Why do our elected officials want Americans to starve?

As the lead story of the latest issue of The Progressive Populist by Jill Richardson reminded us this week, the House of Representatives wants to cut $2.0 billion out of the annual food stamp budget.  A bill in the Senate would limit the cut in the food stamp program to $400 million. Either set of cuts will result in some combination of fewer people receiving food stamps and those receiving food stamps getting less.  Let’s make no bones about it, people will go hungry.

In a recent article circulating the Internet, someone named Michael Lombardi puts two well-known numbers together to demonstrate the enormity of the problem of food insecurity in the United States: the number of Americans on food stamps (47.7 million) and the number of people living in Spain (46.2 million).  Guess what? More people get food stamps in the United States than live in the entire country of Spain.

We have a country’s worth of people so poor that they need government funds to buy food.

Despite what race-baiting right-wingers like Rick Santorum say, the large number of people on food stamps does not reflect on the weak moral fiber of Americans or some special group of Americans. Believe me, very few if any of the nearly 48 million U.S. citizens on food stamps wants to be on food stamps. Food stamp recipients must earn less than 130% of the federal poverty line, which in 2013 computes to a little over $30,500 a year for a family of four and less than $15,000 a year for an individual.  But there’s another catch. To qualify for food stamps you pretty much must have no savings, since even $100 in liquid assets (bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs) will disqualify you, no matter how little you make.

Do you know anyone who wants to live at the poverty level with no savings?  I don’t and I never have, even during the hippy-dippy-trippy days of the 1970’s.

I know people who have lost their jobs or are chronically underemployed. I know people who don’t have the skills to get a decent-paying job and I know people with skills that have grown obsolete. I know people who were never trained how to write a resume or cover letter in school and people who have trouble reading because of a disability.

I know people who have been emotionally crushed by fighting one or more of our dirty wars or who have had the energy drained out of them by extreme and persistent poverty. I know people who overextended themselves in debt because of illness in the family. I know people who bought into the American ideology of consumption and didn’t save enough money and then lost their jobs.

I know people who lost their jobs when the CEO screwed up and then walked away with a golden parachute.

I know a lot of children in poor families, who face food insecurity through no fault of their own, merely because they were born into a poor family or one that fell from the grace of a middle class life.

All of these people—the children and the adults, those in poverty through no fault of their own and those who “got what they deserved”—all have something in common besides their impoverished conditions.

They are all human beings. They don’t deserve to go hungry in a land of plenty.

So why do so many of our elected officials want to starve their fellow Americans?

If we want to cut the food stamp budget, we should create more jobs through major public projects such as improving mass transit, retrofitting buildings to make them greener and safer, and repairing bridges, highways and dams. We should make sure the jobs are well-paying by substantially raising the minimum wage and fostering increases unionization of the workforce. We need to invest in our schools.

Starving people to cut the budget is inhumane and not worthy of a representative democracy.

Bad Supreme Court decision in voting rights case won’t make difference in real world

The best analogy I can find to characterize the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act is to imagine a patient with high cholesterol, probably because of poor nutrition. The doctor gives the patient a cholesterol-lowering drug and the cholesterol goes down to a safer level. The doctor concludes that the patient is cured and makes the patient stop taking the pills. We all know what’s going to happen next.

“The patient is cured” states the essence of the argument of the five right-wing justices who decided that nine states no longer need to get approval from the federal government before making changes to voting procedures.

But don’t the many recent attempts to limit voters’ rights in these nine plus many other states prove that the disease has not been cured?  These voting restrictions always seem to affect minorities, the poor and the young more than other groups. Keep in mind that many if not most of these new restrictions on voting were blocked by the feds, overturned by courts or repudiated by their sponsors after the election.  The Latin phrase, res ipsa loquitur—a thing that proves itself—seems to apply to recent Republican attempts to prevent people from voting. We just know those good old boys are still eating bacon and fried foods slathered in gravy, yet the good doctors of law at the Supreme Court took them off their Lipitor.

But at the end of the day, this decision is going to mean little. Whatever the decision would have been, Republicans will keep introducing legislation to make it more difficult to register to vote and to vote. And when those laws pass the many Republican controlled state legislatures, civil rights groups, Democrats and organizations representing minorities will continue to take them to court. Most but not all of the laws restricting voting rights will be overturned. The controversy will continue to energize voters on both sides—but that will help the Democrats, since theirs are the voting groups targeted by Republican efforts.

Yes, registering to vote and voting will become harder in many locations. But voters will become hardier and more assertive as they react with anger to attempts to limit their rights. Groups will continue to do a better job of registering voters and escorting them to the polls on both sides, but there are more potential voters for the Democrats. The Republicans are playing a losing hand.

Charter schools continue to underperform public schools

The New York Times headline this morning should have read “Charter Schools Continue to Underperform Public Schools.” Instead the Times headline writer went with “Charter Schools Are Improving, a Study Says.”

Both are true, but the first is truer because it isn’t taken out of context. Someone could infer from “Charter Schools are Improving…”  that they were better than public schools, particularly since many falsely believe that already, either because they have swallowed the “free market is always better” Kool-Aid  or because they have read so much derogatory right-wing nonsense about public schools and teachers’ union.

Here are the facts: “The National Charter School Study” by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) is the gold standard for comparing the performance of charter schools and public schools.  CREDO released its original’s study four years ago and released an updated version yesterday. In both studies, neighborhood public schools win over charter schools hands down.

But charter schools are improving—from very bad to mediocre: In 2009, 37% of charter schools performed worse than the neighborhood public school and only 17% did better. Now 31% do worse than the neighborhood school while 29% do better.  As the Times underscores, charter schools range in quality from state to state: doing better in New York, Michigan and Louisiana, and worse in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Texas, among other states.

What’s so fascinating to me is that the New York Times would have a misleading headline to a story that was on the whole fairly balanced. The lead sentence, for example, stated that charter schools did poorly in the 2009 study and that the 2013 update merely showed that “in a few states, charter schools are improving in some areas.” When the headline clashes with the story content, it is often a sign that the editorial opinion of ownership or the editorial board favors the view expressed in the headline.

The continued mediocre performance of charter schools is not surprising. The business model for the charter school dooms it to failure. While parents may people a board of directors of a charter school, the school typically hires a for-profit company (or a for-profit parading as a non–profit) to run the school. Charter schools pay teachers less money than public schools do, primarily because charters are typically non-unionized. While some of the money saved by paying teachers less may or may not finance more equipment, new books or more teachers, we know that a good part of it is going to higher executive salaries and company profit. Now teachers are like attorneys, accountants, engineers and other professionals. While the highest paid may not be the very best, in general the best get paid the most. So with the best teachers taking the public school jobs, charter schools are left with the least experienced and the less competent.

Let’s face it: The sole purpose of the charter school movement is to destroy teachers’ unions and thereby lower the wage rate of all Americans. It’s part of the 30+ year campaign to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.  This political agenda, shared by virtually all Republicans and many Democrats,  has four main tenets:

  1. Lower taxes on the wealthy.
  2. Reduce government spending on social welfare programs for the poor and near-poor.
  3. Privatize traditional government services, leading to profit-making opportunities for the wealthy
  4. Destroy unions.

There are many things wrong with the American education system. But charter schools don’t really solve any of them. The charter school movement is a failed experiment.

Let’s pull the plug. Let’s ask our elected representatives to outlaw and dismantle charter schools and instead increase aid to education that will put more teachers in the classroom, reduce the size of classes, give students everywhere access to the Internet and computers, extend gifted programs to lower grades and level the playing field between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.

Who’s next to tell truth after org. admits it can’t turn gays straight? Global warming deniers? Creationists?

An organization that for almost 40 years has tried to turn gays into heterosexuals with prayer and psychotherapy announced earlier this week that it is disbanding because its executives and many board members no longer believe that sexual orientation can be changed.  I suppose Exodus International and its leadership started paying more attention to facts and less attention to what they wanted the facts to be.

It’s another step forward for the gay rights movement because there is one less organization around telling people that homosexuality is abnormal or an illness. That’s a good thing, to be sure.

When I read the story, though, the first thing I did was to look into the clear summer sky for flying pigs.

Then I began to speculate about the other myths and lies that drive our national dialogue on political issues.  Could we be seeing the beginning of the secular humanist equivalent of The Rapture, one characterized by people either realizing or admitting the truth? Could I hope beyond hope that Exodus International’s disbanding is the first in a long series of similar announcements?

What will be next?

Will the Discovery Institute admit that intelligent design is folderol and repurpose the organization to support research that fills in the blanks in the scientifically proven theory of evolution?

Will the Koch Brothers and other climate change deniers suddenly make a public mea culpa about the tens of millions of dollars they have spent trying to convince the public that global warming is not occurring? Will they start supporting the environmental regulations and development of alternative energy sources that we need to address the rapid rise in Earth’s temperature?

Will the Catholic Church finally catch up to the 98% of its adherents who have used birth control and declare that it’s not a sin against the religion?

Will Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich shamefacedly cop to using racist code words when they talk against food stamps and aid to dependent children?

Will the House Republicans stop telling the lie that we have to lower taxes on the wealthy so they can create jobs and admit that the best way to create jobs is through government programs?

Will these Republicans look at the damage wrought by private prisons, mercenaries (in the army) and charter schools and finally acknowledge that sometimes a government solution is better than having the private sector do it? Will they admit that taxes have been too low on the wealthy for more than 30 years and that this low tax regime is what has caused virtually all of our economic problems?

Will right-wing economists finally admit that environmental regulations don’t hurt the economy, merely the industries they are trying to protect, and that raising air and water standards will create just about as many jobs as it will threaten?

Will those bankrolling the charter school movement finally just tell us the truth that the only reason they are in favor of charter schools is that they want to destroy teachers’ unions and thereby bring down teacher salaries?

Will gun manufacturers and their lobby finally admit that all statistics show that more guns in the street lead to more gun deaths and that far more people are killed and injured each year from friendly fire than from people using guns to protect themselves?

In short, will we finally base our public discourse on truth and science, and not on myths perpetuated to benefit one industry or one group of people?

I close my eyes and I see hundreds of pigs flying in a V formation. Dancing around them are aurochs and unicorns. Blind men and women are throwing away their canes. Lambs and lions are in bed together watching the Chicago Cubs play the Seattle Mariners in the World Series.

But when I open my eyes again, the sky is clear and my computer screen is filled with another politician hooting about how high taxes are.  The Rapture for Truth has not yet arrived.



It’s not just the federal government that wants to spy on us

The Obama Administration is rightfully taking a lot of hits for government surveillance programs that track data related to every phone call of every U.S. citizen and for demanding data that the computers of Google, Apple and other information technology companies collect from everyone.

Now we’re learning that the government isn’t the only one that wants to spy on us.

Big telecommunications companies have developed technology that embeds infrared cameras and microphones into cable boxes and digital video recorders (DVR). They want to put these devices in the homes of people, turn the cameras and microphones on, have computers watch and listen, and then broadcast TV commercials targeted to the activities and conversations that viewers have while they watch TV.  If a family is eating Mexican food in front of a baseball game, they suddenly might see the most interesting man in the world quaffing a Dos Equis.  If the viewers are talking about going to a movie, a TV ad for the latest James Bond flick might suddenly appear. Unless, of course, it’s pre-teen girls, in which case the ad could be for the latest Disney princess movie.

Last year Verizon filed a patent application for a monitoring system that would determine what commercials to broadcast viewers based on their behavior when watching the boob tube.  Verizon boasted in its patent documents that the system could even detect moods. The patent office rejected the patent application, but all that means is that if Verizon started installing it on its equipment, other telecommunication companies could copy the system without paying Verizon any royalties. Verizon could still implement the technology.

Verizon isn’t the only big data company that wants its eyes and ears to become part of your family.  Microsoft filed a patent application in 2011 for yet another consumer surveillance system.

The worst case scenario for this invasion of privacy is if a couple gets turned on by an on-screen kiss and begins to undress each other with the TV still on. Will an ad for condoms come up? Or maybe one from an anti-choice group? Will the video of your love-making be available to the National Security Administration?

To prevent this obnoxious corporate spying on our private lives, Representatives Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced the “We Are Watching You Act of 2013” in Congress last week. If passed, the law would allow consumers to opt out of monitoring altogether at any time. If a viewer allowed monitoring, the company would have to clearly display “We are watching you” on the TV screen.  Already an industry expert at the influential consulting firm Gartner is complaining that the “We are watching you” legend would take up too much space on the smaller screens of laptops, tablets and smart phones.

While I applaud Capuano and Jones for wanting to protect consumers, wouldn’t it be safer for our freedom if these systems were just outlawed?  We all know that companies virtually always make opt-in, opt-out protocols as confusing as possible. For example, my bank recently sent me a brochure telling me about opt-out options that would prevent it from using or selling my data. The brochure came with the regular bank statement, folded to look like one of those bill-stuffer ads that many of us throw out without looking (which is what my significant other did and then had to fish out of the trash when I told her what it was). The bank asked depositors to complete and mail a form to opt-out of some information sharing and to make a phone call to opt-out of a different set of information sharing. The way the information was presented on the page made it very easy for people to think that you could either phone or mail in a form and that you didn’t need to do both. Of course, there was no return postage for the opt-out form.

Corporate America is selling us a lot of stuff right now, even with the old-fashioned method of analyzing the demographics of the audiences of TV shows.  I don’t think they need any more help in this area. Forget the opt. Just make it illegal.

Edward Snowden is a hero who deserves our praise and thanks

Maybe now we know what happened to the Snowdens of yesteryear. Or at least to one of them.

“Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” is Joseph Heller’s wonderful pun on Francois Villon’s famous poem, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” with its refrain of “Ou sont les neiges d’antan,” which has been translated into English for centuries as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Heller delivers the pun in the middle of his great anti-war novel, Catch-22 about the character of Snowden who dies from shrapnel wounds sustained during a flight to conduct what the crew knows to be senseless bombing mission.

The Snowden in question these days is the great American hero, Edward Snowden, who has made himself a hunted man by revealing that the U.S. has been collecting and tabulating the metadata of every Verizon customer (and by implication every customer of every phone company).

But many, especially on the right, don’t think he’s a hero. David Brooks threw as much vitriol as is possible in print at Snowden today in his New York Times column. If it were up to Brooks, Edward Snowden would share the fate of Heller’s Snowden: dying cold and in excruciating pain in a freezing airplane, his blood and intestines oozing slowly from massive perforations of the abdomen.

Brooks says that Edward Snowden has betrayed his country, the Constitution, his friends, the cause of open government and the privacy of all of us.

Whether or not Snowden betrayed his country, friends and the Constitution is open to opinion. I tend to fall in the camp that says that sometimes you have to break the law to follow a higher law or to change an unfair law: That’s what Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Daniel Ellsberg did. And I believe that’s what Edward Snowden did.

Brooks is free to disagree, but to say that Snowden betrayed the cause of open government and the privacy of all of us is manipulative nonsense. Read Brooks’ words, and note that in the case of both open government and privacy he is making the same paltry argument: if you don’t let the government do it this way, it will do much worse (even if it’s illegal):

  • OPEN GOVERNMENT: “Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.”
  • PRIVACY: “If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.”

Let us do it or we will do worse! Brooks’s reasoning is as absurdly self-serving as Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, Doctor Daneeka and all the other figures of authority in Catch-22.

The last analogy I’m going to make between Heller’s great satire of the military-industrial complex at war and the current situation is to point out that Edward Snowden’s life now resembles that of Heller’s comic hero, Yossarian, at the end of the novel: on the run, unable to trust anyone, a deserter without a country. Yossarian, of course, was only trying to save himself. Edward Snowden was trying to save all of us from a government leaning ever more closely to an authoritarian police state. Edward Snowden deserves our thanks and he deserves our adulation as an American hero.

American people have “Joseph Welch” moment about government snooping

Have the American people just had a Joseph Welch epiphany?  A sudden realization that this time, they have gone too far, that we have let them go too far?

Welch was the lawyer who was questioning the rabidly anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy during McCarthy’s 1954 hearings to investigate communist infiltration of the Army. McCarthy told one bold-faced lie too many, accusing a perfectly innocent man, and Welch suddenly exclaimed in shock, Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

It was at that moment that America’s elected leaders and other influentials realized that the post-war witch hunt for communists and fellow travelers in American government and society had gone too far.  It was at that moment when the American people realized that we had let them take it too far.

Have we seen a “Joseph Welch” moment with the revelation that the Obama Administration has collected the metadata of phone numbers of every Verizon customer? I think everyone assumes that if the federal government has the data from Verizon, then it has it from every other telephone company. The most shocking part of the revelation of mass snooping is that everyone agrees that it’s absolutely legal, thanks to the Patriot Act, which Congress keeps renewing.

Will we as a nation now put more pressure on Congress to rescind the Patriot Act or rethink many of its provisions? Will right-wing Republicans finally recognize the inherent contradiction in their national security positions, that they call for less government interference in our personal lives and then support these assaults on personal liberty?  Will Democrats no longer cravenly cave into every demand for greater spying, warrantless searches, drone killings and invasions built on fantasy premises?

Let’s hope so, because collecting and analyzing the metadata of all of our phone calls is a monstrous invasion of privacy. Collection of metadata is ripe for abuse by both the federal government and individuals.

Obama’s excuse is that computers are sifting through the information, not humans, and that no one is listening to the contents of the phone calls.  Note the clever rhetorical misdirection that the President employs. He wants us to focus on what they’re not doing (or say they’re not doing), so we’ll forget what they are doing.  But there is so much information that we can gain from knowing whom you called, who called you and where and when all the parties were at the time of the call.  What if some future Joe McCarthy with access to the files wants to investigate Nation or Jewish Currents? What if the president wants to gather evidence about every major donor to the campaign of a potential rival?  Couldn’t this metadata be used to help plan the assassination of a foreign leader.

This gross invasion of privacy—this pilfering of civil and human rights—predates the Obama Administration. Obama apologists say at least it’s not torture and at least he didn’t start a war (at least not yet: Syria awaits.) It’s the same type of misdirection.

Let’s not focus on what the Obama Administration isn’t doing. Let’s focus on what it is doing, and although it may be legal, it is not right and it offends the sensibilities of many, if not most Americans.

It’s time for a total repeal of the Patriot Act.



Did Chris Christie ruin his chances for the Republican presidential nomination?

Everyone is saying that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie acted in his self-interest when he scheduled a special election to replace the recently deceased Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate for three weeks before the general elections this coming November. The estimates for the additional cost to hold two elections in one month have run as high as $24 million. What makes this additional expenditure by a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative particularly absurd is the fact that Christie will appoint an interim Senator who will fill the seat until January no matter when the election is held.

The pundits seem to agree that Christie decided to hold this expensive second Election Day so that he wouldn’t have to face a ballot that had the popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker on the opposite ticket. Booker announced he was running for Senate long before Senator Lautenberg passed away, and Booker’s presence on the ballot would likely compel more minorities to vote, many of whom Christie fears would vote straight Democratic party line.

It’s not that Christie is afraid to lose the governor’s race. He’s afraid that he won’t rack up the awesome totals he thinks he needs to prove to the Republican Party that he can draw enough cross-over votes to win the presidential election in 2016.

But what some are calling a deft political maneuver by Christie with only short-term costs may come back to haunt New Jersey’s BMOC because Christie committed a cardinal sin of communications: he acted against the image that people have of him.

Christie’s enormous popularity among independents both in New Jersey and nationally is based on his bipartisanship. He talks like a centrist and in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy he reached across the aisle to President Obama for the good of the people of his state.

Flimsy, inconsequential, dubious—those are the words that come to mind when I consider the possible advantage to Christie by costing New Jersey taxpayers $24 million to hold a special election.

What makes it worse is that Christie has taken such a hard line on cutting programs that actually help the citizens of New Jersey. Among others, the New York Times has pointed that Christie has cut the New Jersey budget to the bone. Christie cut $10 million from the after-school programs for at-risk children. He cut $8.6 million in tuition subsidies for college students. He cut $12 million in charity care at hospitals. He vetoed a $24 million plan for early voting in New Jersey.  Christie’s actions say that he thinks New Jersey can’t afford this help to the poor and disenfranchised, but it can afford to have a separate election for one office three weeks before the general election.

Christie is known for putting people ahead of politics. But in the case of the special election, he chose to put politics first. He didn’t do it to advance a piece of legislation, nor to help the Republican Party. No, he did it to benefit himself and himself alone.

And everybody knows that Christie acted in extreme self-interest as opposed to acting in the best interest of his constituents. He is living in a dream world if he thinks people are going to forget, mainly because his opponents in both major parties will keep reminding everyone.

In one Machiavellian one act, Christie has soiled his image. He has lost his big edge in the competition against other Republican presidential hopefuls and destroyed the centrist “good guy” image he created for himself in his handling of the Sandy crisis.

Chris Christie has destroyed his brand.

What’s the difference between DNA and fingerprints? Both can be used and abused

My natural instincts were to disapprove of the Supreme Court decision allowing police to collect DNA evidence at every arrest. But when I thought about it more, I saw that taking DNA is no different from taking fingerprints or mug shots.

Fingerprints and photographs are routinely taken at every arrest at the discretion of the police. Many if not all end up in a national database, which can be checked when the police are investigating future crimes.  The information contained in both fingerprints and photographs could, and sometimes is abused. A police officer could plant a fingerprint or encourage a witness to select one photo in an array of suspects.  The fingerprints could be sold to private security or investigative firms.

So what’s the difference between DNA and these more traditional forms of identification?

Maryland v. King may mark the first time that I have ever been on the same side as Clarence Thomas in any Supreme Court decision that wasn’t unanimous (and therefore devoid of controversy).

Civil rights activists are concerned that a DNA swab represents an invasion of privacy, which was outlawed by the Fourth Amendment. It seems no less an invasion of privacy than getting a scan checked at an airport or having your luggage checked. Everyone gets scanned and searched at the airport. The DNA check—like fingerprinting—only occurs to people who are arrested. And in most of the 28 states allowing DNA to be swabbed at arrest, it’s not for every arrest—it’s only in the case of crimes for which DNA can provide special knowledge, such as rape.

There is no doubt that sooner or later some authority is going to misuse DNA evidence. It’s this misuse and the general abuse of police power about which we should be concerned. Since 9/11, Congress has passed a series of laws that have eroded our civil right and invaded our privacy, such as allowing government to search the books we checked from libraries or to place warrantless wire taps. Then there are the drone kills.

It should be against the law to snoop into our reading habits. And it should be against the law to arrest people merely for congregating at a street corner. New York City’s stop-and-frisk is a disgrace to this bastion of liberalism. Racial profiling is always wrong. Planting evidence or keeping exculpatory evidence from the defense—wrong. Beating a confession out of a prisoner—wrong. False arrest—wrong.

But once someone is in the system, under arrest and turning a grim face to the camera, I see nothing wrong with taking a swab from his or her cheek.

What’s so ironic about the objections being raised against this decision is that the same people tend to support the rights of defendants and prisoners. What DNA is mostly known for is exonerating people from crimes they did not commit.

Everything costs time and/or money. Most of the people speaking against this decision are getting paid by their respective organizations. To the degree they waste time on bemoaning what many call the 21st-century equivalent of fingerprinting, they are unable to spend time fighting the real abuses of civil liberties and personal privacy that take place every day in the United States, some sanctioned by ill-advised laws.  I’m not saying the ACLU and others aren’t fighting these real abuses. What I’m saying is they should do more of that and forget about DNA testing at arrests for violent crimes.