On sunsets and prairies

The following is my response to a YouTube video by John Green, author of Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars and one of the Vlogbrothers. The video is Civil Twilight. You should watch that first, then come back.

You’re very right when you say that there is little that is more mundane than a sunset. Indeed what could possibly be a more everyday occurrence except maybe a sunrise. As someone who has spent a good portion of your life on the American prairie, maybe you’ve also noticed what I have about the great expanses between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Having grown up in the Black Hills, I got into the habit of disparaging the Great Plains as boring, featureless, and yes, mundane. A college recruiter once alluded to a feeling that the only thing keeping you from seeing the ocean was bad eyesight.

More recently I’ve had occasion–many occasions actually–to drive across these vast expanses between my new home in Texas and my childhood home in the Hills. And now, midway through my 50th year, when I cross the “Great American Desert” I am struck by the size of things. On these rolling waves of earth I once dismissed as flat, I can perceive somehow the whole earth. I can imagine myself crawling along its surface, a thin layer of solid rock resting on a mostly molten ball of magma, under a thin layer of air protecting me from a huge-beyond-imagining of empty expanse that makes the landscape in front of me look positively dense. I crawl along embedded in an even thinner sheen of life on the surface of this planet we call home. And yes, in one sense it makes me feel small but I can also perceive that I am an integral part of something much bigger than myself. It is as if a single one of my liver cells could know that it is contributing, in some small way, to the things I write, the thoughts I think, the work that I do. As I pass the grasses and trees, skunks and porcupines with the sky above, the earth below and wonder about their interactions and the impact of my passing, I can feel my part in this grand experiment of the Universe getting to know itself.

Sure, I personally am not running the Large Hadron Collider, or dreaming up the next deep space probe or plumbing the depths or reacting elements looking for new compounds. I am absorbing the fruits of these labors, making backup copies of a small part of human knowledge. And my day job doesn’t directly make the world a better place, but it definitely enables it, from the scale of individual people to national policy. I am a part of the solution, however small that part might be.

It IS easy to dismiss the mundane even that which is so beautiful as a sunset. How much easier to dismiss that which is so abundant as to occupy a huge proportion of this land we call The United States. It’s so easy that we similarly apply it in cultural and political terms. We speak of coastal elites and flyover country and the disregard that each has for the other. We even take it to the extreme of branding each other not only as ignorant, but even actively evil when our only real difference is that we disagree about means to an end. And people who have been corrupted by their desire for power try to use those differences to pit us against ourselves so that they can remain in power. We need to remember that we are all in this together. We all want the best for this country. We are all part of this experiment in government of the people, by the people, for the people that has been going on for 241 years now. On this Fourth of July, we need to remember that each of us is connected to all of us, that we are all a part of a greater whole. And that our place in this system is to know ourselves, work for each other, build our nation into a family, build our understanding of the cosmos, and yes, enjoy the sunsets.


Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

This is kind of old by now, but rather than discard it completely, I thought I would resurrect it from the Save as Draft pile.

According to the Supreme Court, my employer has the right to tell me I can’t buy certain contraceptives with my insurance benefits. Apparently, certain employers have a pretty remarkable religious belief that if they do anything to make it possible for me to make a choice that conflicts with their religious beliefs that they are just as morally responsible for my choice as I am (and the Court bought that argument!). So then by the same logic surely they have the right to tell me I can’t buy them with my paycheck too, right? Why wouldn’t they? In both cases it’s their money, given to me in compensation for services rendered.  In both cases, there are exactly two ways for my employer to know which choices I made: I tell her or she violates my privacy. In both cases, unless she’s a total hypocrite, her religious objections are exactly the same. My sex life and reproductive choices are none of her damn business. So what makes health insurance different?

And if my employer is to be held responsible for my reproductive choices and therefore can hinder those choices, why wouldn’t they also be held responsible for my recreational choices? Surely, if I chose to spend my paycheck on booze, they enabled that choice just as much as they enabled me to choose to use contraceptives, so why wouldn’t they have a First Amendment right keep me from buying alcohol too, right?

And if they can tell me what I can’t spend my paycheck on, why wouldn’t they have the right to specify purchases that I have to make? Can my boss make me tithe? Can she force me to buy Bibles? By what principle would anyone limit her new right to dictate my spending habits?

The Supreme Court’s decision is based on a religious fallacy–that one person will be held accountable for the actions of another in final judgment–and a legal fallacy–that the First Amendment gives us a right not only to believe any stupid thing but to force the consequences of that belief on other people. It’s not the place of the Supreme Court to tell Hobby Lobby that they are wrong about the religious fallacy, but it is their place not to perpetuate the legal fallacy.


Living the good life on welfare…right

So this page came to my attention today from one of my co-workers. The first item on the page, ostensibly is a phone call to a morning radio call in show from a woman who is living off subsidized housing, utilities support, SNAP, and a free cell phone. Her husband supposedly will catch odd jobs when he feels like it and they have three kids.

The second story is about a report in the Rio Grande valley somewhere in which a guy claims he frequently gets people in his convenience store with balances of thousands of dollars on their Lone Star (SNAP/food stamps) cards.

In the first case, the woman claims to get about $1300 in supports including $425/month in SNAP and pays $50/month in rent from her own income.  I don’t buy it. They are supporting five people on less than $1500 a month? In Austin? Plus, I’ve never in my life heard of anyone so happy to be receiving benefits. I think the whole call is a hoax. I won’t claim that the folks at KLBJ perpetrated it, but they sure fell for it like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

As for the other story, they have exactly one person making claims that are completely uncorroborated. The only official numbers in the story, if you actually do the math show that the average recipient was receiving $109-$117/ month in the two counties for which they were able to get actual data. You try living on $25-$30 a week in food. Also, little known fact: when you apply for SNAP, your date of eligibility may be some weeks or months prior to your application date and the date you receive benefits, so your first month’s card could have considerable “back benefits” on it. Would that add up to a balance of thousands of dollars? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Well $7000 would surprise me but $2000 sounds reasonable. The down side? Your SNAP benefits expire at the end of the month so to get the full benefit of that card, you have to find a way to spend the entire balance before the end of the month. I guess there are worse problems to have.

The Conservative Argument in Favor of the Affordable Care Act

So the shutdown is over and we aren’t going to default on any debt. But the Republicans still vow to get rid of Obamacare. So let’s look at why health care reform is something Conservatives should be in favor of. Here’s a letter to my Tea Party-backed Representative:

Health Care is a jobs issue. Actually, I was pretty surprised that the President and the Democrats didn’t use this line when they passed the Affordable Care Act in the first place, because it is very true. I used to work for Dell, one of the bigger employers in our district. In the mid 2000’s (2005 give or take) Dell decided to bring call volume back from India and therefore opened new call centers. Did they open them in the US? No, they opened them in Panama and Canada. Why? At least in part it was because those countries had government health coverage and so employers weren’t burdened with providing insurance.

A small business I know of in Travis County was very proud to start providing insurance for their employees around the same time. Shortly thereafter, one of their employees and his family were in a terrible car accident. They lost at least one member of the family (as I recall) and the survivors had some serious medical bills. Now, I don’t know if these medical bills had anything to do with the employee leaving the next year, but I would hate to be the employer faced with the prospect of having my small business hit with suddenly increased premiums because of something like this. I hope the guy was not fired so that the company could continue to provide benefits, but I can’t rule it out.
Health Care is a huge burden on job creation in this country and I can say that from my own direct experience as well. Dell laid me off in 2009 and I investigated starting my own business during the year that I remained unemployed. I applied for private insurance during that time and was denied for “pre-existing conditions.” The insurance company so wanted to avoid covering me that they took my off-hand comments in my doctor’s notes as a diagnosis. I am not certified by any authority in the world to make diagnoses, but that apparently didn’t matter to the insurance company. They also invented a “smoking history” for me.

Last year, I had a heart attack. That’s a real pre-existing condition that is going to require me to have insurance in place because heart attacks are EXPENSIVE and so are the drugs to prevent them. I’m doing everything I can to prevent a future heart attack but there are no guarantees and the prevention isn’t cheap either. Under the old system, that means I’m tied to employer insurance until I get old enough to qualify for Medicare. How can I create jobs and grow the economy if I can’t get health coverage? Well, right now, the answer is Obamacare. What you thought the Republican alternatives would work? Why would an out-of-state insurance company want to cover me when an in-state company bent over backwards to avoid covering me, when there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with me yet? Tort Reform? We have tort reform in Texas already and it didn’t make Scott & White feel inclined to take my application seriously. The plain fact is that the GOP has no viable alternative to solve the problems that Obamacare solves. Technical problems with the website aside, there are quite a few reasonably priced plans available to me on the exchange that aren’t allowed to deny me based on my medical history. Now, if you want to do something different from Obamacare, go right ahead, but keep in mind, none of what you and your colleagues have come up with so far fix any of the problems that make the health care industry a drag on our economy. Real health care reform is totally in line with Republican Values. Even if we accept the cynical view that the only thing Republicans value is handouts for the rich, health care reform is in line with that value, too.

And if you’re worried about the insurance companies and their lobby, here’s my thought on that subject: Screw them! Ostensibly they are in the business of paying medical bills, but my experience with them is that they will take any excuse NOT to pay those bills. I could go on for days with stories of how the insurer providing our agency’s current coverage have used incompetence and red tape to avoid meeting their obligations under our policy. Honestly, I don’t see how a government bureaucracy could be any worse than the private bureaucracy I’m dealing with currently. As long as insurance is a for-profit enterprise, this will always be a problem.

So, your recent ill-advised efforts to defund Obamacare were ill-advised not just because it was a stupid strategy, but because it went against our county’s economic interests. I was always taught that the GOP was the party of fiscal responsibility and growing the economy. Getting rid of Obamacare with your current ideas on what to do instead is neither responsible nor does it grow the economy.


It’s not enough for me and if I were advising the President, I would advise that he stand firm, but the House Republicans have started to come to their senses. Speaker John Boehner yesterday announced an offer to the President (to try) to pass a debt ceiling increase good until around the end of November in hopes that the Democrats would come to the negotiating table about the budget. It’s a start.

Of course, their proposal still includes what Newsmax calls “several modest changes” to the Affordable Care Act. I remember when Republican partisans used to accuse me of Bush Derangement Syndrome, reflexively reacting to every move by GWB as if it were coming from the Devil himself (I may be exaggerating slightly). Apparently, GOPers aren’t immune to Obamacare Derangement Syndrome. Anyway, I digress. They should give that up. They should not only raise the debt ceiling but also pass a clean continuing resolution (which they may be considering). They should apologize to the American people and specifically to all those furloughed federal workers. But, for now, I’m going to be happy that they have taken any steps toward being reasonable and negotiating in good faith no matter how small those steps might be.

Bringing it all together

It occurred to me that I’ve been preaching to my Congressman, presenting problems without presenting any solutions. Or at least not presenting any solutions to HIS problem as he (probably) sees it. So I realized that some of my other preaching on the relationship of the GOP to their base might be germane to our current budget/debt ceiling woes. So here’s the result:

I understand you’re in a tough spot right now. Having taken the position you have on Obamacare and the budget, you’re looking for a way to save face because, if you are seen as caving in on this position, you become vulnerable to getting “primaried” by someone even more conservative than you next spring. But the President isn’t budging on this and I don’t see any reason why he would. And I really don’t want to see you and your colleagues forced to give up because we’re already defaulting on debts and watching our economy crumble. That’s bad for everyone.

So, “caving” sooner rather than later is good for the United States of America as a whole but is bad for [you personally]. And I think the answer is to get comfortable with this idea: The Republican Base is too small and relying solely on playing to “the base” to get through the primary and then having to energize “the base” to make it through the general election is not a winning strategy in the long-term. Playing to and energizing “the base” only serves to push moderates away making the base even smaller. I know this is true, because that’s me. I’ve always considered myself a moderate Republican, but I can’t, in good conscience, support this party anymore. For many reasons, but not least of which is they don’t seem to want me around anyway. “Fine,” I say to myself, “I’ll take my vote where it’s appreciated.” Giving in on this budget fight is going to piss off “the base,” no doubt, but there are literally millions of people who don’t vote at all in the primaries that would easily dwarf the mere 2 million who voted in both primaries in May 2012. In [your district], even if every person who voted for you in 2012 voted against you (all 43,317), there are still 606,285 [that didn’t vote in any primary, Democrat or Republican] in the voting age population to pull from. Now that’s a base! If you could get just one out of 6 of those to vote for you in the primary you’d blow a putative “attack from the right” out of the water. And are those people going to vote for the Democrat in the general? Please! Me personally, I think the GOP needs to repudiate the Tea Party, but for you, in the face of a very real possibility of having to cave in no matter what you might want to believe, I think this provides a way to still come out a winner. Think about it.

Actually, the 43,317 was my Congressman’s vote plus his only primary competitor. I don’t recall anymore if his competitor was tea-party-er than thou but in this district that’s the way to bet. I doubt that very many of those who opposed my Congressman did so because they thought him too conservative and so might respond favorably to a more moderate position.

But the real point is that I don’t think there’s any scenario in which he doesn’t have to give in on Obamacare and just go ahead and fund the government and raise the debt limit. And when he does cave in, it’s really going to hurt him in the next primary. And even if (somehow) it doesn’t, growing the base is going to be the way to remain competitive in the future (I mean 10-20 years out). And Daily Kos thinks this is one of the districts that is turning bluer these days. Moderating is probably good for my district in the nearer future (say, 5-12 years out).

Demographic Trouble

There has been a lot of talk, since the Republicans lost the last presidential election, about how the GOP has demographic problems, mostly about how they need to reach out to minorities and women. While I agree that their immigration and women’s health positions are part of their problem and should be revisited, I think the GOP’s demographic problem is much bigger than that. It’s not that the Republicans aren’t popular among minorities and women, it’s that they aren’t popular with people.

Okay, that’s exaggerated and over-simplified. It would be truer to say that the places where Republicans are popular don’t have a lot of people in them. Check out this map on 270towin.com:

2016 Presidential Election: Electoral Map.

These are the states that the two parties can rely on come 2016, defined as “haven’t swung from one party to the other since 2004 or before.” As you can see, the swath of red in the middle is huge compared to the blue around the edges. But you may also notice that the red states don’t have a lot of electoral votes meaning they have small populations. The Republicans can only count on five states with double-digit electoral votes and only Texas has more than 20. Thus the Republicans, even with the Electoral College’s bias toward small states has only 180 reliable electoral votes while the Democrats have 246. As the name of the website states, you need 270 to win. If Texas turned reliably blue and nothing else changed, 246+38=284, the Republicans would be done for. Even keeping Texas, the Republicans can’t win if they can’t win Florida. That doesn’t get them anywhere near 270, but if the Democrats get Florida, it puts them over the top.

But wait, you may be saying, states that haven’t swung in the past three elections, that’s not much of a standard. Surely states that haven’t swung in the past four elections is a better measure of reliability. Well, yes, it is. But if we look just at the states that haven’t swung since 2000, the only change is New Hampshire’s 4 electoral votes going into the “tossup” pile. The GOP still has to win Florida and a whole bunch of other states.

Hmmm, I hear some of you thinking, surely five in a row is an even better approximation of reliability, that should put some more states in play. Yes, it does, but they are all red states. If we put the standard at five elections in a row, the Democrats still control 242 electoral votes and the Republicans drop to 121 (Bill Clinton was pretty popular in the south in ’96). The last time any of those solid blue states voted Republican was 1988.

The Republicans keep talking about “energizing the base” but what they don’t realize is that their base is too small. Sure, it works at the Congressional district level, but it won’t work on the national level, not for long anyway. Personally, I think they’ve already passed the point of no return on that strategy. If the GOP ever wants to win the White House again, they’re going to have to stop energizing and start growing the base.