Thursday, December 31, 2015


Its resolution season. 45% will make them this week and 8% will succeed at them. Losing weight, getting organized, spending less and saving more are the top three goals people have. I gave up on New Year’s resolutions some time back less out of frustration and more out of a realization that having self-improvement goals shouldn’t be tied to the calendar. A couple I know have a great tradition – on New Year’s Eve they write down their 10 resolutions for the upcoming year. They then open the resolutions from the prior year to see how they did. It’s a fun way to keep yourself accountable for a goal without all the hoopla. As we enter the 2016 political season, however, it’s all about hoopla.

The media – television, newspapers, social media – have covered political campaigns like sporting events for more than a generation. Who’s up, who’s down is more important than what they stand for. The reason why a candidate supports a policy is far more interesting to speculate on than the issue itself.

The country is divided – evidenced by a generation of split elections. The public is frustrated that the division has resulted in stalemate and inertia. Candidates respond to the anger by becoming more determined and firm in their position. We’re in an era of absolutists. The result is a polarized political culture.

Sticking to one’s beliefs is an honorable character trait. Being unable to waver from one’s beliefs is short sighted and will only lead to further deterioration of the political climate and bolster candidates who are long on hyperbole and theatrics and short on solutions. Likewise those who flip and flop on issues with regularity should be examined carefully. (Hilary & The Donald to name just two.)

As a card-carrying Libertarian the example of Social Security is a good issue to evaluate. If I eschewed to the letter of the party line I would exclaim that the Government has no right to take money out of my paycheck to redistribute it later – even if it’s back to me. The absolutists would resolve to eliminate the program altogether and return America to her greatness. “Keep the Government out of my wallet and out of my bedroom!”

In theory the idea should work as there is plenty of evidence from before Franklin Roosevelt that the U.S. thrived with small government, but it’s a practical world. The program has far outlived its original purposes and has become a noose choking federal coffers. After a century the entitlement citizens have adapted and the expectation and investment can’t be stopped. It wouldn’t be fair and would be too much of a jolt to the economy. Altering benefits, upping the retirement age and means testing are all ways to address the excesses of the system today in a practical world with a nod towards scaling the program down. By proposing some of these ideas, does that mean I’ve given up my core principles? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as taking what I believe in and finding a way to impact the larger issue in a productive way. Winning an argument isn’t helpful, changing policy is. It’s not all or nothing. It’s an incremental adjustment.

Throwing down the gauntlet may feel good in the moment. Just like making a list of things to improve oneself on December 31st. But then a few hours later, hung over, the list doesn’t seem all that realistic anymore and people adjust. Too bad the politicians haven’t realized that the party is over and its time to accomplish something. Happy 2016!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Inspired by Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) 
(previously believed to be by Clement Clarke Moore)
Liberally AND Conservatively adapted...

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the country
Not a consensus was found, not even agreement;
The issues were outlined by the pundits with care,
In hopes that St. Freedom soon would be there;

The politicians were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of re-election danced in their heads;
And pappa in his earplugs, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the internet there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the windows I flew like a flash,
Clicked open the laptop and logged in to see.

The emails and videos of the candidates grew
Gave the fact-checkers much work to do,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny hopefuls,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Free.
No more rapid responders were needed,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DONALD! now, HILARY! now, BERINE and RAND!
To the top of the news! to the top of the polls!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the net
That reason and integrity which gives hope a chance.
As I surfed through to see the options,
Downloading the future, St. Freedom appeared.

S/He was committed to the constitution completely,
And privacy and individuality were not forgotten;
No special interests muddy the agenda,
With fiscal responsibility becoming the way.

S/He spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And stopped all the violence; and acted with integrity,
And using diplomacy and trust to legislate,
And giving a nation a new opportunity;

And I heard the saint exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,


May 2016 bring us all closer to the Freedom that the Founders envisioned.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Word Wars

I enjoy Star Wars – but am not a super fan. My partner is and we enjoyed all six movies (in episodic order) this week in anticipation for the first showing of Episode VII. Not everybody is a supporter of the George Lucas franchise – and that’s what makes America great. In America you’re supposed to be able to say “Star Wars is great” or “Star Wars sucks” and have it be ok. Spirited debate? Sure. It’s a little thing the founders thought of called the First Amendment. It was so important to them that it is, you know the FIRST thing they agreed on to define the new country. Too bad free speech is becoming a vestige of a galaxy long long ago.

A middle-schooler wearing a t-shirt with a storm trooper holding a gun on it was banned from wearing the shirt. The school is in Texas. Texas! Texas is where you can wear a side arm to Starbucks or sling your shoulder rifle during a spree at Walmart. The ‘zero tolerance’ policy at schools takes no prisoners. Common sense isn’t part of the equation.

Bullying, harassment and intimidation of students by their classmates is a serious problem. According to the Department of Health and Human Services which has compiled results from many studies 70.6% of teens “have seen bullying occurring in their schools – and approximately 30 percent of young people admit to bullying themselves.” Bullying includes both physical in-person and cyber taunts. But is banning speech - and t-shirts - the answer?

Colleges have taken aggressive action on mitigating ‘hate speech.’ According to a Huffington Post article in January 2014 -  59% of higher education institutions actively restrict free speech. There are some extreme examples:
  • The University of Connecticut prohibits people from “actions that intimidate, humiliate, demean persons or groups, or undermine their security of self-esteem.”
  • The University of South Carolina prohibits “’teasing’, ‘ridiculing’ and ‘insulting’”
  • The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY) suspended a student when (for a school assignment) he asked a hockey coach from an opposing team for thoughts on SUNY’s coach. The suspension came because he said the comments didn’t have to be position – something SUNY interpreted as an attempt to “defame, harass or intimidate” a faculty member.

62% of colleges have speech codes that violate constitutionally protected speech. Where did these schools get the idea to do that? The Departments of Education and Justice mandated a speech code that universities had to adopt to continue to receive their federal funding.

What happens on campus has now spilled into the ‘real’ world. According to Mediaite Newsweek has been threatened with a lawsuit for publishing each side of a rape case – the accuser’s perspective and the defendants. A news organization is being threatened that just by airing an alternative perspective will land them in court. So much for balance. So much for the presumption of innocence.

The Guardian reported in 2013 on the first ever report by the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists that the “Obama presidency has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for journalists and sources alike.”

The article continues:
Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press—compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. Reporters' phone logs and e-mails were secretly subpoenaed and seized by the Justice Department in two of the investigations, and a Fox News reporter was accused in an affidavit for one of those subpoenas of being 'an aider, abettor and/or conspirator' of an indicted leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail.

Donald Trump makes headlines saying outrageous things. People are paying attention. I think he’s spewing forth bile and proposals that are absurd in their simplicity and would never see the light of day in the event he did take the Oval Office. And I’ll fight for his right to say his nonsense.

Offensive speech pisses people off. It offends. That’s what it does. That’s a good thing in a democracy. It’s good to be annoyed.

Donald Trump’s fascist statements led to a social media burst recently – Facebook users were able to see who of their friends were ‘following’ the real-estate-mogul-reality-star-GOP-candidate. You could then ‘unfriend’ those folks – under the presumption that they were following the man because they supported him. The result is that people are filtering out more and more of what they disagree with, making for a less rounded and less informed people.

The impact of the speech restrictions from Middle School to College has had an impact. The majority of millennials (58%) are ok with restricting speech according to research by the Pew Foundation. Americans overall (95%) believe its important to be able to criticize the government but only 67% agree that speech should be free to criticize groups and others. In other words: 1/3rd of Americans think the First Amendment isn't needed. Now that's terrifying.

Restricting expression is restricting thought. It has to stop. It has to. Let’s hope the Force is with us all.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Heil History

I’m not book smart. I pick up things by watching and doing, less by studying and memorizing. This resulted in my being a mediocre student but a smart-ass wise-aleck in the classroom. Even though I learn a little differently than many, I have a deep appreciation for history. I agree with poet and philosopher George Santayana who said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (Thanks Wikipedia!) This has never been more true than today.

Adolph Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician who was leader of the Nazi Party, NSDAP), Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Führer ("leader") of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945.
  • He was a decorated war veteran from World War I
  • He gained popular support by attacking the Treaty of Versailles and promoting Pan-Germanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-communism with charismatic oratory and propaganda.
  • He denounced international capitalism and communism as being part of a Jewish conspiracy.
  • His Nazi regime was responsible for the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of other victims whom he and his followers deemed sub-human and socially undesirable.
  • He was responsible for the killing of an estimated 19.3 million civilians and prisoners of war.

Adolph Hitler was evil incarnate. World War II constitutes the deadliest conflict in human history and he is responsible for it. Thankfully there are few like him. Making comparisons to this guy should be done carefully and deliberately.

Presidents have been likened to Hitler going back decades to John F. Kennedy. More recently comparisons of George W. Bush and Barak Obama to the German leader have been staples of opposition propaganda and have diminished the impact of the allegation. Much of the hyperbole comparing somebody to Hitler seems to be less about who Hitler was and what he did and more about that Hitler has become a catch-all symbol of something awful.

Donald Trump is the latest to be compared to Hitler. The bombastic real estate and reality television show star who is seeking the GOP nomination has said many things that can be easily and legitimately aligned with the Fuhrer’s approaches and statements. Trump’s latest proposal to ban Muslims from the United States has kept him at the top of the news and is the key driver of the latest comparisons.

Combined with Mr. Trump’s other policy proposals and public comments about women, Mexicans and other groups make him toxic to the “politically correct” crowds and they’re like crack cocaine to television and the internet who luxuriate in the extremist statements.

Hitler came to power by being popular and by demonizing groups. Trump is popular and is seeking power by demonizing groups. Therefore they are the same? Seems to be a faulty equation – way too simplistic – though lots of the media are doing so. Trump may be a buffoon, a blowhard and a bad idea for President for innumerable reasons (including his fascist beliefs) – but he’s not the Führer in a toupee.

The United States in 2015 is not Germany in the 1930’s. The legislative branches of the U.S. Government reflect the nation: they’re split. President Obama is stymied at nearly every step in passing any of his progressive agenda. Would such a divided Congress ever permit a President to seal the borders and toss out tens of millions of people based on their race and/or religion? Aside from the logistical impossibility of such an action – the system of government in place and operational just wouldn’t allow it.

It doesn’t mean we should ignore such statements or be complacent about their implication – but if we laser focus only on the wild comments, we miss what’s really at risk.

With the political narrative dominated by such absurdities making for good and entertaining discourse, the more serious issues get ignored.

In May 2015 a U.S. appeals court ruled that the NSA’s spying program into people’s phone records is illegal. The NSA continued to operate the program until December 13, 2015 and kept the data until (at least) February 2016 – in absolute and direct violation of the law. (Nobody’s gone to jail and nobody’s being called to account for the breach. The administration’s justification has been “national security” and “terrorism” - arguments that failed in court and aren't supported by their own facts. Yahoo News reports: “A presidential review committee concluded the surveillance regime did not lead to a single clear counter terrorism breakthrough that could be directly attributed to the program.”

Starting after the "shutdown" the NSA launched a ‘scaled back’ program which collects the same information but with a court order instead. Really no change then. As of 2013 the court has rejected 12 requests. Out of 35,529. As a percentage it’s 0.003% that are denied or 99.997% are approved. It’s basically a rubber stamp and it will take years for the real judicial branch to catch up again. (The FISA Court is not part of the US Justice system, it’s appointed by politicians and the Chief Justice and is part of the PATRIOT ACT and its successor the FREEDOM ACT.)

The launching of a separate judicial track also seems to be an important issue that there’s little discourse on. The main judiciary has determined over and over that the peeking into Americans records and lives is an overt violation of the U.S. Constitution. Yet it continues. No punishment and no consequence. In America! This breach by the government of the rule of law, the stripping away of constitutionally guaranteed rights is appalling. It is scary. It is actual fascism taking over actual democracy. It has to stop. Now THAT is where a comparison to Nazism is worthwhile.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Merry Voting

We have a wonderful gift giving tradition in our family. My grandmother gave each of her grandchildren some money to buy presents at the holidays. Her premise was that there’s as much (if not more) joy and satisfaction in being the gift giver rather than the receiver. It stuck and I’ve been a giver ever since.

In September I remember seeing the first holiday display go up in a store. People on social media bemoan the “early” start of the marketing and commercialization of the Christmas season. If nobody bought anything from that display until the beginning of December, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the displays would disappear until then. The marketplace is the decider.

“Black Friday” has become its own event – rather than just a description accounting people use to describe the day after Thanksgiving when many retailers move from being in the ‘red’ to being in the ‘black’. Now there’s Pre-Black-Friday sales and Black-Friday specials all throughout November. It’s a ridiculous concept – but people buy and buy and buy so soon there’ll be a monthly Black Friday event.

Communities were outraged when stores opened on Thanksgiving Day. And then they shopped and shopped and shopped. Guess what? More stores are now open on Thanksgiving Day. Some communities are banning the practice resulting in online sales surging.

Election 2016 officially began the day after President Obama was re-elected in 2012 and probably was unofficially underway for Mrs. Clinton and others before then. There was no break, no opportunity for a governing process to be attempted. It’s now one constant cycle of electioneering – as if it were Christmas year round. There’s plenty of complaint about it, but like the displays at the stores, we still engage and buy so the message is clear: we will participate.

Hopeful politicians lock up fundraising experts, local advocates and a slew of other elements of the ‘machine’ of becoming President years before any votes are cast. Candidates are branded and packaged and put under the proverbial tree.

It’s very expensive. The Presidential Election for 2016 may cost as much as $5 billion according to an article in The Hill. It’s not much of a stretch given that the 2012 White House run incurred just over $4 billion in costs.  If the estimate is right, it will be about $15 for every American. But not every American votes. In 2012 approx. 127 million votes were cast for President. If that same number voted again the candidates and their various PACs will be spending about $40 per vote.

How many of those votes are really up for grabs? Much of the U.S. is already set – whether it’s for the GOP candidate or the Democrat – they’re highly unlikely to change their opinion. In consumer terms, BrandLoyalty is when a consumer buys your product over and over – even to the point of paying more when there’s other options. (Apple is a prime example of a high profile company that has extreme Brand Loyalty.) Political parties have the same level of loyalty.

Elections (like marketers during the holiday season) is all about convincing that percentage of people who are willing to look at something other than what they’re used to. In commercial terms it can be upwards of 20% of buyers. In voting terms it’s 7% of the voters who represent less than 3% of the population. Reuters has put together an entire section about the Undecided Voter. 9 million people in 6 states actually control the 2016 Presidency.

All this noise and all this money aimed at a micro-minority of Americans. There has to be a better way.

My grandmother challenged the notion that I had about the holidays being all about me getting presents. It’s time for the rest of the country to challenge the idea that there’s only two parties and only two options for the Presidency. Until then, Merry Voting!