Saturday, February 25, 2017

Note to Congress: If you're afraid of your constituents, you're probably not representing their interests

Republicans (and Democrats alike) and their viral town hall meetings are storming the news of late. Some Republicans dismiss it all as paid or organized protests. Ha, ha. And some like Marco Rubio have claimed that they aren't doing in person town halls due to their fear of hostility from their own voters.

The reports I've read of these town halls seem to provide a disturbing clue about American politics: Representatives in town halls share their views like gospel expecting the people they represent to follow. Um, I think it's supposed to be the other way around. The purpose of the town hall meeting is for elected representatives to get a sense of what the people in their district want. They are supposed to represent the interests of the people, not their own.

Cyndy A. Matthews provides some insight from a local town hall in a district in Ohio hosted by Representative Jim Jordan:
The questions about the Affordable Care Act revealed Jim Jordan's position for better or worse on health care. He stated at one point that "health care is bad for business." Business people making big profits are more important than saving lives or preventing the suffering of his fellow Americans in the representative's opinion. He also stated he did not like how his able-bodied 27 year old son had to pay higher private health insurance premiums because other people's young adult children are sometimes sicker with diseases like M.S. or cancer. It wasn't "fair" since his son is "healthy" and shouldn't have to subsidize other "non-healthy" Americans' health care.
Mr. Jordan provides the same rationale that I often see in this debate: "Look, we're all just free agents in a bag of skin. Why can't we get along without being forced to subsidize each other?" Never mind that nobody chooses to get cancer or MS. Nobody chooses to drink or shower in polluted water, either.

Matthews goes on to report how Mr. Jordan gave someone sympathetic to his views the podium and ignored the others. It would appear then, that Mr. Jordan, like many politicians of late, have mistaken a forum where all views should be given a voice, for a campaign whistle stop. It's as if he really wanted to make it all about him rather than the people he claims to represent.

The Huffington Post reports that, Rep. Marsha Blackburn [was] Besieged By Boos At Tennessee Town Hall. One member in attendance yelled out, “We are not stupid. Stop this," in response to Blackburn's praise of Betsy Devos. The article goes to describe several incidents where Blackburn is booed by her audience. As a one time comedian, I know how it feels when I bomb and I always learned something when I did, but Blackburn doesn't seem to be learning as this exchange suggests:
Pratik Dash, a Franklin High alumnus, asked the representative to comment on Trump’s statement that he wants to prioritize refugees who are Christian.
“Is it right to prioritize people based on their religion?” he asked, to applause from the crowd.
Instead of answering the question directly, Blackburn launched into a discussion of refugees and the need for more vetting, prompting Dash to ask again, “Do you think it’s right to prioritize people based on their religion? Yes or no?”
“I know that Christians have seen incredible persecution,” Blackburn replied, prompting another chorus of boos.
It is clear that representatives are trying really hard to steer the conversation to fit their own narrative rather than listening to their constituents and airing their views. The two examples above are just a few of the many that I've seen strewn across the internet. The political climate has gotten so bad for Republicans and politicians in general that even Bernie Sanders chimed in:
I think he only goes halfway in his statement. I replied and took it a bit closer to the truth:
I qualified my tweet with the word "might", but I think it's fair to say that Congressmen and women who face angry crowds at town halls must know that their constituents are angry because their interests are not being represented in Congress. It's plain to see when Republicans can claim 26% of voter registration and Democrats 30%. Both parties have done a pretty lousy job of representing America. They both gave us Trump and Clinton as choices for president last November.

Incredibly, The Atlantic has found some politicians willing to admit that the concerns brought up at town halls are real and that the crowds are not manufactured. They are acknowledging that people are taking time out of their busy lives to attend and air their fears and worries. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Congress will actually listen and act on their concerns:
Even if some GOP lawmakers adopt a sympathetic tone toward angry town hall crowds, that isn’t necessarily an indication that they’re changing course. When Cotton told the crowd on Wednesday that he wouldn’t deny Obamacare has helped people in the state of Arkansas, he quickly added it has also “hurt many Arkansans.”
Cotton seems to be misdirecting his constituents around the real problem, a problem that no one in Congress is talking about: big money in politics. Scientists have figured this out long ago, but too many people in Congress don't like scientists (they be like, "Republicans"). Harvard law professor Larry Lessig has been giving speeches with plenty of examples to choose from to be found on YouTube. I guess Congress has not taken notice of him yet, either.

People are finally waking up and noticing that Congress has been listening to big business and big money rather than their own constituents. Apparently, many members of Congress seem to think that money from big business is what keeps them in office, and that addressing the concerns of their constituents is an afterthought.

Bernie was right. If you don't have the guts to face your own constituents, you shouldn't be in Congress. He just left out the part about why that's important: if you're not representing the interests of your constituents, you shouldn't be in Congress.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

If there is a single issue emerging to unify our country, it's probably universal health care

I can recall how in the primaries last year, there were many attempts to brand Bernie Sanders as a single issue candidate. I can't recall exactly what that issue was, because whatever that issue was, it was a matter of opinion, and that was depending on the source. But one thing I can say for sure, there is a reason mainstream media wanted us to avoid single issue candidates: they can unify the American people.

Harvard law professor Larry Lessig tried this by running as a "referendum candidate" running on the single issue of restoring democracy to the American people by getting big money out of politics. Instead of finding acceptance, Lessig was roundly bounced away from the debates and ignored by the press. Lessig admitted that he had made a mistake by stating that if elected, he would hold a referendum on the Citizen Equality Act and when that was done, he'd resign as president. His cause and heart were pure, but they were deemed too toxic by and for a corrupt permanent political class and the mainstream media that supported them.

Bernie Sanders ran on the same primary issue of getting big money out of politics and lived by it on small donations averaging $27 and managed to raise more than $222 million for his presidential campaign. But he wasn't actually a single issue candidate. Another big issue he ran on was Medicare for All, the public option. That too, was just too much for a corrupt permanent political class and their benefactors in the health insurance industry.

Adding to the alarm of the health insurance industry, polls are starting to show that people across the political spectrum can get behind it once they understand how it works. Bernie is a great communicator and could explain how universal health care, or Medicare for All, could work in practice.

How do we know that there is so much support for universal health care now? In his article, Single Payer on The March, Lambert Strether of Naked Capitalism has found the numbers (courtesy of Pew Research) and has shown that universal health care has supporters across the board. He is encouraged about this trend by two events:
What encouraged me? Two things: First, Jessi Bohon’s advocacy of Medicaid for All from a Christian perspective at a Tennessee town hall; and California’s introduction of a single payer bill, with the support of National Nurses United. I’ll look at those two topics, and then turn to consideration of how the Women’s March and the Resistance Manual’s prioritize single payer as a policy issue.
The first example can be found here, on YouTube:



It's almost 3 minutes long and well worth the time to watch. This video has gone viral and keeping it going can help to bring the Christian Right along with liberals on the left together on at least this one issue. So please share the video far and wide to break the stereotype of conservative Christians not being in favor of universal health care - they are - but that is masked by a stereotype that is consistently promoted by mainstream media.

The second example Strether cites is the introduction of a universal healthcare bill in the California legislature just days ago. Strether points out that this bill would also cover undocumented citizens and that California has the economic muscle to pull it off:
In other words, the best defense against Trump is a good offense. (I view including illegal immigrants in the program pragmatically; if that’s what’s needed to secure passage, then so be it. If it’s a dealbreaker, dump it. Separately, it makes sense to get illegal immigrants into the system for vaccination, transmissible diseases, and to manage epidemics.) Of course we’re going to need to see the details, but California’s GDP is about the size of France’s, so there’s absolutely no question of scale, as there was with Vermont (and possibly Colorado).
A national issue like this can unify the vast majority of Americans because we're all affected by the high cost of health care. Granted, the universal health care proposals I've seen so far don't deal with one of the causes of the high cost of health care, namely, a shortage of qualified doctors engineered by the AMA, but universal health care is still a highly visible issue which can bring many people together, from across the political spectrum. If the shortage of doctors alone were addressed, we might not even be having a discussion about universal health care.

Note also that National Nurses United (60,000 members), a union of nurses and Physicians for a National Health Care Program (20,000 members) are on the same side of this issue. To see doctors and nurses together, on the same page is encouraging.

There is another way to bring more conservatives in to support universal health care. Present day conservatives who like to cite F.A. Hayek seem to have selective memories. Turns out that Hayek actually promoted the idea of universal health care for wealthy countries, even the warn torn UK of 1943. Unfortunately you won't hear that from modern conservatives like Hayek's biggest fan, Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. But we can at least point out that a well known conservative icon has found favor with such a plan.

Recall also how Iron lady Thatcher resigned over a single issue, the poll tax. That single issue united millions of Brits in opposition to the tax, and they worked together to make the tax unenforceable and noncollectable. Universal health care may not have the galvanizing effect of an unpopular tax, but the lessons learned in the UK show us that millions of people can unite over a single issue with national effect, contrary to what we've been told during the election last year.

I want to point out one other issue of concern: target fixation and/or the law of attraction. Millions of Americans are protesting, and creating content including articles, memes and art, expressing how much they don't like or don't want Trump. I see it every day, in the news and in my social media timelines or feeds. It's all about what we don't want for many people. The problem with this mentality is that the brain doesn't really understand "no".

This is easily demonstrated with small children. If you tell a small child not to do something, like using a remote control as a hammer rather than to control the TV, they don't hear "no". If you leave the remote control within reach, the child will continue to grab it and practice the art of hammering. Even if you punish the child for touching the remote control, the child sees more punishment rather than restraint on the part of the parent.

Alternatively, if you speak in the affirmative rather than negative, you can get the child's attention and hold it. You can then direct their focus to what you want by making positive alternative suggestions. And you can keep the remote control out of the child's reach.

Adults are much the same way. When adults focus on what they don't want, they tend to get more of it. Republicans in the White House and Congress seem to understand this, so they've moved quickly on what liberals perceive to be negatives, immigration bans, noxious nomination picks, and expensive travel arrangements. Most of what we see in the news is negative in that regard and continues to distract us from what we want.

Now that we see people across the political spectrum and the country are expressing support for universal health care, we have a moment in time when we could strike. Some are calling for a general strike. In a general strike, the vision is to pick a day for millions of people to not show up to work, and to have a "buy nothing day". It is a strike across many industries and can be paralyzing to a nation, particularly for anyone who should happen to be in power. Unfortunately, most are calling for strikes or protests against something or someone they don't want, that would be Trump. An organized protest on such a massive scale is exactly the sort of thing that people like the Koch Brothers don't want to see. What if we directed all that energy towards something we want, instead?

As momentum builds, and it is building, I think it would be wise for all of us to consider the thing we want the most and make an open demand for that thing. Consider the way support is building for universal health care. There is ubiquitous organizing and focusing all of these various movements, strikes, protests and what have you, all against Trump. If we could focus all that energy and attention on just a movement for universal health care (instead of "against everything Trump"), we could conceivably break a log jam that has festered for decades. Demand for universal health care may now be at a point that is too large and widespread to ignore, even for Republicans intent on ignoring it.

Diverting our attention from something we don't want to something many of us do want, in this example, universal healthcare, resolves the issues of focusing attention and attracting what we want instead of don't want. We could just ignore Trump while he does his thing and still organize and demand universal health care. That might actually grab his attention in a positive way since such a campaign is not an attack on Trump, it's a demand for something we want. Besides, Trump and many Republicans are already thinking in "universal" terms, but they're just talking about universal access, not a single payer plan.

I sense that we need to unify around something, for something, at what seems to be a critical juncture. I am certain that all of this energy is going to come to a focus and I'd rather see it in a movement for something rather than against something. I suggest that our best shot at effecting positive change is to focus all that energy into a movement for universal health care.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why your representatives in Congress prefer fundraisers to seeing you in town hall meetings

I happened by chance to see the following headline just the other day:
Duck and cover: More than 200 Republicans in Congress are skipping February town halls with constituents
Vice News is covering the story of a rather reclusive Congress this year, and they have provided a few details including the tidbits below:
For the first two months of the new Congress, the 292 Republicans have scheduled just 88 in-person town hall events — and 35 of those sessions are for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, according to a tabulation conducted by Legistorm. In the first two months of the previous Congress in 2015, by contrast, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.
Isn't it interesting that at a high water mark in Republican history, they're proving not so fond of their constituents? Oh, wait. I think it's mutual. Vice News notes for the record the kind of rage that has appeared at town hall meetings lately, and as I did in this article, used Jason Chaffetz as an example. Chaffetz found himself shouted down by men and women demanding that he do his job. They didn't seem all that happy about his stances on immigration and health care, either.

Republicans have a solid majority in the US House of Representatives, and an edge in the Senate. Across the nation, they have trifectas in 25 states and majorities in one or both houses in many more. They have a majority of governor seats to boot. And now they have a trifecta at the federal level. They have the power, so where is all this fear coming from?

I think the problem is that Republican dominance in politics has come at a pittance in terms of cost (to them). They now can claim just 26% of voter registration nationwide (Democrats are just a bit higher at 30%). I'd say that's a gift, except for one thing. The voter purges, rampant Tweedism and big money in politics have all left the GOP deaf, dumb and blind to, and dissociated from their base. Sure, they have power now, but do they even know who they represent anymore? Did all that disenfranchisement really work, or did it just separate them from their base? When constituents start putting "lost" ads in the local paper, I think we can safely say that many Republicans (and Democrats) have separated themselves from their constituent base:



Vice News offers another aspect to the dynamics at play here:
But ultimately both parties are holding fewer in-person events to avoid unwanted viral moments. Senior Democratic lawmakers this week asked progressive favorite Sen. Bernie Sanders to reach out to activists and urge them to not protest at Democratic town halls, according to the Washington Post.
“I bet if you looked at the number of members of Congress holding fundraisers next week during recess, it would be nearly 100 percent,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the Indivisible Project. Constituents should demand that 100 percent also attend town halls, he added.
So, if they're not holding town hall meetings, they're probably busy fundraising. I guess that's because people who turn up at fundraisers have money and they have a reasonable expectation for a return on their investment. People who show up at town hall meetings are most likely not "relevant funders" in the eyes of Congress. And since town hall attendees don't usually have money to throw at their representatives, they have little reason to expect their representatives to listen to them.

When we compare voting records to the polls, we can see why there is so much hostility at the town hall meetings. Congress isn't listening to the people without money, they're listening to the other guys.

A fundraiser is a party with drinks, good food and entertainment...I mean, speeches. A town hall meeting is an adversarial confrontation with angry, hungry and tired people who've been working long weeks with little time for the family, but they sure did go out of their way to attend. I think we can guess which is more attractive to members of Congress.

I also think this is about as much as we can expect from what appears to be a permanent political class consisting of both Democrats and Republicans. They take big money from elites or organized business interests flush with cash and then they feel obligated to listen to the money over the people they claim to represent.

Here's a video with an example of what Congress is facing when they go home and host a town hall meeting, this one actually being quite civil:



At this town hall meeting, we see a room full of Christian Republicans expressing favor and support for Obamacare and even universal health care. That lady standing up even used Christian morality to bolster the argument for universal health care. Unfortunately, they're not big spenders. That video went viral and Naked Capitalism did some great analysis on the topic of universal health-care in general, and the scene captured by that video in this article, quoted in relevant part here:
The political appeal of a single-payer, universal health-care system is perhaps best outlined by Jessi Bohon, a high-school teacher who attended a raucous and often angry town hall with Republican Representative Diane Black in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, last week.
The article is well worth the read, as it's provides context for the debate and demonstrates that even conservative Republicans get behind the idea of universal health-care once it's explained in terms they understand. Jessi Bohon explained her support for universal health-care succinctly and masterfully, couching her support in the context of her religious beliefs.

Now Jessi's Congresswoman Diane Black is between a rock and a hard place. One the one hand, she needs to show that she's listening to her constituents. On the other hand...


...She has to answer to the people who paid for her last campaign and the next one.

What you see above is a screenshot I took of the output from a Chrome Plugin I use called Greenhouse. This plugin will highlight names if they're politicians. Then I can hover my mouse over the name and get their campaign finance numbers on the fly. The plugin uses data from OpenSecrets.org, an organization dedicated to following the money for any politician that they can dig up data on. Here is the OpenSecrets mission statement:
Nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, the Center for Responsive Politics is the nation's premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. OUR VISION is for Americans, empowered by access to clear and unbiased information about money’s role in politics and policy, to use that knowledge to strengthen our democracy. OUR MISSION is to produce and disseminate peerless data and analysis on money in politics to inform and engage Americans, champion transparency, and expose disproportionate or undue influence on public policy.
I have to wonder what would have happened in the last few elections if millions of Americans were using this application while reading about politics.

Now consider again that hard place that Representative Diane Black is in. Her conservative and Christian constituents in the Red State of Tennessee have expressed clear and overt support for universal health care. Look at again at the industry list of her financial supporters, "the relevant funders":

1. Health professionals, $121,000
2. Insurance, $119,149
3. Pharmaceuticals/Health products, $90,569

Total funding for her last campaign cycle is estimated to be $1,334,513.  The top 3 industries funding her campaign provided 24% of her funding. No matter how she votes on the issue of universal health care, someone will not be happy. Odds are, Congresswoman Black will go with the money if something like that ever came to a vote in the House.

American elites and organized business interests have the money. Most of the rest of us are busy working for and buying from those same organized business interests. They keep us busy and worried with work and issues like health insurance. Then those business and elite interests use the money we pay them for goods and services they sell, to lobby for their interests, not ours. This is why I advocate for and link to non-partisan organizations like mayday.us, represent.us and opensecrets.org.

Big money in politics transcends political parties, political orientation (liberal, conservative, etc.) and permeates nearly every level of government. We're supposed to have a representative democracy, but we can't have that when big money in politics separates representatives from the people they claim to represent.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Trump as agent provocateur and how we might point him in the right direction

Day after day, I see meme after meme depicting Trump in some unflattering way. I totally get the catharsis of the exercise. Strong feelings lead to stronger expressions of antipathy towards Trump. Just today I saw a meme depicting Trump and Pence as Beavis and Butthead. I get it. Insulting memes reflect the national angst about Trump as president. Behind every insult is fear.

While derogatory memes can be entertaining and even humorous, I find them distracting from the issues at hand. Remember, Bernie Sanders always told us that politics is about the issues, not identities. The memes that I have seen since Trump won the election are clearly a reflection of identity politics. I won't deride the great artists who make them, but I wish to remind those same people that the issues are what matter.

Here is one place where the issues matter: when Congressmen and women go home to see their constituents. From time to time, I see videos from the The Jimmy Dore Show posted in my feeds on Google+ and Facebook. They're very popular in my circles on Google+, and here is one installment of that show below:



Did you watch the video? Just look at those angry mobs all over the country confronting Congress Critters at their town hall meetings. I must admit, it was delicious to see Jason Chaffetz from Utah get a pitcher of castor oil administered to him at his own town hall meeting. He decided to cut it short when he found himself overwhelmed by the din of the citizens he claims to represent, as they shouted him down. He used to represent my district until the statehouse drew a new one for him, you know, to make sure he's re-elected and to make room for a new member of the House of Representatives.

So what about all that ire? That's just the response to the effort to repeal Obamacare, an effort which will most certainly take health insurance away from tens of millions of people who have it now, should they prevail. Seems like Republicans have become their own death panel, haven't they?

In Tennessee we get a sample of what's going on at the local level. There, members of the statehouse held a meeting to present their latest bathroom bill, only to be met by an angry mob of protesters. Naturally, they cut their meeting short because, hey, they don't have to listen to ordinary working constituents, anyway. They only care about relevant funders, just like members of Congress.

Even Schwarzenegger is back in the news. The Arnold has apparently noticed the issue of gerrymandering on the part of the Republicans and says that they could not even beat herpes in the polls. Now that's cold. Schwarzenegger, you may recall, was once a Republican governor of California ("Vote for me if you want to live"). Perhaps he too, has noticed that Republicans have only 26% of registered voters nationwide, yet dominate American politics at the state level with nearly complete control of state government in 25 states. That does seem puzzling, doesn't it? I'd call it a gift.

I guess the GOP in Congress is feeling especially brazen this year, despite all the attention they've been getting lately. They've introduced a bill to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency and scheduled that termination for December 31, 2018. They must be fairly confident that they won't have to live near any SuperFund sites. Certain industrial business elites will find that Christmas comes early this year.

The Atlantic Magazine has taken note of American institutions that are fighting back, too. The press, the judiciary and an apparently independent federal bureaucracy have all joined the perfect storm. A combination of checks on federal power have come in the form court orders, noticeable improvements in reporting the news and leaks. Lots of leaks. Loose lips lose ships, Donald.

The final incident I'd like to bring to your attention is a national movement, #adaywithoutimmigrants (Twitter). It's in the news, too. California farmers who backed Trump are beginning to notice they haven't really thought this thing through.

This nation is literally in a froth over Trump, the GOP and the policies they hope to implement. Now that the GOP has the power, and they've noticed the discontent with the policies they are so eager to implement, they're going full steam on their disenfranchisement plans, to confuse themselves even more. They're very worried that "millions of illegal votes" could derail their midterms in less than two years, so they need to move fast.

Lest you think I'm here just to thump Republicans, remember that Democrats have about 30% of voter registration nationwide. They played a part in bumping millions of voters off the rolls last year during the primaries in order to sideline Bernie Sanders. More to the point, they have ingested the big money in politics Kool-Aid just like Republicans, and so, have become beholden to big money interests. The Democrats are just as much at fault for national discontent as Republicans, and they can thank their good friend, former Congressman Tony Coehlo, for directing them to that gravy train back in the 1980s.

Trump won mostly on name recognition and the idiocy of Clinton's campaign, first against Bernie Sanders and second against their own liberal base of voters. Had the Dingaling National Committee remained a fair and impartial forum (as their bylaws require) for the nomination process, they might have had a better view of which candidate the voters really wanted. I'd say that the man filling the stadiums last year was the better pick. But with the near certainty of electing one of Boss Tweed's greatest fans as chair, Tom Perez, I doubt the DNC has actually learned their lesson just yet.

Trump's name recognition and visibility has made him the perfect agent provocateur. During the primaries last year, I saw numerous articles demonstrating Trump as exposing the GOP elite as a racist, xenophobic group of white men hungry for power. Here is one from Salon and a sample to get a sense of what I'm talking about:
Paul Ryan is angry with Donald Trump, not so much for failing to espouse conservative values, as for exposing America’s dirty little secret — white rage: that deep-seated determination to block black progress in this country. For years, conservative politicians have relied upon the cover of high-minded principles and slogans – “protecting the integrity of the ballot box,” or waging a “war on drugs” — in order to cloak their determination to restrict African Americans’ citizenship rights. The racism fueling Trump’s campaign and his followers, however, is so overt, that it is undoing decades of hard covert work by the GOP.
Can you say, "Southern Strategy"? Mind you here, I'm not talking about the entire GOP base. I know good people, men and women who have voted for Trump. Not all Trump supporters are racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and the like. They wanted change. They wanted someone who was not an insider and they did not like Hillary Clinton. Some even expressed a desire for Bernie Sanders as president, yes even some Republicans wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders.

Walk with me now on a short path of complete speculation. I'll call it a once secret hope. I believe that Trump is an agent provocateur, not in favor of the GOP or the Democrats, but against the establishment. Trump is a product of decades of voter disenfranchisement ranging from closed primaries to closed presidential debates to Tweedism on steroids, Americans have endured an unending drama of watching the people they vote for refuse to listen to them on important public policy issues. That's how we got Trump.

So I have this faint hope that Trump is an agent provocateur working hard to destroy the cozy relationship between the elected men and women who wield power and the un-elected people who want to use their enormous hoards of money to buy favors from the former. Cloaked deep inside all of this, I see this one tiny little ray of hope in all of the Trump Administration as Steve Bannon. I know, it seems hard to believe, but hear me out. The New York Times has compiled a laundry list of quotes from Bannon in a variety of contexts and the sum of all of them is pretty much the same: Bannon is opposed to the apparently permanent political class we must vote for every few years.

Despite his position, Bannon has a problem. When voter disenfranchisement reigns supreme across our land, elected representatives and political analysts lose touch with the people they claim to represent and/or know about. Even Bannon cannot see the depths of voter discontent because not all of the votes are counted.

Bannon is, from what I can see now, the closest man to Trump outside of Trump's family. Does anyone else see the irony in having Bannon there, in the White House, working in an establishment and being anti-establishment?

Trump is now the national lightning rod, probably the largest political lightning rod in the entire country, no matter what people might think of his hands. He has elicited a response from the left that cannot be estimated, it can only be anticipated. Whether he wants to be or not, witting or unwitting, he is an agent provocateur like no other in this country. I don't think I've ever seen any time in history, short of Ronald Reagan, where so much political power was vested in one man.

I can't say that I like Trump or hate him. I still have an open mind about him. He's only signed one piece of legislation as of this date, so he's just getting started. I really don't know what to make of him yet, so the best I can do is just watch what he does. Yes, he's signed some executive orders and ruffled a lot of feathers, and the press is unable to comprehend a highly placed elected official who won't take their orders.

But remember that bright spot that I was telling you about earlier with Bannon, well, I think that's something we can all agree on, left and right. We are all tired of having to support a seemingly permanent political class that will listen to the money before the constituents. Now I'm far from being a Trump supporter or even an admirer of Steve Bannon. Yet, when I look at someone who is a potential adversary, I'm always looking for common ground. Steve Bannon is anti-establishment and he's got that in spades - and he's Trump's right hand man. I think we can find a good issue to work on with him, regardless of political orientation.

Sanders was anti-establishment and I voted for him. Jill Stein was anti-establishment and I voted for her, too. I'm done with a fat and happy political class that thinks they can take money from big business (a polite term for private monopoly), and use that power against me. Note to those private monopolies: I just want to buy your products, not your politics.

The Tea Party claimed to be anti-establishment, too, and look where that got them. They've been owned by the Koch Brothers for years.

So here's what I'm thinking. We need to find one issue to rally around. Conservatives and liberals alike want change, and we know we're not going to get what we want with the current crop of Congress critters and their 97% re-election rate. What if we set aside all other issues and just focused on the issue of unseating that permanent political class and worked to prevent them from being replaced with more of the same? Think mayday.us. That aligns well with campaign finance reform, gerrymandering prevention and anti-corruption laws that have teeth.

Instead of taunting and branding Trump as an idiot, a sexist, or a surprised Putin lover, which is only going to piss him off anyway (unless he's merely an entertainer and refuses to break character), we could just zero in on this one issue. If Steve Bannon is serious, and is taken seriously, we could have an honest and open dialogue with him and Trump, about dealing with the corruption that a permanent political class breeds. To paraphrase Sanders, lets hold Trump and Bannon to their promises and statements on this one topic alone. If they change their minds about draining the swamp, let them defend their actions and their words on the air and in print.

The rest of the news about Trump is just a distraction. I believe that the central issue we need to focus on is eliminating this permanent political class. To accomplish this objective, we just might have the right man in the White House to do that, and that would be Steve Bannon. It's entirely up to us to decide if we should make him an ally or adversary to this one cause. I suggest we go with the former.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

This is what happens when society teaches punishment instead of skills

A few weeks ago, I read the headlines of a story about a boys reform school in Florida. I passed by it, thinking nothing more than, "ho hum, just another sensational story." But I've been thinking about that school ever since. So did my own search instead of looking for that meme from somewhere in the depths of my Google+ feed, and here is what I found.

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, aka, "The Florida School for Boys", was opened in 1900 and was notorious for a wide range of abuses of boys that were sent there or wound up there. The first link I found was from The Smithsonian Institution, not exactly the first name in sensationalism. So I read on. I was intrigued by the picture of the crosses in the graveyard at the school at the top of the article.



I read a few more articles and the literature is fairly consistent. Over a century of operation kids were severely beaten, whipped, denied clothing and food, one may have been shot and another was put in a large clothes dryer and died later from his injuries. Scientists have found 55 graves and have matched 14 DNA samples to identify the boys buried there. They found two graveyards one for people of color and one for everyone else. This Wikipedia article has a fairly detailed history of the school with numerous sources in the bibliography. Although no one seems to have been charged with a crime at the school, it was finally closed in 2011.

From my reading so far, I think it is fair to say that it was a public school teaching morality from religion. We know this from the crosses in the picture, and the segregation of the students based on race. The roots of American racism and segregation can be found in religion, Christianity to be precise.

This article is not intended to criticize religion in general, or even the brutal discipline practices at the Florida School for Boys. That has already been done. I believe that there is a wider and deeper message we can learn from this story. Those crosses in the picture are evidence of a fact that may now be plain for all to see: you cannot teach morality without teaching the skills required to achieve it.

Those crosses in the picture tell a story of a school staff intent on beating the "evil" out of the boys who were sent there by their parents or a state agency responsible for disposition of orphans. Those crosses are evidence of the failure of reward and punishment as a method of discipline. No matter how severe the discipline, there were always some boys who would not comply, even upon risk of death.

There is another story here to consider. The addiction of abuse. The abusers who administered the punishment were addicted to the abuse. When humans engage in physical conflict, the brain sends a massive shot of adrenaline throughout the body. For the abuser, this is a huge hit, every bit as powerful as cocaine or crystal meth. This hit provides a sort of "high" much like joggers experience with endorphins from the runners high, yet far more intense in the context of violence.

I have some first hand evidence of this myself. I felt it when I was spanked by my father as a boy. I felt it when I fought the kids who used to tease me at school. I felt it the moment before I hauled off a punch to the offender in the lunch line. I was always shaken by the experience of violence and can recall those same feelings with clarity to this day.

When we engage in violence of any kind, we feel this jolt of energy from the adrenaline. Combine that jolt with authority and you have a compelling reason to do it again. And again. Regardless of the consequences.

There is a better way to teach morality. We teach the skills needed to achieve that morality. One great example is the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of America. The Scouts organizations teach skills. They both teach skills about living in and respecting the natural wilderness of America. They both teach skills about getting along, working as a team and collaborating.

For adults there are 12-step organizations, the most well known being Alcoholics Anonymous. They teach the skill of not drinking, they don't just pray for the willingness to stop drinking. They don't punish people for drinking, either. They understand, probably better than any other organization, the power and the peril of addiction. They are widely regarded as the most successful organization to help people stop drinking. And they're free. They're also anarchists. No one is forced to do anything in that program. Nothing is compulsory, there are no dues to pay, and it is an entirely voluntary organization. The 12 steps are suggested, not required.

There is even Toastmasters where people can learn to overcome fear of speaking in public. I was a member of Toastmasters for years and learned to ride that fear like a wave to turn it into an asset. They teach the skill of public speaking, and the skills required to overcome the fear of speaking in public.

I'm sure there are many more organizations out there that teach skills. The point is that when we teach the skills of morality we get better results. There is a scientific organization dedicated to this effort, Lives in the Balance, headed by Dr. Ross W. Greene, PhD. Dr. Greene has 38 years of working with kids and is applying a very simple concept to challenging behavior in kids and adults: kids would do better if they could.

According to Dr. Greene, when kids exhibit challenging behavior, that's the signal, not the problem. It is evidence of lagging skills and unsolved problems. When we work with kids to solve the problems that get in their way, we also teach them the skills they need to do well. Kids want to do well, naturally. It's up to us to engage with the kids in collaboration to solve those problems the prevent them from doing well. That means it's not entirely up to kids or the parents to solve the problems. It's a partnership.

I believe that this is true of adults, too. Crime is evidence of challenging behavior in adults. When we teach adults the skills they need to adapt to their conditions, they get better. Dr. Greene's approach is being applied to detention centers for kids with very positive results. We could do the same for adults.

By now you're wondering what this all has to do with politics. Donald Trump ran as a "law and order" candidate. He wants to crack down on crime. So do many Republicans in Congress and in statehouses. Republicans in 5 states are pushing to make peaceful protest a criminal offense.

Here's the problem: putting people in jail doesn't really address why they're in the streets. As we've learned from the Florida School for Boys, teaching morality with punishment is very difficult and perhaps a fatal exercise. Those crosses in the backyard of that school can serve as a warning that we need to change course for humanity.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Impunity doesn't care about polls, but really worries if we the people should ever get organized

Here is a really interesting meme about Trump:


"New Quinnipiac poll results show Trump is disliked and distrusted by a majority of Americans."

And yet, Trump keeps going. I saw the news about the immigration raids across the country. After Kellyanne Conway suggested that people buy Ivanka's products, the website for the Office of Government Ethics was overwhelmed by traffic. Republicans in Congress continue to plot the repeal of Obamacare in the hopes that Trump will sign their bill.

Republicans in statehouses across the country are planning ambitious efforts to enact conservative agendas they think Americans really want, you know, because they think they have a mandate. In many of the stories I've read, they are acting with impunity since Republicans now have top to bottom control in 25 states. They are moving quickly on so-called "right-to-work" laws, curbing abortion rights, cutting public services and state budgets. They are working to create a meaner, leaner version of what they think government should look like.

This sea change in state and federal government is what happens when Democrats try to do what Republicans do to raise the big money. Democrats begin to do what big business wants instead of what the people want and then they start to look like Republicans and that confuses voters. That dynamic is what now allows Republicans to act with impunity.

I shared that meme again, but I pointed out that impunity doesn't care about polls. Really, it doesn't. People who have power think nothing of polls. When I saw that meme for the first time, the first thing that came to mind was every poll that I ever saw in the primaries last year. In every poll, Sanders beat Trump where Clinton would lose. Impunity doesn't care about polls. The Dingaling National Committee didn't care about polls, either. They rigged the primaries against Sanders and lost the general election.

The polls were against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The people in power don't care. They want war. In fact, if we surveyed the polling for a wide range of political issues, we'd find that generally, people in power don't care about the polls. They must care about something else, then. What is that? Money.

One of my favorite studies to cite on the relevance of polls is this one, "Testing Theories of American Politics:Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens". This study surveyed more than 1700 issues across 20 years of American politics and found that Congress voted against the polls better than 60% of the time. But they also found that elites (some very special, very wealthy people) and organized business interests had a much greater influence upon Congress.

People in power may not care about polls, but they begin to leave little bricks in their pants when the people they claim to represent start to organize and work against that power.

At this point I want to zero in those organized business interests mentioned in the study above. During the same period as that covered by the study (1981-2002), we saw accelerated diminution of union power and a reduction in the organization of labor. We also saw acceleration of the implementation of neoliberal economics, starting with Reagan and continuing with President Clinton and George Bush.

With the reduction of union labor during that period, we saw the rise of organized business interests and their eventual and complete domination of American politics. It is as if there was a concerted effort to discourage people from organizing, instead to urge them to act individually rather than as a group while promoting business power.

This distraction from organizing continues to this day. The Washington Post offers a great example in their article, "A blueprint for resistance to Trump has emerged. Here’s what it looks like." It's actually a good read on current events, but there is nothing in it to suggest organizing as a useful tool to work against what appears to be fascism rising in Washington. The basic thrust of that article is to rely upon Washington and hold guarded optimism. That's it.

Contrast that article with this one from the UK's The Guardian. In the UK, even in mainstream media, they advocate for organizing. In American media, it's "call your Congressman", but in the UK, they want to take it to the streets by organizing. That attitude in the UK has some history behind it. Even if you can't make the protest, The Guardian offers other ways to resist, too.

Here's an article from the Socialist Alternative website, "HOW SOCIALISTS AND THE POLL TAX MOVEMENT DROVE THATCHER OUT OF OFFICE". It describes the struggle against the poll tax in the UK and how very organized that struggle was. From the streets to the courts, the Militants, now known as the Socialist Party of the UK, organized their people to not just protest the tax. They organized about 18 million people to not pay the tax. They provided support to non-payers so that they could overwhelm the courts with people fighting the tax.

When people are protesting, they're not working. Employers need them. The state needs them to pay taxes. The wealthy need us to be working so that we're not attending meetings at the local school board, the statehouses and watching what's going on in Congress. If we're working, they're fine. But if millions of Americans are out in the streets raising a stink, that gets on the news and that's embarrassing.

It gets better. In the UK, the fight over the poll tax was a phenomenon. That poll tax affected everyone there. It was easy to get people into the streets and clog traffic. The protests gave visibility to the cause, but what really hurt was the resistance to paying the tax. The resistance was so strong that it became too expensive to enforce and collect the tax. This is how powerful organizing can be. If you want to go for the jugular in public policy, go for the money.

It's worth noting that Republicans are the party in favor of tougher laws against protesting. Republicans in five states are now pushing anti-protest laws, in defiance of the First Amendment. I guess they want their business allies to be safe and secure while they gut the unions and force everyone else to be disorganized.

See, it's OK for businesses to join an organization, like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, or the US Chamber of Commerce, or even the American Medical Association and use that organization to consolidate power. Those associations are unions of a sort, and they aren't for the people. Then businesses can use that power to influence Congress and statehouses for their conservative agenda. But God help you if you should try to organize a union of anybody that happens to work for those businesses. That tends to strike fear in the halls of power.

That's what right to work laws are designed to prevent. Now it turns out that even Donald Trump is in favor of right to work laws. He's in favor of defeating the efforts of people to organize so that they can make their voices heard. I thought he campaigned on promises to help the middle class. I guess he forgot about all that already.

This is what we're up against. Protests are nice, but organizing is better. When we organize, we can communicate ideas and efforts. Think of it like a laser. Ordinary light shines all over and bounces everywhere. A laser is collimated light, its very organized, very intense, and can be blinding, like the sun. All it takes is one issue for people to focus on and work against. Multiply that force times millions, and pretty soon, some very powerful people might have to surrender some of their power.

Sometimes I wonder if that is reason why Trump is in power today. To remind us that we still have each other and that we can still organize against power used against the rest of us. The only question in my mind is which issue will bring the people together, to organize and to resist.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Morality is a skill, not dogma

For the past few weeks, I've been watching "The Untold History of the United States", a documentary series on Netflix produced and narrated by Oliver Stone. As I saw this alternate history of the United States stream before my eyes, I found myself working hard to break it down to one simple idea. What I see is the United States caught in a war of morality. The United States is and has been for much of our history, waging a moral war against the world and many of its own citizens.

With each passing episode of Mr. Stone's version of our history, I found myself trying to put all that I have seen in context of what I know today. I have been trying to see all that history through a lens that says, "people would do better if they could". And throughout the history lessons presented by Mr. Stone, I could not help but think that these United States, acting as one, have been attempting to get the entire world to accept their notion of morality, without making any effort practice or to teach the skills required to achieve that morality.

The United States, and the people who claim to lead it, seem to think that people are bad because they want to be bad. So, when other people and other countries do not act in accordance with the moral code held by the United States, we have responded with furious, vindictive punishment. From the atom bombs we dropped on a country tired from war and ready to surrender, to a merciless war on terrorism perpetrated on countries that had nothing to do with 9/11, we have relied upon our power as justification for our morals rather than demonstrating that morality ourselves.

One cannot claim to teach morality without teaching the skills required to achieve that morality. Morality is not a question of motivation, morality is a skill. The skill of morality cannot be taught with a stick. Morality is a skill that must be demonstrated and taught with empathy and compassion through collaboration.

The United States has been trying for more than a century to convince us that capitalism has greater morality than socialism or communism. I have suggested in the past that it's not the form of government that matters so much as whether or not people treat each other with respect and compassion as a part of, and while living within the culture the government supports. The form of government we choose matters less than whether or not people are mature enough to treat each other with respect and kindness.

The leadership of the United States have been trying for more than a century to teach the world that Christianity is morally superior to any other religion, despite the fact that the United States was not even founded as a Christian nation. How have they been doing this? Mostly, through wars, military intervention and economic intervention. This hasn't been going well for America, either.

I am not saying that Christianity is a bad religion, rather, that there are a few people who claim to be Christian that are treating at least some other people very poorly. This continuum of good to bad behavior can be found in any group of people, in any religion. I've known as friends very moral atheists, Jews, Buddhists and Christians. But in its continual quest for dominance, the United States has not demonstrated the "Christian" morality that it seeks to impose upon others nor the compassion and empathy required to teach it.

This is not to say that we are a bad country, this is to say that if we want other nations to respect us, we must respect them. Just because we have the world's largest military force does not mean that others will respect us. That military force does not give us the right to topple other governments, to interfere with their economies and to foment wars in other countries. That kind of behavior breeds terrorism. 

How else can we explain the United States as the world's largest and greatest police state? How else can we explain the continual reliance upon a war time economy? To have peace, we must be peaceful. To teach peace, we must be peaceful, too. We must start that as a nation right now.

Great teachers are not worried about their security and they have no need to make war. They are entirely concerned with making sure their students learn the skills they sat in class for. Great teachers demonstrate the skills needed to live and prosper in peace, with compassion and empathy for their students. They do not punish their students for getting it wrong. Great teachers collaborate with their students. When a student goes astray, they attend to that student to determine what skills are missing and needed to learn the lesson and they teach those skills, verify that the skills have been learned and move on to the next lesson.

A great teacher is not concerned with motivation. He knows that the motivation is there. Even if the motivation appears absent, he knows it will appear when the skills are taught, learned and demonstrated by the student.

I can recall sitting in class as a child and a young man, and looking back, I now realize that the only real skills I was taught in school were reading, writing and arithmetic. They did not teach morality as a skill. They taught morality as a fact, as something to be accepted at face value without ever considering the skills required to achieve it. I now know for myself that morality comes from the chest and gut, not from a book.

The closest I think I ever came to learning life skills in school came when I took classes in home economics, auto shop, machine shop and electronics. The rest, history, social studies and even some science, were all about memorizing facts. They taught facts not skills. If they taught morality, they did not say they were teaching it. The morality they did teach was how bad socialism and communism were.

Our leaders continue to perpetuate the war on terror. They continue to allow frauds on an enormous scale to go uncorrected. With a real unemployment rate of 9.4%, they allow millions of Americans who want to work, to go wasted, with no job, no prospects, and no hope, while the wealthiest corporations in the world are allowed to park $2 trillion and more in tax shelters overseas. That's just the shortlist on my mind right now, and maybe yours, too.

This is not to say that our leaders are evil. I don't believe in evil and I'm not sure that I have ever believed in evil. The concept of evil is borne out of religion, a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in children and adults. I do not believe in evil people. I believe that there are only the confused (who we call evil) and the less confused (the good). I think we can say with a fair amount of confidence that our leaders are really confused, both Democrats and Republicans, together.

Our leaders, intent upon teaching the morality of capitalism and Christianity, seem hopelessly lost because they are not teaching the skills required to achieve the morality they claim to possess. They seem more intent on pursuing money than morality. If our leaders do not possess the skill of morality, then it is up to us to teach those skills if we have them, and learn them if we don't. And when we teach those skills, we must be mindful to demonstrate the skill of morality ourselves, in and out of class, with empathy and compassion, through collaboration with everyone we meet.