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.


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.

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.


Leonard Pitts and journalistic integrity

Hey, long time no type. So there has been a lot happening and I just haven’t had time to put all my shower-ranting into blog form. But for right now, I just had an email exchange that I wanted to share.
First, background. Governor Rick Perry was indicted a few weeks for abuse of power. Let me pause for just a moment and clear this up right quick: The governor was not indicted for issuing a veto, he was indicted for using his veto power to do corrupt things. There is a difference. Anyway lots of people didn’t get that difference and spouted off, jumping to erroneous conclusions based on that faulty premise. One of them is Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. He posted a huffy column about the criminalization of politics and used the Perry indictment as the most recent example.
Except it’s total poppycock. He did eventually publish what his staff calls a “clarification,” pointing out that in fact there wasn’t any Democratic official involved in the indictment process. The ones who would have normally been involved rightly recused themselves for perceived conflicts of interest. It’s a long story (that’s not even half of it).
I’ve been trying to get Mr. Pitts to step up his game but his staff is clueless. He posted a clarification, they say wondering what the problem might be. When I explained (again!) they said well, maybe if the story continues he’ll write about it again. And maybe he’s not the type of journalist I thought he was. Well, here’s my response to that.
I see. I certainly don’t blame y’all for my paper not running the “clarification” but I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s probably true that there are quite a few people like me across the country who would have had to search out Mr. Pitts’ “clarification.” I did so because I knew he wrote more often than just the one time a week he’s published in the American Statesman and I wanted to make sure I knew all the facts before I accused him of anything. This is the same kind of thing I expect from columnists, reporters, any kind of journalist really. Actually, that’s the kind of behavior I prefer from people generally. When people jump to conclusions based on erroneous statements (as Mr. Pitts) did, they end up looking foolish at best. At worst, they perpetuate lies. Now, there are people all over the country–even the ones who did see the “clarification”–thinking that Governor Perry is a victim of some kind of witchhunt, because that’s the last thing Mr. Pitts said on this topic. “If the story continues”? Why isn’t Mr. Pitts interested in continuing the story himself, since he’s one of those responsible for disseminating the false story in the first place? See, the type of journalist I used to believe he was is one of those with some integrity. Perhaps he isn’t that type of journalist. Perhaps he’s the same type of “journalist” they have over at Fox News. You know the kind. Mr. Pitts knows the kind. The kind that dismiss or ignore or misreport facts that are uncomfortable for them. Or, as in this case, not bother to ask incisive questions and then jump to unfounded and erroneous conclusions. Mr. Pitts really dropped the ball on this. And so, every time from now on that he makes disparaging comments about “Faux News” which I saw him do recently, the only thing I think is “What a hypocrite.”

I’m willing to believe that it’s not because Mr. Pitts is some kind of tea party wingnut, but the effect is the same. So while I agree with the thesis of his original article (Courts no place to overturn defeat at the polls), the Perry case is no example of this. The “clarification” did nothing to counter this statement by Mr. Pitts: “One is not usually disposed to think of Texas’ swaggering governor as a victim, but darn if this indictment hasn’t turned the trick.” Rick Perry may be a lot of things, but a victim he is most certainly not. Now, I do think it’s reasonable for people to disagree on whether this case involves a “recognizable crime,” but is it really so unreasonable for Mr. Pitts to go on record that maybe the people of Texas have a right to hold their Governor accountable for actions that look suspiciously like he jumped on an opportunity to hobble public corruption investigation in the state of Texas, a state where he has appointed every appointable office at least once? Is it so unreasonable that Mr. Pitts at least apologize for sticking his nose into a question he knew less than nothing about (less than nothing in this case means the things he thought he knew were wrong)? Is it really so unreasonable to report the actual facts of the case beyond the one “clarification” that there weren’t any Democrats involved? I don’t think so. Mr. Perry’s corruption may not be so blatant or recognizable as that of Rod Blagojevich. I think it’s even more insidious, in the same way that AIDS is insidious in attacking the very system that is supposed to protect us.

Another statement by Mr. Pitts that was not addressed in the “clarification:” “His crime? He issued a veto.” No, that statement is completely false. It is what Mr. Perry is hoping people across the country will believe because it does make him look like a victim, but the fact of the matter is that he was indicted for trying to force out a duly elected official–to be replaced by the Governor himself–an official in charge of an on-going investigation of certain other Perry appointees over millions of dollars of misappropriated funds. Read the links. Mr. Perry has a reputation for trading favors with his appointees. Those of us who have been watching the governor for the past decade and a half have no problem believing that he was hoping to be able to put someone in that office who was beholden to the governor and not the people of Travis County so that he could protect his cronies. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s tried to disrupt an investigation with an appointment (the Cameron Todd Willingham case). Now, I will admit, I’m not sure that what happened was technically illegal (it certainly ought to be), but I’m absolutely in favor of letting the Texas Justice system figure that question out. I would appreciate it if outsiders who know nothing of the situation stay quiet, and if they just can’t do that, could they at least apply a little bit of Journalistic professionalism and learn something about the topic first? And if they can’t do that in the first place, could they apply those journalistic ethics in the second place and correct the record? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. But then, perhaps Mr. Pitts isn’t the type of journalist I thought he was. That, actually is the saddest part of this whole mess.

I have plenty more to say on this whole situation, but I’ll stop here for now.

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.

A Parable

A man went to the school to pick up his son after being informed that the son had been fighting. As they sat in the car on the way home, the boy holding an icepack on his swollen black eye, his dad asked him what happened.

“Johnny said he was going to beat me up if I didn’t give him my lunch money.”

“That’s not a good reason to get into a fight,” said his dad. “Why didn’t you just give him your lunch money?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing; every time he forgets his own money, he does this. A couple of times I talked him into letting me do his homework instead.”

“So if talking was working, why didn’t you talk to him this time?”

“Working? Talking wasn’t working! He started threatening me for my lunch money even when he didn’t forget his. Nothing was ever enough, so I decided that I wasn’t going to do it anymore. He told me yesterday to give him my lunch money or else and I told him no. I’m not giving up my lunch money any more. Well, he said he’d give me until today to think about it and I told him I wasn’t going to change my mind. He told me he would not only beat me up, but he’d beat my friends up, too and I told him I wasn’t going to give him my lunch money.”

“That was yesterday?”

“Yes, Dad. And today he walked up to me when I got to school, yelling at me to give him his money and I just ignored him. Then he said, ‘Okay, just give me half of your lunch money and I won’t beat you up.’ When I didn’t say anything, he said, ‘Okay, I won’t beat up on two of your friends.’ Then he said, ‘Okay, I won’t beat up on 3 of your friends.’

“Well, that sounds like a good deal, why didn’t you give him your lunch money then?”

“Dad! It’s my money. And it’s pizza day. And if i gave him my lunch money again today, he was just going to come back again next week or the week after and demand money again. And besides, I was winning. He kept asking for less the more I refused to give up.”

“Okay, now I’m confused. You did fight didn’t you?”

“Not really. He finally got so frustrated that he ran at me and tripped on someone’s bookbag. He accidentally hit me in the eye and broke his arm when he fell. But he didn’t get my lunch money.”

So, my lovely audience: Should the boy have given Johnny his lunch money? Who is to blame for the “fight”?