By killing Boston Marathon bomber, we stoop to his level of barbarism & depravity

The jury that sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death had a choice. They could have imprisoned Tsarnaev for life. But these 12 supposedly civilized men and women choice to do unto the Boston Marathon bomber what he had done unto others.

I wonder whether any of the 12 have ever killed another human being before—from a plane, at sniper’s distance, or up close. I wonder whether they would have all voted to put Tsarnaev to death if they had to pull the trigger or push the button that ends his life.

It’s so much easier to vote “yes,” almost as easy as pulling the toggle that kills a dozen enemy soldiers in a video game.

Killing is killing, no matter what.

Even if the death penalty served as a deterrent, it would still be wrong on moral and ethical grounds. But most studies conclude that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent. It seems that at the moment of pulling the trigger, planting the bomb, applying the poison, lighting the fire, pushing the accelerator to the floor or someone off the roof—at the moment of committing a capital crime, perpetrators don’t consider or discount the possible consequence.

This essay is not the place to discuss the morality of war, but I think we can all agree that lots of soldiers come home from battle with deep psychological wounds that heal slowly and leave ugly scars. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but we could just as well call it the “killing” disease, because having to kill another person disgusts and shames normal people so much that it makes them ill. Psychopaths and sociopaths are different. Maybe killing other human beings is necessary in war, and maybe not, but it is never necessary in peace, which makes it always wrong.

It makes me wonder whether members of a jury that brings in a death sentence suffer the same cold night sweats, panic attacks, inability to concentrate, sudden rages and other symptoms of the soldier returned from the killing fields.

Killing is killing, no matter what.

Most other nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, 140 according to Amnesty International. The United States is one of a mere 22 countries that held executions in 2013. But then again, we also incarcerate one quarter of the Earth’s prisoners, making us the world’s largest jailor, and perhaps it’s bloodiest, too. Both the left and right are making noise about ending the system of “mass incarceration” that has made America the land of the jailed. Part of this movement to make the criminal justice system fairer, more efficient and less costly should be ending capital punishment once and for all. It’s time we returned to the circle of civilized nations.

Meanwhile, we should understand that one death is almost as bad as six, or 60. Like all juries that vote unanimously to kill a fellow human being—even one as reprehensible as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the Boston marathon bomber jury has broken no law. In fact, it has enforced one. But it doing so, these 12 citizens have brought shame to the United States and all Americans.

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Warren & De Blasio tell us how to improve economy & society, while Christie offers plan for ultra-wealthy

We’ve seen two agendas for America’s future released within a 24-hour period: the new contract for America by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (in order of size of population represented), which they presented in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s plan to grow the economy and raise incomes, which he sketched in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

These two plans could not be more different in tone, underlying assumptions, recommendations or targeted constituencies. They also differ in terms of the underlying factual basis of their proposals.

In Christie’s case, there is almost no factual basis to believe what he wants to do will kick-start economic growth and raise incomes. Basically he advocates more of what has choked the country for 35 years. Christie wants to reduce taxes on the wealthy and on corporations; simplify taxes in a revenue neutral way (which is Republican speak for wanting to continue to starve the government of needed funds); reduce government regulation; and base our national energy policy on exploration of fossil fuels.

Christie must have a super-tiny, itsy-bitsy, skinny-as-a-rail attention span, because what he’s proposing is the basic playbook that has led to the greatest transfer of wealth and income in world history: the flow of money from the poor and middle class to the wealthy in the United States since 1980.

Christie proffers the reality-defying idea that with lower taxes, businesses will invest more in growth and conduct more research & development. It hasn’t happened yet, and once more, it never happens. When government programs take money from the middle class and the poor and give it to the wealthy, all that happens is that the wealthy get richer and the overall economy weakens. That’s what has happened during the past three decades and it’s what happened during the Gilded Age in 19th century America, in the 17th century French ancien regime and in 16th century Spain under Phillip II.

Christie does have one half of a good idea, which is to eliminate the payroll tax for employees under 21 and over 62, as a means to encourage employers to hire new workers and those near retirement to keep working. I call it half a good idea, because payroll taxes include both Social Security and Medicare. I would propose eliminating only the Social Security portion of the payroll tax for these age groups and only eliminating the employee’s side for those over 62, so the employer would keep paying for the experienced worker. Furthermore, to fund the loss of revenues to the Social Security Trust Fund, I would remove the cap on income assessed by the Social Security tax.

Other than this one pint-sized, skinny idea, Christie’s proposals help but one constituency, the ultra-wealthy, whose bank accounts are already bulging from federal and state government actions of the past three decades.

I would love to write that, unlike Good King Christie of Crony Capitalism, Warren and De Blasio are true patriots whose recommendations are based on facts and who don’t deal in the devious obfuscation like Christie and the other factotums of the ultrawealthy do. But I can’t say for sure since not one news media outlet—not one—printed the entire 13 points of De Blasio and Warren’s “Progressive Agenda,” preferring to focus on the absurdly irrelevant question: Is it appropriate for the Mayor to be travelling around the country instead of working at his job? (A question never asked of the globe-trotting Michael Bloomberg.)

Unfortunately, as of this writing, no progressive organization has yet put the plan online either, so we can’t completely blame the news media for not being able to find all 13 points. If De Blasio, Warren and other progressive are serious about pushing their program, they are going to have to reach out directly to people and not depend on a rightward looking mainstream media that prefers to reduce issues to personalities, faux pas and horse races. I’ll keep looking for a formal 13-point proposal and present an analysis if and when I find it.

What we do know about the “Progressive Agenda” sounds like it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the U.S. economy:

  • Close the “carried interest” loophole in the tax code that enables hedge fund managers to avoid paying taxes on most of their income.
  • The “Buffett Rule,” named after America’s favorite billionaire, which would assess a minimum of 30% in federal income taxes on anyone who makes at least a million a year, about .3% of tax payers.
  • Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexing it to inflation.
  • Instituting universal pre-kindergarten.
  • Requiring employers to provide mandatory paid sick leave.

Taken as a whole, these plans take money from the wealthy and give it to the poor and the middle class, which reverses the trend since 1980. Let’s hope that the other eight proposals fronted by De Blasio and Warren also redistribute income downward, because that’s what this country needs.

I admire the political savvy exercised by De Blasio, Warren and Bernie Sanders to aggressively push the progressive agenda at this time. The earlier they get started, the more leftward they will be able to move Hillary Clinton. Just as important by moving her left early, the Democratic primaries will not become a divisive blood bath.

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If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, progressives would be fools not to vote for her in November

The past few days, I have been sharing excerpts from my lengthy Vox Populi article on Hillary Clinton’s probable positions on most of the issues likely to form the basis of the 2016 presidential campaign. Here is one final excerpt:

We can sum up Hillary Clinton’s probable platform in a few words: On social and domestic issues not involving unions, she will follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead, which should make progressives happy. On homeland security, foreign policy, military policy and trade policy, she will continue Obama’s initiatives in virtually every way, which is not such good news for the left. Taken as a unity, these stands make Hillary Clinton a centrist looking left, a contemporary version of Washington State’s long-time Senator, Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

It’s quite possible that a majority of Democratic voters are more progressive than Hillary, but Pew, Gallup and other polls suggest that a large majority of Democrats and independents taken together pretty much agree with Hillary on most things. Additionally, on domestic matters the gap between Hillary and the most left-leaning of the 2016 crew of Republican stalwarts is far greater than the difference between Hillary and the progressive edge of the Democratic Party, which I define as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Over the course of the next 18 months, I’m sure that Hillary Clinton will say many things that piss off progressives. She will particularly disappoint the left on issues related to unions, defense, national security and homeland security. But everything that every Republican running for president will say will piss off progressives—and frighten us, too.

I didn’t write it in my Vox Populi article, but I feel strongly that it would be foolish for progressives to stay home in November or select a write-in candidate because of some antipathy to Hillary Clinton. The contrast between her views on Social Security, government programs for the poor, immigration, investment in infrastructure, taxation, gay marriage and abortion from those of every Republican is too vast for us to put our country at danger by not throwing our support behind Hillary, or just about any other Democratic candidate for that matter.

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Hillary Clinton’s stand on issues makes her a centrist looking left

As I mentioned yesterday, the progressive website Vox Populi has published four articles about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including my analysis of her position on issues.

In this excerpt from my Vox Populi article, I dig into her recent statements to erect what her platform will look like. I based most of this analysis on comments she has made since 2014 or comments she has made so many times that she would be hard-pressed to move very far from her past position. I depended to a large degree but not entirely on the very thorough and accurate nonpartisan website, ontheissues.org, which breaks down how all the potential candidates for either major party’s nomination stand on a large number of issues.

Before presenting the detail, let me sum up what we can say about Hillary Clinton’s probable platform: on social and domestic issues not involving unions, she will follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead, which should make progressives happy. On homeland security, foreign policy, military policy and trade policy, she will continue Obama’s initiatives in virtually every way, which is not such good news for the left.

Now for the detail:

Economic Issues

  • Income/wealth inequality: She has commented numerous times on the need to recut the wealth and income pies so that less goes to the ultra-wealthy and more goes to everyone else, but she has suggested little that specifically addresses that issue.
  • Minimum Wage: Through the years, she has consistently been vociferous in her support of raising the minimum wage, but how high remains unclear since her last comment was in 2007.
  • Labor unions: She has no recent comments on whether she supports unions, but her stands on charter schools and trade agreements suggest she’s no lover of labor.
  • Taxation: She is on record many times of saying she believes that the wealthy are not paying their fair share in taxes.
  • Trade: Hillary is one of the most aggressive advocates for TPP and for lowering barriers for corporations to do business abroad.

Education

Hillary is a long-time supporter of charter schools and has said she wants to link teachers’ pay to performance, but do it by school and not by individual teacher. These sound like anti-union moves that do nothing to address the real problems facing public education: resource shortages and large class sizes.

Environmental

She is both for limiting emissions worldwide and for investment by wealthier nations to mitigate the effects of global warming on the most vulnerable nations.

Foreign Policy

Hillary will probably be a little quicker to send in troops and bombs than Obama was, but will have essentially the same policy. She tends to be hawkish on specific issues:

  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict: She is very concerned about the security of Israel, and doesn’t seem to put any priority on addressing the mistreatment of Palestinians or Palestinian rights.
  • Iran: Hillary was involved in arranging secret talks with Iran in 2012 and 2013, and has come out in favor of a negotiated agreement with Iran regarding its development of nuclear weapons.
  • Hillary pretty much agreed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the way the war was prosecuted thereafter, except for the torture, which she vehemently opposed.
  • Syria: She wanted to arm Syrian rebels.
  • Russia: One of her goals as Secretary of State was to achieve a permanent thaw in relations with Russia, but since the invasion of the Crimea, she has been as tough-talking as any mainstream American politician against Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.
  • China: Hillary was influential in implementing the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia,” which has as its goals projection of American power in Asia and containment of China by the United States and its allies. Nothing that she has said or written lately suggests that she has changed her mind about continuing Obama’s hard line on China.
  • Military Technology: In her book, Hard Choices, Hillary defends the use of drones by the Obama Administration.

Gun Control

Hillary has been an outspoken supporter of expansion of the national firearms registry and on placing more controls on gun sales and who can buy and carry a gun.

Healthcare

We know she has long been in favor of universal coverage. We can expect that she will want to maintain and perhaps extend the Affordable Care Act.

Immigration

She supports immigration reform that helps immigrants, by which I think we can assume illegal immigrants, judging from her comments.

Safety Net

Hillary has always supported maintaining and extending aid to the poor and the elderly. Her stands are particularly significant in light of the frequent calls of all the potential Republican candidates for cutting benefits to the poor.

Security State

Her past positions do not bode well for civil libertarians. Hillary voted for the misbegotten Patriot Act and its renewal and disapproved of Edward Snowden’s actions.

Social Security

She opposes privatization and is in favor of raising the cap on how much earnings are taxed for Social Security purposes, which places her left of President Obama. She also stands in stark contrast to every Republican candidate, all of whom want to privatize Social Security and cut benefits.

Values Issues

She supports gay marriage and a woman’s right to control her own body, which again, contrasts with every Republican candidate. She wants to see how marijuana legalization works in Washington and Colorado and is skeptical of the relative lack of research on medical uses.

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News media would still focus on irrelevant even if Hillary had issued a complete platform

The progressive website Vox Populi asked me to write a complete analysis of Hillary Clinton’s positions on the entire range of issues which will—or should—dominate the presidential campaign.  You can find my complete article and three other articles about Hillary’s campaign at Vox Populi.

I wanted to share a few excerpts from this lengthy analysis on the OpEdge blog. Today’s excerpts speculate on why Hillary’s early campaign has largely avoided talking about the issues:

Hillary Clinton has herself to blame at least in part for the news media covering extraneous issues in the early stages of her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. She has said hardly a word about her positions on the issues. There is nothing about her platform on either or her two campaign websites, hillaryclinton.com and readyforhillary.com, or on her Facebook page. In speeches, we get brief tidbits, but nothing substantive.

In a sense, Hillary is saying, “You know who I am and what my capabilities are,” and there is a certain logic to this approach. Let’s start with the reality of the situation: a number of serious constraints have always prevented presidents from veering from the basic direction in which the country is headed—the courts, the legislature and the continuing federal government that goes about its job of running things no matter who is the boss.

Thus, our presidential candidates can be—and usually are—evaluated not just in terms of their political and social stances, but also on their ability to manage the processes of government. And when it comes to the criteria that define an effective chief executive, there are few candidates in American history as qualified as Hillary, at least on paper:

  • High intelligence: How can anyone deny that Hillary is both highly gifted intellectually and a lifetime learner?
  • Past experience: Only the rabid right would call her time in the Senate and as Secretary of State anything other than successful.
  • Lack of hypocrisy: Hillary has never said one thing and then hypocritically did something else, for example, rail against the Affordable Care Act and then sign up for Obamacare, as Ted Cruz has done, or advocate against gays all the while trolling public bathrooms for same sex quickies, as Republican Senator Larry Craig did.
  • She has a cross-cultural understanding of social cues, which means that she won’t embarrass herself by saying or doing the wrong thing, as Mitt Romney constantly did during the 2012 presidential campaign, e.g., when he publicly revealed a secret briefing that many had undergone over the decades but that everyone else who received it had the good sense to keep confidential; or when Romney broke the cardinal sin of retired Chief Executive Officers, which is not to criticize the new administration unless involved in a hostile takeover; Mitt criticized the London Olympics (unfairly, too, as it turned out), even though he was a past CEO of the Olympic games. Far from making these “bull in a china shop” mistakes, Hillary seems to enjoy tremendous respect among the people of the world and world leaders.
  • She is competent running an organization: Despite the increasingly incredulous claims of Republicans, Hillary seemed to have done a good job of running the State Department, even in the Benghazi disaster. There were media reports that her 2008 campaign was a mess, but I wonder if that was just exaggeration to win eyeballs and sell papers.
  • Science-based decision-making: Hillary has never said or written anything that tried to deny science. Contrast with the Republican candidates, announced and unannounced: all of them deny science in one way or another, regarding a wide variety of issues, including global warming, science teaching, women’s fertility issues and economics. I’m not saying Hillary is always right, but that she always reasons from the facts, and not from what she wants the facts to be.

By focusing on Hillary the person, I believe the campaign wants to communicate that Hillary is the most competent presidential candidate around, regardless of one’s political positions. They want us to encapsulate all the positive personality traits and management skills a president needs into one brand name, Hillary!

The subtext of focusing on Hillary the person (read: the celebrity) is the assumption that we all know what the former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady stands for.

Not immediately presenting a complete platform thus postpones the inevitable intra-party clashes, e.g., between those who favor the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, such as Hillary herself, and those who worry that it gives corporations the right to sue countries; and between those who embrace charter schools, again like Hillary, and those who see them as subtle attempts to destroy public unions. Moreover, there can be little doubt that even if Hillary had opened with a full program, Republicans and the rightwing media would still be wallowing in a mud bath of hysterical accusations and bold-faced lies about her. The frenzied and rabid opposition to the Clintons consists primarily of accusations regarding their character flaws. Perhaps to battle this constant character assassination explains why the early campaign message is that Hillary is competent, ethical, caring, effective, flexible and…Well, you know…She’s Hillary!

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We should take savings from ending mass incarceration laws & spend it on education & social welfare programs

In some ways, the term “mass incarceration” is a misnomer. The term immediately conjures images of rounding up large numbers of people at one time, most of them innocent of a crime, much as the Nazis rounded up Jews during the Holocaust or Stalin prosecuted his purges.

What an increasingly great number of people on both the left and the right are calling “mass incarceration” doesn’t quite fit that image. In the United States, people are usually picked off—that is, arrested—one by one, for individual acts. More importantly, virtually all of the people, mostly African-American males, incarcerated because of the overly strict sentencing laws laid down in the 1980’s and 1990’s committed a real crime.

What people are rightfully questioning now are whether what those arrested and convicted did should have been crimes and whether the sentences for those crimes were too long.

The numbers are truly shameful. A mere 5% of the world’s population resides in the United States, and yet we curate 25% of all the Earth’s prisoners. An inordinate number of our prisoners are African-American males.

Extreme rightwingers such as the Koch brothers are joining progressives to demand an end to the laws that led to American mass incarceration, such as three-strikes-you’re-out laws. The primary motivation stated by most conservatives for wanting to end mass incarceration is fiscal. They are sick and tired of spending gobs of money to house prisoners who did nothing more than sell a little weed.

Among liberals, the fiscal concerns resonate less than basic humanitarianism: these people did not deserve to go to prison for these victimless crimes. We have ruined the lives of a two generations of African-American men and their families. Wouldn’t we have been better off if the money spent on warehousing human beings had been funneled into educating them? That’s basically the argument of progressives, and I agree with it.

It’s ironic that right and left unite on the issue of ending mass incarceration, because from the late 1960’s onwards, the cry for higher sentencing laws came from the near left (AKA mainstream Democrats) as much as from conservatives, if not more so, as Radley Balko points out in The Rise of the Warrior Cop.

It may befuddle many at first as to why the Koch brothers would divert their attention from killing unions, suppressing the minimum wage and fighting needed safety and environmental regulations to take on prison reform. But consider this: A goodly share of the Koch political spending focuses on initiatives which suppress the price of labor. Because the Baby Boomers who are retiring are followed by the baby-busting Generation X, many labor economists are predicting labor shortages for a while. Injecting relatively unproductive prison labor into the labor pool will serve to hold down wages.

By supporting the end of laws that have produced the mass incarceration phenomenon, the Kochs are abandoning their natural ally, the prison privatization industry, who, of course, oppose lowering sentences. Remember that prison privatization money helped to fuel the lobbying that led to these ridiculous laws. What I would like to know is who was it—the lobbyists, the think tank wonks, Congress, some organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the staffs of successive state and federal executives—who dreamed up laws that so nicely tend to throw more blacks than whites in jail?

The prison privatization industry and others who want to maintain these Draconian sentencing practices offer the same defense as do police departments all over the country for such absurd practices as racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies: it has dramatically lowered the crime rate. FYI, the gun industry uses the same argument in backing the many new laws that make it easier for people to carry guns in public and legally shoot other people.

It is true the crimes of all types are down dramatically since the early 1990’s all over the country, everywhere, that is, but on television and in the movies. A simpleton might conclude that some combination of expanded sentences that discriminate against one group and enactment of right-to-carry laws were the reason crime declined so much.

But the simpleton would be wrong.

The latest repudiation of the mass incarceration movement comes from Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, whose recent What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate.

Available online for free, What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes virtually all of the possible factors leading to a decline in the crime rate using the most complete reports and advanced computer modeling techniques. Roeder, Eisen and Bowling divide the recent past into two parts, 1990-1999 and 2000-2013. Different factors were important factors in the decline of crime in each of these eras. For example, the aging population was an important reason crime declined between 1990 and 1999, but not afterwards. Decreased alcohol consumption was important in both periods. The growth in the number of police on the beat helped reduce crimes between 1990 and 1999, whereas afterwards it was the introduction of new computer programs that identify crime patterns.

Increased incarceration was a minor factor before 2000, reducing crime a mere 6%. After 2000, it has not been a factor at all.  FYI, neither enactment of looser gun laws nor the use of the death penalty have any effect on crime rates.

We should note that historical studies have tended to agree that throughout recorded history the main factor determining the crime rate has been the population of males between the ages of 16-49. By that consistent rule of thumb, the crime rate should have nudged up after the turn of the century. What we really are arguing about is not why the crime rate is so low, but why it has remained down.

The big question is: was it worth billions of dollars and those millions of ruined lives of prisoners and their families to achieve what may have been an additional 6% reduction in crime. If crime were 6% higher than it is today, but still well below the level of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, would anyone even notice? Let’s assume that we decriminalize the petty drug offences and other victimless crimes that put so many people in prison.  Wouldn’t the increase in the rate of crime by ending mass incarceration be even less, since actions we now consider crimes would no longer be?

Warning to those who think emptying the prisons will enable us to reduce government expenses: some of the money now spent on prisons will need to be used rehabilitate and train the victims of mass incarceration on how to live in the modern world. Instead of returning the rest of the savings to the wealthy in the form of lower taxes, it should be used to improve public education, provide job training, make the court system more accessible, train police in community policing techniques and make other improvements to the criminal justice system and social network. Jobs as prison guards will be lost, but there will be an increases demand for social workers and teachers, so the economy won’t suffer. Perhaps the inhumane private prison industry will go the way of slavery and the horse-and-buggy.

We haven’t been able to overcome the fear-mongers and reduce military budgets, end domestic spying or pass adequate gun control laws. So just because liberals have entered into an unholy alliance with the Kochs does not mean that mass incarceration laws are ending anytime soon.  And thus continues the mortal stain of racism which has poisoned this country since before its inception.

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Wall Street Journal lies when it says what happened in Baltimore is about the failure of liberal government

The Wall Street Journal has devoted a lot of column inches lately to advocating the truly odious idea that liberal/progressive government programs, and not racism, are to blame for what happened in Baltimore.

The Journal fronted this non-reality based opinion in an editorial a few days back, and now it is publishing an article by regular columnist, former Bush II speechwriter, William McGurn, that says the same thing.

The Journal and its factotums build the theory that progressive government has led to the crisis in Baltimore on a big lie, a bunch of little lies and a conflation of motivations.

The big lie of course is that Baltimore has been under progressive or liberal rule for the past 50 years, or as McGurn puts it, “It’s about the consequences of 50 years of progressive misrule.”

Last time I checked, the United States took a turn towards the right in about 1975, which accelerated precipitously when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981. Since then, with few exceptions, federal, state and local governments have been in the hands of rightwingers and centrists looking right, with the occasional centrist peeking left like Obama and Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley. So for at least 35-40 years of the past 50, we have not lived with progressive rule of any sort, but rather, rightwing misrule.

McGurn states that the proof that racism is not at the heart of what has happened in Baltimore is that progressive programs such as welfare, food stamps, jobless benefits, school subsidies, Head Start and Social Security have not helped the poor in predominately white areas such as the Appalachia.

McGurn has to tell a lot of little lies to pretend that these programs don’t work. Imagine how much worse our recent recession would have been if millions of people had not received food stamps and unemployment insurance. The recent The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools by Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher A. Lubienski does the math that proves that (heavily-unionized) public schools outperform private schools, when we correct for family wealth and disabled pupils. Where would the elderly be today without Social Security, which is essentially a fiscally strong program that would be funded for decades if we merely removed the cap on earnings assessed by the Social Security tax?

What McGurn forgets is that these programs have been cut to shreds during the past 35 years.  He forgets that wages have stagnated during that time, especially the minimum wage, which has lost approximately 40% of its purchasing power. He forgets that governments everywhere have retreated from support of public and higher education. He forgets that privatization and anti-unionism have transferred income from the many who are employees to the few who employ.

Progressive ideology has nothing to do with the Draconian prison sentences of the past 35 years, virtually everywhere imposed more heavily and frequently on African-Americans, often for victimless crimes. This system of “mass incarceration” has destroyed families and communities in Baltimore and elsewhere. No one would aver that imposing stiffer penalties is a progressive idea.

Let’s not forget that Baltimore was one of the very first cities to see its middle class and rich inhabitants abandon it for the suburbs, destroying the tax base. There was no “separate but equal” applied by white-flighters in the Baltimore metropolitan area, just irrational racism.

The conflation that McGurn proposes involves the racism in the criminal justice system and the economic problems of many poor Baltimore residents. He never says it, but his reasoning must be as follows: If Baltimore were thriving economically, the killing of another innocent black man in police custody would not have caused riots. It sounds like he’s channeling Phil Ochs’ old song, “Outside a Small Circle of Friends,” in which a group of friends show no concern about their fellow humans as long as they themselves are happy, well-fed and prosperous. Kind of like the politics of selfishness, isn’t it?

In fact, there have not been riots over police brutality in poor white areas for the simple reason that the police don’t single out whites for harsh treatment. Nowhere does racial profiling identify whites. Nowhere do whites get arrested at higher rates than minorities. Nowhere do they get stiffer jail sentences. Only a fool would spit into a typhoon of facts and try to deny that our criminal justice system is inherently racist.

All over the country, people of all races and colors are angry about the increasing inequality in wealth and income distribution in the United States—stagnant wages, an inadequate minimum wage, the high cost of college. But McGurn and the Wall Street Journal misinterpret this anger in two ways, ignoring two key facts:

  1. It was 35 years of rightwing rule that engendered the anger.
  2. Minorities are also rightfully angry about their mistreatment in the criminal justice system.

To bang the final nail in the coffin in which we should bury the idea that racism isn’t behind what happened in Baltimore, let’s engage in two thought experiments. First imagine that Baltimore became an economic utopia in which everyone made a great living, ate well, sent their children to college and had a viable retirement plan, but nothing else changed. Right-minded people would still be angry about the repeated deaths of African-American men at the hands of the police.

The other thought experiment is to imagine what would happen if whites were the victims of discrimination and violence by the police and courts. Would decades of organized violent suppression of those of European background lead to riots and other sudden outbursts of community rage? Anyone who thinks it wouldn’t hasn’t studied the American or European labor movements in the 19th and early 20th century.

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A reminder from 35 years ago that we need to ratchet up space exploration

About 35 years ago, astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote the best-selling book of popular science, Cosmos, to accompany his enormously popular public broadcast series of the same name. Cosmos is still in book stores, which explains why my son gave it to me a few months back for Hanukkah.

Sagan surveyed a broad expanse of science in Cosmos, touching on the evolution of the cosmos and life, and the history of the attempts by humans to understand both. Most of the science that Sagan explicated is still valid, and his anecdotes about Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Newton and other scientists were refreshingly non-heroic, focusing on the intriguing mix of science and pseudoscience that animated these titans of physics, chemistry and biology.

The last chapter of Cosmos may be the most compelling to 21st century readers. Writing at the moment in history when our elected officials were beginning to consider curtailment of the space program, Sagan argues fervently for an active program of space exploration. His proposal was to end the nuclear arms program and use the money saved to fund aggressive space exploration. Sagan talked about “Our obligation to survive,” which requires us both to disarm and to explore non-earthly sources of needed resources and a new home for humans. As a pacifist, I would do Sagan one better, and call for a massive reduction in military spending including complete nuclear disarmament; certainly, space exploration would join the development of alternative energy, basic research, repair of our infrastructure, expansion of mass transit and enlarged support for public education as recipients of the money we would save from significantly reducing our military budget. The effect on the economy would be to shift jobs from death-producing industries to life-sustaining industries.

As we know, our elected officials ignored Sagan’s pleas. We have made cut after cut to our program of space exploration for more than three decades. The official position of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) now encourages the private sector take the lead in exploring space. The Wall Street Journal reports that a NASA official recently said that he expects multiple space stations to emerge around the end of the next decade, mostly private, “very single-purpose, small and entrepreneurial.”

Based on the American experience privatizing prisons, higher education and the military, privatization of space exploration will prove to be lucrative for the privatizers and a disaster for everyone else. Each space privatization corporation will pursue its own interests, which tend to be quite short-term. Their reasons for conducting pure research will always be private inurement and not the long-term good of society. An article a few years back by Taylor Dinerman, a member of the board of advisers of a company working on space-solar-power concepts, pointed out that so far all private space efforts have failed.

In a fluff piece called “What Was the Worst Prediction of All Time?” that just appeared, The Atlantic recalls that in 1950 science fiction author Ray Bradbury predicted that we would colonize Mars in the early 2000s as a matter of necessity after poisoning the earth in a global nuclear war. When asked decades later why humanity is not spending spring vacation on the Red Planet, Bradbury reportedly said, “It chose consuming instead—drinking beer and watching soap operas.”

Funny, but untrue. We—meaning humanity—didn’t chose anything. Our leaders chose for us, and their choice has been to disinvest in science, just as they chose to disinvest in public education and infrastructure development. To most Republicans and Democrats, space exploration and other science research are just one more item to cut, so we can continue to provide the wealthy with the historically high tax cuts they have enjoyed over the past 35 years and perhaps, if the Republicans get their way, cut their taxes even more.

The earth will eventually become inhabitable, either because of environmental degradation or an expected increase in the intensity of solar energy hitting the atmosphere in about a billion years. The human race has a limited amount of time to develop the means to transport ourselves to another habitable celestial body. Space exploration is as important as addressing global warming and learning how to operate a no-growth economy if we are to survive as a species.

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Riots like in Baltimore won’t stop until police treat African-Americans with respect & without violence

There is absolutely no excuse for the riots and the fires in Baltimore. Violence is never the appropriate way to seek redress of grievances in a civil society.

But just because we don’t condone, does not mean that we can’t empathize with the rioters and their concerns. If we want to prevent future violence of the same sort, we have to explore the reasons that motivated so many people suddenly to break loose of the social bonds that restrain all of us most of the time and to burst into rioting.

We know the origin of the Baltimore riots is the death of African-Americans everywhere in the United States at the hands of police, who are quicker to arrest blacks, quicker to use force on them and quicker to draw their gun and fire at them than they are when confronting whites. The death of Freddie Gray from a spinal cord injury while in police custody was the proximate cause of the Baltimore riot, but behind it stand years of rough treatment of African-Americans by the Baltimore police and the crescendo of recent publicity surrounding other African-Americans essentially murdered by police in Ferguson, Tulsa, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Cleveland and elsewhere.

The equation is simple: riots about unfair and brutal treatment of minorities by local police departments will end when local police departments stop treating minorities unfairly and brutally.

As they always do after spontaneous violence flares up in reaction to injustice, the rightwing news media has thrown all its support behind the police while tarring the entire community with blame for the violent actions of what is always a minority of the neighborhood where rioting occurs. Meanwhile, the mainstream news media seek to conflate the rioting with the police brutality that instigated it on the moral and ethical level.

Both may be unacceptable, but two factors make the police actions far worse. For one thing, it is the police actions that constitute the injustice which foments the violence.

More significantly, the violence in the community is unplanned, a spontaneous outbreak of people who have often suffered for decades. As the U.S.  Department of Justice report on Ferguson substantiates, the police violence against African-Americans is often part of a larger, long-term policy of unjust discrimination that includes racial profiling, more frequent arrests, larger fines and prison terms and more frequent applications of violent force. To blame equally the rioters and the police who kill, hurt and hassle people because of their color is to misunderstand the dynamics of racial discrimination in America.

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Drones & other automated weapons dehumanize the enemy & make it easier to go to war

It’s so easy to kill an animated figure on a screen in a video game. And then another, and then another, each of them so realistic in their detail that they could almost be human. Pretty soon you’ve knocked off hundreds of imaginary people.

Not so easy, though, for most of us to pull a trigger, knowing that a bullet will rip through someone’s heart and stop their existence. Perhaps we instinctively empathize with the victim and fear for our own lives. Or maybe most of us kill with difficulty because the taboo against killing is so strongly instilled in us, that moral sense that taking the life of another human being is wrong, sinful?

The problem with all advanced military technologies is that they turn war into a video game, and by doing so distance the possessors of the technology from their adversaries. Whether the attack is by conventional bomber, missile, drone or the robot weapons now under development that will make decisions independently of their human masters, the technology turns the enemy into video images. I know that this distancing leads to fewer deaths among the attackers. But remote warfare dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill lots of them without giving it a thought. The bombardier doesn’t see the victims below, or if he can, they look like specks. The operator of the drone is even farther away from his intended victims.

At a distance, distinguishing between terrorists and the innocent is difficult, if not impossible, as the latest admission by President Obama that our drones killed two hostages tragically demonstrates. Keep in mind, this incident is just the latest drone fiasco. As the New York Times reports, every independent investigation of our drone attacks has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. “When operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.

For most of human history, it took a man to kill a man, or perhaps a man to kill 10 men. Soldiers knew full well when they were killing other soldiers and when they were killing civilians, and would often face the full moral force of human society and history when they did the latter.

But now a small group of men can kill 70,000 people with the push of a button, without even considering how many were children and adult noncombatants. I use the number 70,000, because that’s how many people died within hours when the United States dropped a rudimentary atomic bomb on Hiroshima some 70 years ago.

By lowering the cost of battle in human terms, military technology makes it easier for leaders, generals and military industrialists to convince countries to go to war. It makes it easier to propose and implement extreme acts of violence, both from the operational and the moral point of view. Only afterwards, when we read that people we were trying to rescue were killed in our drone attack or that from 150,000 to one million Iraqis died in our war built on lies, only then do we recognize the enormity of our crimes and the bad judgment that went into perpetrating them. Look how it easy was for Obama, who voted against the Iraq War, to get sucked into using drones to target terrorists.

We would have been better off without the invention of bombs and missiles. We would have been better off without the invention of guns. But those genies are out of the bottle. Let’s learn from our mistakes, though, and stop the development of robot weapon systems and stop the use of military drones.

Those who believe that it will be harder to fight the terrorists without drones are living in a delusional world in which American exceptionalism means we’re the only ones who bother manufacturing military technology. Automated weapons efficiently kill the other side, whether it’s the enemy or us. In a few years, the terrorists will also have military drones, unless we stop their development and sign treaties to make sure no nation works on them.

Of course, we can always develop the next generation of weaponry and continue our militaristic death spiral that started with machine guns, tanks and nerve gas.

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