Thursday, April 30, 2015

Practicing the Theory of Equality

My daily commute is usually 45 minutes each way. I cross over three towns each time I go to or from work. Having spent more than half of my adult life in Los Angeles this is not an unusual or odd pattern for me. For many Bostonians whom I interact with it’s a very odd way to choose to live. Like clockwork at the end of each month I see a high visibility of police on the streets – strategically positioned to capture anybody who deviates from one of a myriad of rules of the road. My libertarian philosophy usually kicks into annoyance for the effort seems to be less about maintaining a strict adherence to the laws and more about a quota or generating fines. I haven’t been a victim of such calibrated enforcement here (yet) so my feelings are theoretical and not practical. (If it’s about safety then why wouldn't they be there 24/7, not just the last few days of the month?) It’s a nice position to be in – thinking about and commenting on a police matter when one doesn’t have any direct experience...then it's theoretical. People in Baltimore, Ferguson and many other places don’t have that same luxury.

I’m a white man, educated, older person who is able to make ends meet. Those adjectives make me privileged though I don’t think of myself that way. When I see the riots and violence in Baltimore, Ferguson … even New York … I can’t identify with why somebody would do that. What does torching a police car, or looting a business do to tackle racism? Why does damaging property somehow equate to acceptable discord? Intellectually I can absolutely understand that years of oppression, discrimination, abuse and unequal treatment boils over and it’s a way of acting out in response to events. My own community (LGBT) was largely born from its own demonstrations, so it's not that I can't comprehend, I just can't personally identify. The events that have caused such actions recently have been when a black person has died at the hands of a non-black police officer.

There are no official statistics available by state or nationally about how many people die at the hands of police officers. The U.K.’s Guardian published a 2-part story in March 2015 which found that “citizen activists keep the best national counts.” The story reported that an African American is killed by a police or security guard “at least every 28 hours.”

The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson determined that the police were issuing 28 tickets a month to citizens where 80% of the residents are African American. CNN’s report summarizes a number of cases where the ticketing was so much a part of the culture that the entire city budget was framed around increasing fines to its citizens.

My smaller-government philosophy would love to grab onto these facts as evidence that there are too many laws on the books, too many fines, too much government intrusion! An example from the CNN story: A woman received tickets because her car was not parked in her own driveway in accordance with the city’s rules. The fines added up. She fought them. Was arrested. Then lost because she couldn’t contest the ruling because she was in jail. In theory streamlining the laws and fine structure would mitigate this situation, but the larger issues aren’t actually about the law. It’s about how Americans interact with each other.

There is a pervasive unresolved issue in America around race. It divides our communities and infects our politics. I am a white person of privilege and absolutely the wrong person to be pontificating about race. I loathe drawing summary conclusions from bits of data and applying it. Those cautionary statements aside: I’m confident that if somebody like me was being killed virtually every single day by the police there would be a lot more fuss about it. If a community had 80% of people who were like me and were being harassed and fined like in Ferguson that it wouldn’t be tolerated.

I have no answers. I don't have daily interactions that require me to have answers, or even suggestions. I pray for understanding, I pray for healing and I pray that we practice the theory of equality a lot better than we do.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rebel without a Cause

Patriots’ Day was celebrated this week in Massachusetts. It wasn’t another parade for the Superbowl champs, it’s a holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775. Each year there is a reenactment of the battles including mounted re-enactors who retrace the midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes. The biggest part of the celebration is the Boston Marathon which has been run every Patriots’ Day since 1897 (to mark the then-recently established holiday linking the Athenian and American struggles for liberty since marathons were named after the Greek Battle of Marathon. The thirteen colonies rebelled against King George, ultimately establishing the new nation with a new way of doing business. It’s served the country well for nearly 240 years.

Not everybody agrees. 41% of the population have confidence in government according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, published annually from one of the leading research and communications firms in the world. More interestingly in 19 of the 27 countries studied there is more distrust than trust. The annual survey shows that media isn't believed and that search engines are now the most trusted way for the general population to get its news and that family and friends are more reliable than traditional reporting. (A subject for a whole other blog!)

The popular thinking is that the U.S. political system is broken. Realclearpolitics has a combination of surveys which show that 71% disapprove of Congress. Regardless of which party has a majority, Congress has been ineffective at passing significant legislation. Pundits have used the lack of laws being passed as the determining factor of whether Congress has done its job or not. While it’s an important metric, it forgets that the Founders set up the system as Representative government  (where people are elected to office to represent a group of people). It’s not direct democracy where individuals vote on every issue directly.

As of October 2014 Gallup polling found that 43% of Americans identified as Democrats and 39% as Republicans, when party "leaners" were included; those figures changed to 41% Democratic and 42% Republican after the November 2014 elections. The 114th Congress currently has 56% Republicans in the House and 54% in the Senate with Democrats representing 43% of the House and 44% of the Senate. In other words: Congress pretty accurately reflects the people it represents.

After the 2014 mid-term elections I wrote a blog that showed after including eligible voters into the calculation, just 13% of the population was actually determining who would be elected. When a majority of voices are silent – either by their own choice or defacto by onerous voting procedures – then the disconnect that exists today can occur. An overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of the job its government is doing, yet consistently re-elects those leaders at a rate in excess of 90%. This occurs because a huge majority of people do not participate in the process, but do have an opinion. So comparing voting results with polling results is comparing apples and oranges (or Republicans and Democrats). By opting out of the established process of voicing one’s opinion, this silent majority are rebels without a cause.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Which type of person are you? The one who filed their taxes in January, got the refund by President’s Day and remind everybody of how nice it is to have it done? Or the one who scrambles in the days before April 15 to get everything together and hit “send” just in the nick of time? Perhaps you’re the one who knows that October 15 is the final, final date when all extensions expire and aim to file by then. I’m a bit of a hybrid, filing my and my family’s returns usually in the February / March time frame. Even utilizing software and being organized, the process is laborious, intrusive and confusing. And that’s what makes this the most wonderful time of the year!

Tax Time is when Americans of all stripes most directly interact with the government. 136,887,000 returns were filed in 2014 with 86% being done so electronically. According to a 2012 Fox News poll 79% of Americans support requiring everyone to pay something in taxes. In 2014 USA Today reported an AP poll that found 58% of Americans describe the filing of taxes as easy and only 38% say it’s hard. When broken down by economic group those making $100,000 or more had a higher percentage who found it difficult – 45%. The U.S. tax code started with 400 pages in 1913 and a century later in 2013 was 73,954 pages. According to the IRS 90% of taxpayers use a tax professional or software to complete their return.

Tax Day for LGBT Americans is particularly challenging. APReports that for those people who live in states that do not recognize their marriage that the couples have to complete 5 tax returns – one federal as married, one federal for each person as a template to then file one each at the state level for each person. Divvying up costs and deductions is not only a complicated mathematical process, it’s emotionally disruptive to have to divide your married life up because your state doesn’t recognize your relationship.

The U.S. tax code includes a “marriage penalty.” In the progressive rates that are the basis of the U.S. tax philosophy and code, the more one earns, the more one pays in taxes. So if two people come together and file jointly, their incomes are combined and they move into a higher bracket. The code also includes many incentives and deductions to encourage (or discourage) certain behavior. Politicians want Americans to buy houses (borrowing money, paying interest, etc.) so there is a large financial benefit for home ownership. Buy too many houses though – and have them as vacation getaways or rental properties and that is discouraged with limitations on deductions and even increased rates.

The priorities of encouraging or discouraging behavior of the citizenry have been a core function of the tax code and the primary argument that the political parties have. One wants to raise taxes on one group of people and redistribute it to others while another wants to reduced taxes to one group of people and redistribute it to others. It’s in this area where the divisive political discourse has festered for most of the past several decades. 1986 was the last time the code was “reformed.”

Election Day is held on the first Tuesday in November under a 1792 Federal law. The reasons included issues of the completion of the harvest and before the harsh winter weather allowing for most who needed to travel to vote to do so. Most of the considerations for choosing early November no longer apply, but it’s unlikely that Election Day will change.

Tax Day hasn’t always been April 15.This date became effective in 1955 Tech Times reports why: “"According to an IRS spokesman, the move 'spread out the peak workload,' but there's another explanation. Turns out that as the income tax applied to more of the middle class, the government had to issue more refunds. 'Pushing the deadline back gives the government more time to hold on to the money,' says Ed McCaffery, a University of Southern California law professor and tax guru."

No matter when Tax Day falls, how government spends taxes is one of the most contentious issues of our time and politicians have been unable (or unwilling) to find compromises. Perhaps the easiest way to see how Americans really feel about paying and filing taxes would be to move Tax Day to the first Monday in November. The day before Election Day. This Most Wonderful Time of the Year would be more so when electoral decisions would be directly related to the one thing that nearly Americans do to interact with the Government they elect. And let’s make it easy: let’s have the Presidential, Congressional and Senatorial candidates be the last question of the tax software before hitting “submit”?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Do Unto Others

Holy Week is exhausting! Emotionally and spiritually it’s a very intense journey. Physically there are a lot of services that require stamina (up and down, up and down). Easter morning arrives amidst the Alleluia’s – as much for religious reasons as in gratitude that the week is done! Other faiths have different services at different times of the year that are of importance to them and have their own challenges. People who do not believe have other paths. The freedom to worship – or not – how one chooses is a bedrock principal in the United States. I am a person of faith who happens to be gay and who also passionately believes in the libertarian principals of individual rights. These aren’t contradictory. They’re consistent.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” begins the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Not only is freedom of religion first out of the gate, it is the first and second item covered in the document establishing the nation, underscoring the level of importance the issue was to the founders.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a 1993 United States federal law that "ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected that was passed a Democratic House and Senate and was signed by President Clinton. The Act states that the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” In 1997 RFRA was found to be unconstitutional if applied to states. As a result states (now 30) passed their own versions of the bills.

Indiana’s version of the bill included similar language (“governmental entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion…”) as in the federal version. The big differentiation, however, is that their bill takes advantage of the 2014 “Hobby Lobby” decision and defines a "person" to include any individual, organization, or company/business – either for-profit or not-for-profit.

The shorthand narrative that took over the media during Holy Week was that businesses in Indiana were given the legal right to decline service to anybody based on their religious beliefs. The law technically didn’t permit that, rather allowed businesses to use their religious beliefs as a defense in case there was ever a court action. LGBT concerns were immediately validated when a local Pizza shop answered “no” to a hypothetical question about whether they would cater a gay wedding. This was cat nip to a hungry media that thrives on “what if’s.” When does one’s right to believe that gay marriage is bad infringe on one’s right to marry whom one loves? When one is in business.

Business owners agree when they choose to open their doors to abide by certain standards and rules in exchange for the right to benefit from commerce. Local, state and federal rules govern a wide array of operations of businesses – everything from fire code to making sure that the workplace is safe and insuring all get equal service. If you don’t like the exchange of abiding by society’s/government rules in order to sell your service or product, don’t open the business.

A core principle in American trade practice, governed by a variety of laws, is that businesses can’t discriminate against customers. Owners have the right to “refuse service” provided that reason doesn’t fall into a list of discriminatory reasons. That list is different by city and by state making the issue more complicated. In general: A person who has imbibed alcohol to the point of excess can be refused service. Likewise a minor can’t be served because government and society say you have to be of a certain age. A person of a particular look, ethnicity, background, etc. could not be refused service for who they are or what they believe.

America is home to a wide range of religions. There are the “mainstream” denominations, but there are many others less well known that are classified as exempt by the IRS for religious purposes.

  • ·      The Church of Scientology is one of them. The Church uses the practice of “audits” for its members to “re-experience painful or traumatic events in their past in order to free themselves of their limiting effects. … Another controversial belief held by Scientologists is that the practice of psychiatry is destructive and abusive and must be abolished.”
  • ·    Mormons for many years were anti-caffeine – so much so that coffee and Coke weren’t available in areas where there were large populations of Mormons. The Church clarified its policy in 2012.
  • ·     Wiccan’s draw upon a diverse set of ancient pagan and 20th century hermetic motifs for its theological structure and often includes the ritual practice of magic.

There are websites that list “weirdest” religious beliefs. What’s “weird” to one is the truth to another. Taken in bits and pieces or out of context, any religion will have its oddities and eccentricities. (He gets up and walked out of a cave after dying?) So long as one’s belief’s do not infringe on the rights of another, or harm another – the core of libertarianism – people are welcome to pray to whomever or whatever they so desire.

If an individual doesn’t like another person for who they are, that’s their individual right and choice. It’s what makes America great – the right to differ. Too often the right to differ is being censored thanks to political correctness and group think conformity – something I’ve blogged about previously and will again no doubt.  The differentiating factor is what happens when there is a polar opposite belief. Now it’s complicated because the Supreme Courts has declared that a business is now considered a person. When the person takes action as a company they are not expressing a personal opinion, but instead are taking an action that hurts another and creates an unfair and unequal environment. When Government permits that – either by court ruling or legislation, the right to differ is no longer an individual issue, it’s enshrined into law and practice.

There is no way to legislate common sense or common decency. Politicians have been trying for centuries…and failing. The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is based on the idea that people should treat each other well. In my religious tradition “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” comes from Matthew 7:12 in The Bible. The same concept exists in most religions including the three mentioned above: Scientologists, Mormons and Wiccans. Treating others as you want to be treated is missing in a system that gives the power and authority of individuality to a corporate entity. It's impossible to due unto others then the other is an entity and not a person.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Announcing an Announcement

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is scheduled to open in theatres in December 2015. Its sequel, Episode VIII will open May 26, 2017 and its sequel will open in May of 2018. The announcement of these dates is not really intended for the movie going public to make a notation in their calendars, but as a stake in the ground for the other movie studios. Disney plans to “own” that weekend with the big release, so the others should just plan around it. The competition may then “counter” program with a romantic comedy or something else for audiences to choose from or just wait a week or two for their opportunity. It’s not unlike the other big industry town, Washington. In politics those running for office take it one step further: announcing their intention to announce.

At the end of March 2015, 22 months before the inauguration of the 45th President Senator Ted Cruz is the only declared candidate for the office.  Another dozen or more from various parties are considering or announcing that they’re considering or announcing that their announcing their consideration to run for the highest office in the land. In the grand scheme of things, it’s about as important and consequential as the Star Wars movie opening in 2018.

On February 27, 2015, 23 months before the inauguration and with no announced candidates, Equality California (the nation’s second largest LGBT membership organization) became the first LGBT organization to endorse Hillary Clinton for President.  Never mind that Sec. Clinton has not announced her intention to run – in fact repeatedly stating that she had nothing to say on the matter. Never mind that there might be any other candidates to challenge any eventual campaign. It’s a pretty safe assumption her hat's in the ring, but, technically she’s not in the race.

Executive Director Rick Zbur said in the press release: “We’re enthusiastic about her candidacy because she has the best record of accomplishment on LGBT issues of any potential candidate. Equality California is ready for Hillary!” It’s an interesting assertion given that there are no actual candidates to measure Sec. Clinton against and her legislative endeavors are, at best, limited.

In terms of her record – she gave a powerful speech on International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva in 2011 that “went viral.” Sec. Clinton said: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” It was a powerful and important sentiment and words matter.

In terms of accomplishments, however, there are few. The Clinton administration devised Don’t Ask Don’t Tell which codified discrimination into federal law that took over 20 years to abolish and was tremendously damaging to tens of thousands of LGBT lives. In its 1996 re-election campaign the Clinton administration conjured up, endorsed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act that has taken nearly two decades to dismantle, with the Supreme Court still working on the issue. The “religious freedom law” that Indiana (and 30 other states) use as a template to justify discrimination against LGBT people was conceived of and signed into law by President Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is not Bill Clinton, so the troika of anti-gay actions that he took as President (and has never apologized for) is not her burden to bear. Just as Jeb Bush should not bear the responsibility of the decisions of his brother George W. or his father George HW – each potential candidate are their own person. Their relationship to others policies is a fair thing to ask about, however, especially as they try to take credit for the accomplishments of those same people.

In June 2014 Sec. Clinton was “testy” during an exchange about any ‘evolution’ that she has had on Marriage Equality. The reporter reasonably asked about how and why she went from being opposed to Marriage Equality to supporting it – all of which has been in the public record during her long public life. Sec. Clinton forcefully challenged the premise of the question, never denying the facts nor answering the question.

This is the best that the LGBT community can do? Endorsing an individual who has no record of accomplishment on LGBT issues and isn’t even announced as a candidate? Not even waiting to see if another person rises up more forcefully supporting the cause? In the end Hillary Clinton may well run and win the nomination and may well be the leader on the issues – but doesn’t it make sense to actually wait and see who’s running first? Shame on Equality California – and organization that has had a record of leadership in the past but now seems to be seeking headlines and access over servicing its community. I hereby announce my intention to no longer support EqCA.