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.

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Donald Trump’s cry for help

Today, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, posted a GIF based on old footage of the day he took part in the show at the World Wrestling Federation. In the original footage he is shown body slamming a guy in a suit (people who pay closer attention to such entertainments can probably name him).

This GIF has the CNN log superimposed on the face of the original slammee so that Trump is metaphorically “taking down” the network he so dislikes. I haven’t seen anyone do so yet, but it’s only a matter of time before Trump or one of his surrogates claims that it was only meant as metaphor and no reasonable person would take it as a literal threat against the network or any of its employees. “They’re overreacting,” they’ll say, and under other circumstances, I might even agree with them. But here are a few reasons why I don’t.

  1. What about the unreasonable? I would argue that none of Trump’s support is reasonable, but even discounting that, surely everyone knows that there are unreasonable people out there. We have footage of people at his rallies, whipped up into violence against fellow attendees at the urging of candidate Trump. It is not a stretch to imagine an aggrieved person with access to weapons heading to Atlanta to follow the “instructions” of his commander-in-chief. Heck, quite a few people were quick to jump to the conclusion that the shooter of Rep. Steve Scalise was goaded on by Kathy Griffin, and other intemperate (to put it mildly) left-leaning celebrities. Anyone who took that position mere weeks ago in that shooting should not be defending Donald Trump now.
  2. Greg Gianforte. This GIF is a pretty good match for the descriptions of Montana Representative Greg Gianforte’s attack on a journalist who just wanted to ask him a question. I don’t blame people for missing the metaphor when there is literally a real-life example in recent headlines of exactly what is depicted here.
  3. Even the metaphor is troubling. Even if we are not talking about a threat of literal personal violence, a threat to the right of the people to a free press by the leader of the free world is nothing to be blase about. As President he wields a lot of power, especially if you ascribe to the theory of the unitary executive as Republicans tend to do. Tax audits, litigation, prosecution are just the actions contemplated by the Nixon Administration. Add in the surveillance technology of the CIA and NSA revealed by Edward Snowden and you have a scary spectrum of ways Trump could abuse the power of his office if he decided to “take down” CNN or any other news organization.

That said, while I do think the concern is reasonable, I also think this tweet is more an impotent lashing out from someone who never really learned how to deal with criticism. It’s akin to the revenge fantasies of bullied kids who feel powerless against the disapproval of their peers. If a teen or pre-teen posted something like this, school officials would rightly express concern and perhaps get counseling for the youth.

Okay, grains of salt. I only have my personal experience and one semester of beginning psychology to draw from here, plus whatever pop-psychology has been published since Columbine. I don’t know if he’s acting like this because he honestly thinks he can’t be wrong, or because he can’t believe he’s right and so constantly needs re-affirmation from those who he has chosen as his preferred in-group. Either way, whatever contempt I have for the man is mixed with a great deal of pity.


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.


The Sheep and the Goats

Certain of my family have been passing this meme around and I found it quite timely and appropriate. I made some nitpicky modifications, but the original idea is signed by a Jason Leith. It’s a paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 25:41-46

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you reduced funding for food stamps, I was thirsty and you prevented the EPA from guaranteeing me clean water, 43 I was a stranger and you vilified me and demanded that I be deported, I needed clothes and you substituted a sales tax for an income tax and slashed welfare payments, I was sick and you took away my only hope for health care, I was in prison and you tortured me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and endeavored to harm you further?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did to one of the least of these, you did to me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

And might I add, “I was homeless and you denied me affordable housing.”


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).


Wimpy Texas Politicians

It’s really weird to me that these rabidly Republican politicians can’t seem to be consistent about their protection of the Constitution. Now my Senator (Ted Cruz if anyone is wondering) is giving me the same line my Representative did about having to strike a balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties. Here’s my response:

Senator,
Thank-you for your response, but I was really taken aback by this statement: “It is imperative, however, that we strike an appropriate balance between remaining vigilant against terrorism and protecting the civil liberties guaranteed to the American people by the Constitution.”

I understand that you won’t have to stand for election for another five years but do you really want to have such a moderate position tied to your record? To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, moderation in the Texas primary is no virtue. Either the Bill of Rights is there to protect us from an overreaching government or it is not. We don’t “strike a balance” with terrorists and we shouldn’t “strike a balance” with those forces within the US who work to provide the tools necessary for tyranny to take hold. Step up, man. We’re counting on you to protect us and we need a true conservative to do so.

I also took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the US from all enemies foreign and domestic, sir, and I take my oath seriously.

I’m hoping that calling them “moderate” will have the desired effect. In Texas politics these days “moderate” is one of the worst things you can call a Republican. I didn’t even take into account the possibility that Sen. Cruz might run for President next go ’round but the same argument would apply. You don’t win Iowa and South Carolina by being “moderate.”


A dumb party

“We need to stop being a dumb party, and that means more than stop making dumb comments” Gov. Jindal on the future of the GOP

I can’t promise that the Governor of Louisiana and I agree on why, but we do agree that the GOP needs to quit being dumb. Here’s what I mean when I say things like this.

1. Writing off urban areas is dumb. Take a look at a map of the electoral vote and it looks like the Republicans control a huge portion of the country, and if we elected people by acreage, that would be right. But actually, we elect people by numbers of people. The states the Republicans can count on are big, but empty. The only one with more than 20 electoral votes is Texas. Reaching out to urban America is smart.

2. “Energizing the base” is dumb. The base is too small. Imagine a pyramid. If you build the walls too steep, it wont’ stand, it’ll fall on you. So the height of your pyramid is limited by the size of the base. Unfortunately, “energizing the base” means alienating people (women, hispanics, blacks, poor people, all of the growing demographic groups) so that you can’t grow the base. Worse, “energizing the base” has also meant “shrinking the base.” As evidence, I point you to the last Republican primary cycle in Texas. On all sides, Republicans were calling each other “moderate” the way Gingrich-era Republicans used to throw around “liberal” and McCarthy-era Republicans would throw around “commie.” I think we’ve already reached the point where the base is too small to reach all the way to the White House. Growing the base is smart.

3. Shutting the government down is dumb. Much to the dismay of the GOP, we actually need the government to do things. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) doesn’t seem to understand this. Was he visiting his great white north homeland the last time the GOP shut the government down? Has he not been paying attention to the results of the Sequester? Government does important things and pitching a fit over Obamacare by threatening to shut it all down is equivalent to a child threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue. It’s called a tantrum and any good Republican will tell you the correct response is discipline. Accepting the things you can not change is smart.

4. Threatening the credit of the USA is dumb. All these fiscal hawks are plenty happy, ecstatic even, to point out the massive size of our Federal debt. The Federal government pays just shy of $200 billion in interest every year for an effective rate of about 1.5% (there’s some rounding error there). Now, ask any one with a credit card what happens when you miss too many payments. Yes, that’s right, besides the late fees, you jack up your interest rate. So what’s 20% of $16 trillion? Okay, there’s no reason to think that the Feds would ever have to worry about that kind of interest rate, and so far, we’ve been able to maintain good interest rates even after losing our AAA rating, but when you are talking about debt that size, any increase in the cost of borrowing is significant. Each additional percentage point on the effective interest rate would be an extra $160 billion in interest every year, or enough money to pay all the military’s personnel costs. Defaulting on the national debt is irresponsible. Paying your debts on time with interest–i.e. meeting your obligations, a classic Conservative value–is smart.