to attend? Nah.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Name the child

Our opponents have long used the claim that a child needs a mother and a father as a reason to deny us marriage equality. This time it is a senator from Australia making that claim, but it is enough for Timothy Kincaid of Box Turtle Bulletin to ask for specifics. You say a child is harmed by not having a mother and a father? Name the child.

Kincaid is quite thorough with his answer and, surprisingly, only briefly mentions the studies that say kids of gay couples do just as well as kids of straight couples. The answer is thorough enough that I thought back to my early computer classes when flowcharts were taught. Alas, my available graphics tools and this blog don't present flowcharts well.

Gay couples acquire kids one of three ways. They adopt. One of the couple conceived a child while in a straight relationship. They planned for the child and go through extraordinary measures to conceive the child. Kids don't just happen.

Allowing gay couples to marry does raise acceptance of gay couples and with greater acceptance more gay couples will deal with the hassles so they can raise kids. But acceptance of gay couples is increasing without marriage equality. So don't use the possibility of kids to deny rights to gay couples.

There are a few reasons why some kids don't have both a mother and a father -- divorce, one parent takes off, or one parent dies. But our opponents are not talking about banning divorce and they aren't talking about banning military service or dangerous jobs.

This argument about needing both a mother and father is only applied to gay couples. It is not applied to the society as a whole. Is it in the best interest of the child to have a parent with a debilitating disease, addicted to drugs, with a criminal record, or living in poverty?

When a gay couple adopts it means the child has neither a mother nor a father. This isn't between biological parents and the gay couple, it is between adoption by a straight couple and a gay couple. Or, in many cases, a gay couple or no parents at all. So, should we foist the kid on a straight couple that doesn't want it? Besides, this is an issue of adoption law, not of marriage law.

If one of the couple conceived in a straight relationship there is a mother and a father and the non-custodial parent is usually still in the picture. Yes, the other parent may have died or has abdicated their parental role (and we're back to the first case). But if a divorce court is going to mandate the child will go to the straight parent, regardless of which parent is best for the child, it is a matter of divorce law, not marriage law.

As for the third case -- name the child. We'll go visit that child with you "when you look that kid in the face and tell her that she – and the society as a whole – would be better off if she had never been born."

That means the whole argument is really about defaming gay people and all that stuff about the welfare of the kid is a misdirection.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Opinions change even by football players

More than a week ago Brendon Ayanbadejo, of the Baltimore Ravens football team made a public pronouncement in favor of marriage equality. This was in support of the November ballot initiative to permit gay marriage. Emmett Burns of the Maryland House of Delegates didn't like that and asked Ravens owner to tell Ayanbadejo to shut up.

Chris Kluwe, of the Minnesota Vikings (where a marriage protection amendment is on the ballot) jumped into the fray with a strong (if somewhat purple) defense. Yo, Mr. Burns, there is such a thing as the First Amendment. Burns apologized.

Both men were on NPR's All Things Considered to talk about the experience. Though the NFL doesn't have any current openly gay players (yet) both men have had significant support from fellow players, their management, fans, and people in general. In particular their management said keep it up. This is not a distraction from the game. It is an integral part of the diversity the teams stand for.

Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agrees with his players. This link has links to Burns' letter and Kluwe's blistering response.

We have the power to end your career

Back in June of 2011 four GOP state senators in New York joined Democrats to vote for marriage equality. The National Organization for Marriage vowed vengeance -- can't have GOP lawmakers breaking ranks. That would set a very bad example for the rest of the country. So, NOM put a great deal of effort in making sure there were anti-gay GOP candidates to run against the defectors.

The primary was a couple days ago. Time to check up on how much power NOM has.

One senator dropped out due to a scandal having nothing to do with gay marriage.

The most public defection was Mark Grisanti. He had opposed marriage equality, then did something that seems foreign to the GOP -- he listened to his constituents and changed his mind. Grisanti trounced his NOM-backed opponent.

Both Steve Saland and Roy McDonald are in races so close that the winner will be decided by absentee ballots and recounts. Incumbents usually have no trouble keeping their seats.

NOM endorsed candidates in two other races. In one the NOM candidate lost big. In the other the NOM candidate won because the opponent had been charged with conspiracy to funnel state money to a private charity.

Final tally: Two NOM targets won decisively. One lost for reasons not related to gay marriage. Two are still a tossup.

So, does NOM have the power to end careers as it claims? Depends on who you ask (and we won't ask NOM because their response would be obvious). Two big wins says NOM doesn't have the power. Two tossups says it does -- that might be enough to give other GOP lawmakers pause.

But on to the general election. It appears NOM will continue its vow -- and that may include backing a pro-equality Democrat to punish a pro-equality Republican.

NOM is also trumpeting that in New Hampshire two pro-equality GOP incumbents were defeated. But there were 119 pro-equality GOP incumbents. You do the math.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Noisy gong and clanging cymbal

The GOP platform, of course, has lots of references of God. The Dems has an embarrassing mess during their convention when someone noticed the one mention of God in the 2008 platform was removed in the 2012 platform. They had a very public moment during the convention of putting it back in.

Terrence Heath ponders an important distinction. Is it more important to use the word "God" lots of times in the platform or is it better to describe policies and programs that embody the ideals that Jesus taught, without saying the ideals came from God?

Elizabeth Warren (campaigning for the Senate seat in Massachusetts) discussed Matthew chapter 25 in her speech to the convention. The key phrase is, "If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me."

With that as a guide, take another look at the GOP platform as it relates to the least of these: Poor? Raise their taxes. Hungry? Gut the food stamp program. Sick? Take up your bed and just go away as health insurance for poor people is gutted.

So, back to all those references to God in the GOP platform. Check out the first few verses of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. Yeah, that verse about being nothing but a noisy gong and clanging cymbal. And none other than the Catholic Bishops have noticed.

Paul Ryan, a Catholic, justifies it this way.
One of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.
Jared Bernstein picked up the disconnect. How does simply dumping poor people off welfare and food stamps, in an economy already short of jobs, help them to be independent? What happens to them until they are (if they are)?

Should we take care of the poor? If so, how?

The GOP platform trumpets God. But they answer the first question with a resounding no. The Dems didn't do any trumpeting, but said yes to the first and gave a detailed answer for the second.

Speaking of parties and platforms…

Back in April, the book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives by Robert Draper. It documents a meeting held on the night of Obama's inauguration. At the meeting were 15 GOP representatives, though not John Boehner (who was Minority Leader at the time). The agenda: how to undermine Obama's presidency.

Old news, right? Except that one of the participants was Paul Ryan, now Veep nominee. He's been slamming Obama on how little the prez. has been able to accomplish. But Ryan has been mighty silent on his role in making sure Obama didn't accomplish much. Ryan claims he and Romney are the comeback team. A nasty claim when one considers how much Ryan made sure we need a comeback.

My friend and debate partner is disgusted with the GOP, but isn't enamored with the Dems. He thinks the Dems haven't been able to articulate a vision.

I suspect he, like I, didn't watch much (if any) of either convention. So I am relying on a post by Terrence Heath which has videos, sort of a highlight reel (though I didn't watch those either, I relied on transcripts and summaries). Heath thinks the Dems did spell out a "moral framework and a set of values" that support their proposed policies.

Julian Castro, Mayor of San Antonio -- great journeys are available no matter who you are or where you come from. But there are some things we can't do alone. Opportunity and prosperity are a group effort.

Michelle Obama -- There is still an American Dream in which through hard work one can build a decent life. Everyone's contribution matters. Everyone deserves respect. The social contract lives in the space between the extremes of "dependence" and "independence" and that is "interdependence." "We have a mutual interest in one another's well-being." We built it together.

Elizabeth Warren -- the culture of interdependence is being threatened by people rigging the system.

Heath wrote this before Obama's acceptance speech. It no doubt amplified this basic message of community.

This sounds like a pretty good vision to me.

Weighing cost and longer life

Laura Beil, writing in Newsweek (a couple weeks ago), asks an intriguing and important question. How much would you pay for an extra three months of life?

She asks this question as she examines an array of new cancer treatments that are phenomenally expensive and show little average benefit. On the cost side is the problem pharmaceutical companies have no reason to price their drugs cheaply and lots of reasons for high prices -- the GOP made sure the gov't medical programs pay whatever price the drug companies set.

On the benefit side, these drugs don't work for everyone. Sometimes there is no effect at all. But it isn't possible (yet) to tell who they will help and who they won't without spending the money.

There are two holes in the article, one of which bothered me, but didn't understand clearly until a letter in a later issue spelled it out. $120,000 is a lot to spend on a skin cancer treatment for an average of another four months of life. But the article only talks about averages. If my math is correct, that could mean 20 people who weren't helped by the drug and lived only one more month and one person who lived another five years. For that one person, $120,000 might seem like a worthwhile expense. Once there is screening for those who won't be helped, this won't sound so scary. Then again, the article only gave averages, not a highest value, which could be only six months.

The other hole is from the online comments. Yeah, the patient may get another four months, but at what quality of life? Hale and hearty? Or confined to bed from the pain? The article doesn't say.

Even with the holes, the question and discussion is worth having. Alas, politicians aren't having it.

No negative results

It has been a year since the military ban of gay service members has been lifted. The Williams Institute, with help from professors from the Military Academy, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, and Marine Corps War College, concluded that there have been no negative results from lifting the ban. And since the military doesn't have to spend time getting rid of gay members it is now easier for the military to pursue its mission.

A commenter reminds us that there are still homophobic soldiers and officers, just like there are members who are sexist and don't like women serving along side the men.

At least one from every state

Michelangelo Signorile is a gay radio talk-show host and usually does a good job skewering the anti-gay people when he can get them on his show. He went to the Democrat's convention in Charlotte as a reporter related to the Huffington Post.

In an amusing post Signorile went on a hunt for anti-gay delegates. He tried a black woman from Maryland. Lesbian. A Latino guy in a cowboy hat from Texas. Gay. A black man from Mississippi with a strong religious faith. Well, not gay, but would probably vote for marriage equality.

Yes, the Dems saw an advantage in straight leaders speaking about gay equality and in having gay speakers on the platform. Almost 10% of their delegates were gay, including at least one gay delegate from every state.

Opinions have changed.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Borrowing from religion

I occasionally listen to the show On Being put out by American Public Media and heard on NPR. I usually hear it on my way home from the monthly inclusive worship services held at another church, so I tend to listen to only half the program. I heard tonight's topic while listening to the news, so I listened, even though I was at home for the whole program.

Host Krista Tippett had a nearly hour-long discussion with Alain de Botton. He describes himself as an atheist who has discovered there are aspects of religion that should be brought into modern life. As part of that he has opened The School of Life in London and wrote the book Religion for Atheists. Some of the things they talked about:

Religion does ritual very well. In particular it does weddings and funerals well. People with no religious inclinations will still get married and want their funeral in a church. In the same way that Christianity adapted pagan practices, atheists can adapt the best of Christian rituals for secular use.

Christian art and architecture is beautiful. It is important to stand in a cathedral and experience its vastness and the way it makes a person feel small. An atheist looking at a religious work may not get or agree with the sacred message, but a secular spirituality is important too.

Christians too often think that an atheist has no morals. Secular public spaces tend to have Christian messages (perhaps unintentionally) or intentionally have no moral references at all. Neither is ideal. No moral discussion means the only thing discussed is commercialism, to the detriment of the society. So let's have a public discussion of morals and wisdom. Most secular society does not discuss how to live. Religions start with the premise that learning how to live is important. As part of the School of Life the meetings include sermons. This title is used intentionally. The topic of discussion isn't for entertainment or information, but is intended to prompt thought about a better way of living.

de Botton heard people say what parts of the Christian church they liked. This included singing songs together, discussing important issues (perhaps through sermons), and having tea afterwards. So, he said, let's include those things. Let's form a community that takes care of each other. Let's do things together we can't do on our own.

Most debates about religion are about proving or disproving the existence of God. How boring! Those debates never get anywhere. It is more useful to discuss in what ways various aspects of religion can benefit the rest of society.

My friend and debate partner, by this point, is probably muttering something about how much all this looks like the Unitarian Universalist Church he attends. He's not alone. There are a few comments on the show's page that say the same thing. One responder had read the book and started an email conversation with de Botton, who replied he knew nothing of the UU teachings and traditions and was delighted to learn.

The book, of course, started a controversy. Atheists thought the author was too soft on religion. Believers wondered how he could enjoy the trappings of religion and yet refuse belief in God. But, he replied, religions do many things very well and not all of them depend on a faith in God. Secular people need those things too. Why invent what already exists?

I'll have to get the book.

Formal, sterile, and academic

As schools ponder the difference between "instruction" and "learning" and faces with standardized tests that demand the first and not the second, they have to eliminate one little thing that gets in the way -- a child's curiosity. Here are some ways to squelch curiosity, provided by Terry Heick in an article on Alternet:

* The teacher decides what is to be learned when and how.

* Insist there is one right answer. Focus on that, not the questions or the process of getting the answer.

* Make sure learning technology sticks to firm boundaries. And YouTube doesn't.

* Use collaboration to avoid individual thought and reflection.

* Avoid art, music, or physical movement.

* If there is no data showing a teaching method works, don't use it.

* Keep lessons formal, sterile, and academic. Certainly don't use family traditions, cultural legacy, and individual talents.

* If it is not planned, it is play. If it is play, it isn't learning.

* Focus only on the standards.

* Be careful not to show your own curiosity.

No magic combination of genders

Jessica Valenti, in an article for Salon, talks about changing family structure in a time when laws haven't kept up and some politicians have a particular idea of a "traditional" family. Along the way she notes that children of lesbians are least likely to be sexually abused. She ends by saying:
But if traditional-family advocates hang on at all costs to their supremacist view of what parenting looks like, it’s not just children who will suffer but families and national progress.

There’s no one right way to parent and there’s no magic combination of genders that produces the most well-adjusted child. We all do the best we can at loving our kids and building our families. So if the goal is happy children, let’s focus on that, and not on forcing Americans into an antiquated family model we’ve moved beyond.

Mayrav Saar wrote an article for the New York Post about a controversy in the Conservative Jewish community. The problem is that in traditional weddings the groom declares ownership of his wife. In same-sex weddings that notion doesn't appear. Rabbis are trying to maintain the traditional form for all straight weddings. Saar believes that once prospective couples see or hear about the gay version they'll want that instead.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Gay friendly!

I had written about the GOP platform. Now that the Democrat's convention is over, it's time to see what their platform looks like. Short answer: gay friendly!

* Increased funding for HIV/AIDS research and prevention, especially in high risk communities, such as gay men. Increased funding for agencies that do AIDS relief overseas.

* "At the core of the Democratic Party is the principle that no one should face discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability status."

* Support for bullying prevention.

* Work to define the word "family" to include gay couples so bi-national families don't face deportation.

* Support marriage equality.

* Gay rights are human rights. American diplomats will combat efforts elsewhere to criminalize homosexual conduct.

At least in gay issues the GOP clearly state they will work against us. From actions over the last few years I believe they will act on what they say. The Dems clearly state they will work for us. Again, their previous actions lead me to believe their favorable actions will continue. At least in gay issues the choice is clear.

I keep adding those weasel words because on other issues (such as foreclosure relief) the Dems say the right things, but I'm not at all confident they'll do the right thing. Of course, the GOP doesn't even say the right thing.

Moral protection

Romney has been running ads attacking welfare. Most of the content in the ads are false. Yet those ads appear to be working. Why?

It turns out the more racist, or more racially resentful, the more likely a person is affected by the ads. That's even though the ads themselves are racially neutral.

This is now a strange situation. Obama can't talk about race. When he does he is accused of playing the race card. But Romney is talking about race a lot, in ways aimed at racists.

Terrence Heath asks an important question. Why is the Romney campaign (and the GOP) getting away with playing the race card? Two parts to the answer:

The media either excuses those comments or pretends the comments aren't really as racist as they appear. Media talking heads can't believe the GOP really is that racist in our supposed "post racial" society.

The base is willing to endorse policies that hurt their own lives as long as *those people* are not helped. Robert Self, in a New York Times article (sorry, no direct link) said, "For liberals, government promises to support individuals and families economically. For conservatives, government promises to protect individuals and families morally." So if a GOP candidate explains the need to end welfare in moral terms he can get support in spite of the harm other policies will have on the voter. And the moral reason is the candidate wants to eliminate a culture of dependency -- a phrase loaded with racial overtones.

Voter suppression appears to be working

Yeah, I'm just now getting to some news items from a week ago, stuff from before my march in Charlotte and the first day of class.

I wrote about a lesbian couple who petitioned to adopt each other's children. They were told by the judge the proper thing was to petition to overturn the constitutional gay marriage ban. They have now done so.

I've also written about the bazillionaire Koch brothers who donate so heavily to GOP candidates that the party is doing their bidding. Last week David Koch said that he supports gay marriage. That got a debate raging in gay blogs. One side says that is good, he might nudge the party to be more welcoming of our issues. The other side said his announcement is meaningless because if he is for gay marriage he would have already been nudging those he supports. The second view gained strength when it was reported that Koch's support for gay marriage began at least by 2010. And the GOP hasn't changed their opinion of us.

Rachel Maddow took a look at new voter registration laws in Florida. This post has a nice chart, though the numbers are here:
Number of newly registered Democrats from July to July leading into an election:

2004: 159K
2008: 260K
2012: 11K
Yeah, I'd say voter suppression is working.

Phoenix Woman, writing for Firedoglake, reports on some good news. A federal judge overturned GOP voter suppression shenanigans in Ohio. Similar spankings also occurred in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin.

My Russian readers must be back from summer holiday. The number of hits from Russia is now back over 200 a week.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How much change is enough change?

More thoughts on the March on Wall Street South.

It didn't take me long to notice many of the crowd were not friends of Obama. They had signs about socialism and even communism. When I got on the bus in Detroit I was handed an 8 page newspaper from the Workers Party. In Charlotte I saw t-shirts with the name and image of Fidel Castro. Various groups listed various "crimes" the Obama supposedly committed -- leaving Guantanamo open is one that comes to mind. They said the Democrats were as much under the influence of corporate money as the Republicans. No, they say, Obama is not on the side of the worker.

This is not to say they liked the GOP. That party was barely mentioned. The opinion seemed to be the GOP is dangerous to workers and their rights, it's obvious, let's move on to a more useful discussion. Obama is seen as a greater threat because he appears to be the president for the working man and in their eyes he isn't

All that talk of communism and socialism did make me wonder if I was amongst the right people. But I've already said in previous posts that I've wondered how much Obama is under the influence of corporate masters. All that talk did get me thinking about other economic systems. And with all that time on the bus not sleeping I was able to do a lot of thinking. So here is an attempt to organize that thinking.

First, a disclaimer. I did not study political science in high school or college. I think I have a basic understanding of various political and governmental systems, but I'm not an expert and may have important points wrong. I welcome replies from someone more knowledgeable.

Second, the working premise. The current system of government, and perhaps the current economic system, isn't working. Yeah, if you're part of the 1% (or the 0.1%) it works very well. But for the rest of us, we fall further behind and see less hope that our prospects, and that of our children, will improve.

Third, the question to be explored. What minimum amount of change will set things right? Is it enough to tweak the edges? Or must the whole government/economy system be rethought? Many Americans look for a bit of tweaking and hope or trust that Obama will do it. Many people at the march are convinced the current system needs to be scrapped and a new one instituted. The continuation of that question is if the system must be replaced, what do we replace it with? I'm well aware that those in power will not allow the current system to change without a fight. And that fight could be bloody.

Is it enough to…

* Tax the rich? Increase income, capital gains, estate, social security, corporate income, and whatever other taxes the rich are paying less now than they were in the 1980s? Yes, this step is necessary to replenish our national shared resource, properly educate everyone, and restore a lot of what was lost over the last 30 years (discussed elsewhere). But I don't think that is sufficient because once the tax system is overhauled the rich will continue to use their political influence to get Congress to reconstruct various tax reductions. Which will happen the next time the GOP controls the government.

* Get money out of politics? I see it is vital that we add three amendments to the Constitution:
* Declare that corporations are not people and can be regulated.
* Declare that money is not speech and political donations can be regulated for amount and transparency.
* Declare that campaigns will be completely publicly financed.
Again, necessary, but not sufficient. Even if a politician is not influenced by a campaign donation, those with money can (and have) hired an army of lobbyists to "explain" things to politicians. Those without that kind of money simply won't have the presence in Washington to have enough influence to counteract such an army.

I'm not sure what other kinds of tweaks can be made. I'm open to suggestions. Without those suggestions I now turn to a deeper, more fundamental change to or system of government and economy. What follows is the second version of what I wrote. I realized I needed to know a bit more, even if it is Wikipedia.

Capitalism is a system in which goods and services are provided for a profit. There are a number of flavors of capitalism, depending on how much and what kind of support or intervention comes from the government. The advantages of capitalism are economic growth, self-organization (no need for a central planning committee), and support for political freedom -- the lack of a central committee diminishes a tyrant's power to coerce. Put another way political freedom needs capitalism (though China shows capitalism does not need political freedom).

But capitalism has problems. There is little concern for the worker and the environment, or more generally, the wellbeing of all people. Whatever is best for profits is what will be done. Karl Marx describes the difference between the wages paid a laborer and the value the owner receives for that labor. This becomes part of the owner's profit. There is also a big imbalance between the seller and buyer. It may be difficult for the buyer to accurately assess the quality of the merchandise and the market may reward dishonesty. Capitalism leads to unfair distribution of wealth and power, something we see a lot these days.

Even so, the worker has (some) freedom in taking his skills to whatever employer he or she sees as the best match of compensation and work satisfaction. The employee has incentive to work harder or better because his compensation should increase.

The first thing I learned when looking up Communism is there is a difference between a communist society and a country with a communist government. I think my fellow marchers were referring to the first, not the second, though from the number of Fidel Castro shirts, maybe not. The definition of communism is, "a revolutionary socialist movement to create a classless, moneyless, and stateless social order structured upon common ownership of the means of production, as well as a social, political, and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of this social order."

There is a lot of discussion on how to build the various institutions (food distribution, education, etc.) that exist under capitalism. Some think that the workers can be trusted to develop the necessary administrative bodies.

It seems we haven't had a true large scale communist society. There have been local communes, such as monastic communities. Whole countries don't make it to communism because those who win the revolution (the battle that gets rid of capitalism) and are supposed to guide the people to a truly shared society keep power for themselves.

The problems of communism include slow or stagnant technological advance and reduced incentives and prosperity. There is also the problem of feasibility -- is it possible to create and maintain a truly shared society without serious violation of human rights? What does the community do if a member doesn't agree that all is held in common?

There are serious problems attributed to communist governments. Famines and purges have resulted in death counts far exceeding other kinds of government.

So communism supposedly takes better care of the worker, but that worker has lost incentive to work, since his labors have become separate from his compensation. It would supposedly also take care of the environment, but communist states have an abysmal environmental record.

I talked to a couple people during and after the march about communism. One said that someone (probably well known by those in favor of this system) has studied what Karl Marx wrote, how that got implemented, what went wrong, and how to avoid those problems in new communist systems. The other said that a central planned economy worked well in Russia between the end of the Revolution and when Stalin seized power. Alas, I don't know any more about either statement.

There is this shining goal of a communist society. But it is doubtful it could actually be achieved and whether achieving it would be the paradise envisioned. And attempts to get there have always been circumvented by the powerful resulting in a hellish place to live.

There are two descriptions of Socialism, one as a steppingstone from capitalism to communism and the other is a system in its own right. In the latter it is an economic system organized for common ownership where goods are produced for current human need and not private profit. Distribution would be based on individual contribution. The worker gets full value for the labor contributed. In addition the worker would not feel alienated by the work. Each worker could develop personal interests and talents rather than laboring for others. There are a wide variety of organizing principles to accomplish the goal of common ownership and proper allocation of resources.

Socialism as a word has been used to refer to various other things. This includes a generous welfare state in Nordic countries that keeps capitalism but adds extensive benefits and income redistribution, promotion of labor unions, and promotion of egalitarian ideals. Other uses of the word have nothing to do with socialism, but have been used to mask pro-capitalism ideas.

Yes, socialism has problems too. It also suffers from reduced incentives and prosperity. Again, there is a question of feasibility -- there is a problem in accurately pricing goods and labor. Another problem is it can't be as efficient as capitalism and social governments have budgeting problems.

Some of these socialist systems sound better than communism. There doesn't seem to be as much of a problem of human rights (though what happens when a worker insists on profit or doesn't want to share?) and a worker does have incentive to work hard, and perhaps even work at an enjoyable task.

I've heard (though don't have sources to back me up) that suicides are higher in Nordic countries because the ever helpful state blunts ambition and leads to boredom.

I contemplated the idea of a socialist corporation, in which the workers own it. The corporation is part of a capitalist system. I've found it is called a worker cooperative. The workers decide what is best for them and the cooperative, and it may not be to maximize profit. Since the workers are the owners there is no exploitation of the workers. As I pondered this idea (while on the bus and without the help of Wikipedia) I wondered how the cooperative raises money for expansion. They can't do it by selling stock to outsiders because the cooperative would then not be worker-owned. They can get loans from banks or they set some earnings aside for reinvestment. When banks get stingy with loans it could be difficult to expand the company.

While there are serious problems with capitalism, there are also serious problems with communism and socialism. I don't want to go with either of them. However, worker cooperatives sound like a good idea. This appears to be enough change. The question is how do we support them and how do we move away from the form of capitalism we already have?

I may not have studied Political Science, but I just got a lot more knowledgeable.

Dancing boy

Yesterday I saw a performance of Billy Elliot, the Musical here in Detroit. The story takes place in England in 1984 and is of a 12 year old boy who discovers he loves to dance ballet. That doesn't sit well with his coal-miner father and older brother. The story was first told in a movie that came out in 2000. Elton John saw the movie and became the driving force to turn it into a musical, even writing the songs. It premiered in London in 2005 and came to Broadway in 2009. Both productions won lots of awards. It is now on tour.

There are lots of kids in the show. In addition to Billy there are all the girls in the ballet class (some times they look like a class, other times they dance as professionals). There is also Michael, who likes to dress in girl clothes (just like his father!). A pivotal scene is Michael helping Billy to see that it is good to be yourself.

The kid playing Billy did an outstanding job. I wondered about how rehearsals were worked out because with 8 performances a week, four boys play Billy, each doing two shows a week. The story was good, the acting (by the kids) occasionally stilted, and the songs were good (I liked the lyrics better than the music). I was bothered by the ballet teacher who didn't know how to provide basic instruction to Billy, merely telling him to do what the girls were doing. Overall, I'm very glad I went.

The story resonated on two levels. First was Billy trying to follow his dream with a disapproving father. A lot of gay people relate to that and this aspect is what attracted Elton John (though it was not the case with my own father).

Second was the setting. The story opens with the miners calling a strike and organizing to protest their unfair treatment. Having just come back from a big protest I could relate. There were displays in the various theater lobbies that expanded on the story. In 1984 the British government owned the coal mines. Maggie Thatcher had recently come to power and her strongest opponent was the miner's union at 250,000 members. She had the power plants (the biggest users of coal) stockpile coal from other countries, then put the squeeze on the miners. They held out for a year -- and, between family members and supporting businesses, that meant perhaps two million people without income. When the miners capitulated, Thatcher closed most mines and privatized the rest. No mines, no union, no organized opposition from it. Britain now gets its coal from Ukraine. The American GOP could only wish for such complete union busting.

While researching today's other post I found a Wikipedia entry for the strike. Under cultural references it listed Billy Elliot. And that linked to Ben Cook, who played Billy last night. Since he's from North Carolina I wonder how long it took him to get the northern British accent down.

Spoiler alert: The plight of the striking miners plays a pivotal moment in the plot. Billy might as well go off to ballet school because there is nothing for him in his home town.

Monday, September 3, 2012

On the road again

I usually don't do much to celebrate or honor Labor Day. Most of the time I visit family and when I'm not doing that I am busy getting ready for the Fall season.

This weekend I firmly joined the Labor Movement.

The adventure started a week ago when I took part in protests in downtown Detroit. One of the announcements was a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina to participate in a march against Wall Street South. The city is sometimes referred by that name because several large banks, including Bank of America have headquarters or large regional offices there. The date was chosen because it was the day before the Democrat's national convention in Charlotte.

There were 33 of us who boarded the bus just north of downtown Detroit. The first shot is of the bus. We departed at 7:25.

The first bit of rain started just south of Toledo. We went on to strip mall in Seven Hills, south of Cleveland, to pick up five more people. We got there at 10:00 in a light drizzle. The Wendy's was closing and the gas station didn't have restrooms. The only place open was a pizza shop. Several, including the leaders, thought pizza sounded like a fine idea. And that meant we were still there at 11:00. I spent the time walking several laps up and down the strip mall. The drizzle soon stopped. Just before the leaders began boxing up remaining slices of pizza and heading out the door a downpour began. The bus couldn't get close to the shops, so many of us got wet.

There was another rest stop at 2:00 in Parkersburg, West Verginia. Again, it was close to an hour before we were back on the road. Another at Beckley, WV (I don't remember the time). Breakfast at an IHOP in Wytheville, Virginia at 5:30. Yup, I wondered why so early, but this was apparently a favorite place of our drivers. One more stop at 8:30 for gas. They told us we all had to disembark before the driver could pull up to the pump. That was a good time for breakfast and it turned out we were again there for close to an hour.

With all these stops it was hard to get more than an hour of sleep at a time. I sat in front of a guy who liked to pontificate on all manner of topics (though with his inner city accent it was sometimes tough to tell what he was talking about). After each stop it could take him an hour to wind down. So, no, I didn't get all that much sleep.

We arrived in Charlotte at 10:50 instead of 9:30. The rally was supposed to start at 11:00, but you can see from this view of the park and the stage, not everyone had arrived and they weren't ready. I didn't feel so bad about putting my lunch plans in action.

I had arranged with my cousin, who lives near Charlotte, for him and his family to meet me at a particular entrance to the park. We then went to a nearby burger restaurant for an enjoyable hour together.

Back in the park the crowd had grown and the speakers were getting the crowd warmed up. Yes, that is a mockup of a drone. It was on wheels and marched with us.

A reporter from the Sacramento Bee asked if I would allow him to interview me. So I did. We talked about conditions in Detroit. Alas, my comments didn't make it into the online edition.

Some photos as we assembled leading up to the 1:00 start time for the march. A few people had clever signs, such as this one which is a variation of Star Trek's Borg.

Lots of organizations brought signs, so there were plenty for everyone.

There was a percussion ensemble close to the front of the line. There were a few other drummes through the crowd. This group also had cheerleaders, which you can see a bit of in the green outfits just to the left of the TV truck.

I'm pretty sure this guy did the whole march.

Heading out of the park.

And I'm finally on the street. The butterflies were held by a Hispanic contingent from Georgia. Their phrase is "No Papers, No Fear." This group is from Georgia, which had enacted an Arizona style "Show your papers" law.

This is the banner my group brought from Detroit. I carried a sign, "Bail out people, not banks!" One of our chants was "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."

Yes, there were lots of cops along our route. Not all of them were from Charlotte (I recognized shoulder patches from Raleigh). They essentially marched the four miles with us. I had wondered why so many of them were walking their bikes. Then I saw how effectively the bikes could be used as a barricade to block side streets.

That pink sign was carried by Code Pink. The whole slogan was "Bust up Wells Fargo."

Here we are rounding a corner so I can see how much of the group is ahead of me.

And now that I've rounded the corner you can see how many are behind me. In the foreground are a few people from Detroit.

The original estimate I had hear was there would be maybe 10,000 marchers showing up. As we headed out of the park I saw someone counting. The Wall Street South website says 2,500. The Sacramento Bee (link above) says 400. The WSS site mentions our 15 hour trip from Detroit and has many great photos.

Part of the Hispanic contingent in front of me. Yup, most of their chants were in Spanish. One of their signs said, "No human is illegal."

This has nothing to do with the march, just some cool civic art we passed.

Yes, there was a gay contingent. They weren't too far away from the Detroit group. I sometimes walked faster than the rest and soon found I was in a different group.

We stopped in front of the Bank of America headquarters for speeches. At that point I was quite a ways back in the line and didn't hear much of what was being said. We were there because of BofA's many documented shenanigans and their eagerness to foreclose on homes.

We marched in front of the convention center where the Democrat's festivities will be, but didn't stop. A big attraction was the water bottle refilling station set up across from the center. The weather was sunny with temps in the mid 80s. I don't know the humidity level, but it was up there. It took a while for us to refill our bottles.

Our second stop was the headquarters of Duke Energy, apparently the top producer of dirty energy, such as coal. This time I was close to the sound system and could hear what was said.

From there we marched back to the park. The whole route was about 4 miles and took three hours.

There were a few more speakers and invitations to come to events later that evening and the next day. At 5:00 there was an announcement that severe weather was heading our way and could people please help dismantle the stage and clean up the park. But my bus was waiting.

We were loaded and on the highway about 5:40. We had a supper stop in Elkin at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Back on the road at 8:30. There were stops just across the borders of West Virginia and Ohio, and a stop for gas near Akron. Our shortest stop was to let off the Cleveland contingent. It was short because nothing was open at 5:00 am., and the stop for gas (and other things) had been only a half hour before. Even so there was a stop at a turnpike rest area at 6:30 (fortunately only 15 minutes though it seemed like one stop too many) and into Detroit at 8:00 am. The trip was 36.5 hours, 30 of those hours were in transit. Yeesh.

I was home by 9:00, ate breakfast, and was in bed by 10:30. I slept until 2:30 this afternoon.

There is a lot more I want to write about this adventure, but it will have to wait. My Fall semester begins tomorrow and the schedule is suddenly crowded.