New Year’s Resolutions for Politics

So much we hear about politics today is about how dysfunctional it is. The two parties can do nothing but bicker and squabble while the citizens either take sides or watch in apathy. A few of us are still interested, despite the rancour. David Adler, director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho, gives us five resolutions for the still interested citizen (subscription only link).

  1. Stop political labeling.
  2. Listen.
  3. Citizens must be fair to one another.
  4. Avoid the politics of destruction.
  5. Avoid ideological rigidity.

I especially agree with numbers one and five. As Professor Adler writes for number one, “The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is characterized as liberal or conservative is the lazy citizen’s way of avoiding the work of citizenship.”

I resolve to follow these resolutions in my political discourse for 2012 and beyond. How about you? Would you change anything? Add anything? What are your thoughts on political discourse going into 2012?

Why are Occupy Movements Protesting the Ports?

Port of Oakland

Image via Wikipedia

I thought, when I first heard that Occupy Oakland was going to shut down the Port of Oakland, that it was just another example of the Occupy movement trying to affect corporate America. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to the story than that.

As explained in this excellent AlterNet article, and an open letter from drivers for the Port of Oakland, ever since the deregulation of the port trucking business (drayage) in 1979, the port truckers have been in a downward spiral. To avoid paying payroll taxes, or any other of the normal costs associated with a trucking business (such as emissions testing and compliance for the trucks), the trucking companies either sold the trucks to the drivers, or leases them to the drivers at exorbitant rates, and classified the drivers as independent contractors, not employees. To date, the trucking companies have gotten away with this blatant misclassification of employees as contractors.

Resources

Read the open letter of some drivers from the Port of Oakland
How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers — Occupy Protesters Plan to Shut Down West Coast Ports in Protest (AlterNet)

Petition to Support the Truck Drivers

I first read about the plight of the truck drivers in this article by Reverend John Helmiere, a United Methodist minister, on his beating and arrest by Seattle police while participating in the blockade of the Port of Seattle by Occupy Seattle.

Finally, if you live near the coasts, you probably are aware of your nearest port and perhaps have heard about the conditions there. If you live in the interior of the U.S., don’t be complacent that these issues don’t affect you. First, almost all goods sold in this country (unless made in the USA, and even then components probably come from overseas) come through a port on their way to a store. So you are benefiting, in the form of lower prices, in almost every aspect of your daily life. Secondly, are you so sure there isn’t a port near you? I live almost 800 miles from the nearest coast, and yet the nearest port is only 580 or so miles (about one day’s drive) away. That’s practically in my neighborhood. Are these evil practices of these trucking companies affecting your neighbors?

More on Occupy Wall Street

On November 21, I posted here about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I quoted a letter Brendan Burke wrote to The Economist, implying that Occupy protesters are not interested in voting. Brendan writes,

I do vote every time. I have voted in every election I could since I was old enough to, whether for the President, or senate and congress people from my native new york. It doesnt work. Even though it doesnt work, I continue to do so, as the problem does not lie with me. I do believe in the marketplace of America. Where is it?

We are a nation of checks and balances and our banks and corporations need to be checked. Our democracy is in full swing actually.

Thank you, Brendan, for getting back to me and explaining your position. I think Brendan and I are very much in agreement — democracy is working.

Now, as the cold weather comes and the police break up the Occupy camps, how will the momentum be sustained? What is the future of the movement? I saw an article today telling me that Occupy will never be the movement the Tea Party is, due to the lack of organization and the disengagement with traditional politics. Is this true? I hope not. I hope the Occupy protesters find a way to take their movement forward.

Halt The Stop Online Piracy Act

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is currently proposed in the U.S. Congress. If passed, it would allow court orders against Internet domains (entire websites), both foreign and domestic, that were found to be allowing illegal trade in copyrighted material.

The Economist describes SOPA’s provisions:

The bill aims to cut off Americans’ access to foreign pirate websites by squeezing intermediaries. Rights-holders, such as Hollywood film studios, will be able to request that a credit-card firm or advertising network stop doing business with a foreign site; or ask a search engine to take down links to the site; or ask an internet-service provider to block the site’s domain name, making it harder to reach. The intermediary then has just five days to comply or rebut the complaint; after that the rights-holder can go to court.

I am afraid that this bill, if made law, would cause Etsy, where I sell my crafts (with no copyrighted materials in them, except my own) to be shut down.

Read about the bill on Wikipedia: House Bill HR 3261; Senate Bill S.968

Read the (House) bill on Thomas

If you live in the U.S., contact your senators and representative and let them know that they should vote against SOPA. In the House, the bill is HR 3261. In the Senate, the bill is S.968.

This is a copy of what I wrote my representative:

Dear Representative,

I am writing to you to tell you to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, HR 3261). There are many concerns with this bill, including its effect on the usability of the Internet, but I want to tell you about how it will affect me.

I own a small business, Lizbeth’s Garden. I make and sell handmade beaded tassels and other crafts. All my creations are my own invention and do not involve copyrighted materials. I sell my creations through Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods. Etsy is the main outlet for my items. If Etsy were to shut down for any reason, I would lose over half my revenue.

Unfortunately, some people, through ignorance or malice, sell copyrighted material on Etsy. Right now, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides for the copyright owners to notify Etsy and have the materials removed and/or the offending shop closed down. The rest of Etsy and the law-abiding shop owners continue to function normally.

The provisions in SOPA for an entire domain to be shut down for copyright violations frightens me. Am I to lose half my revenue because of a few bad apples whom I do not even know?

Vote against SOPA, HR 3261.

Sincerely,

Feel free to use my letter as a template for writing your own Congress-people. Be sure not to copy it exactly. Make sure you have the correct bill number for whom you are writing, and replace the info about my business with your own concerns.

Find Your Representative

Find Your Senators

Congress is in Thrall to the Majority

Rise and Fall of Political Parties in the Unit...

Image by Cornell University Library via Flickr

I just read a very interesting article on why Congress is polarized to the point of dysfunction these days. Basically, a lot of small changes, including polarized primaries (due to gerrymandering, usually), procedural changes to favor the majority, more use of the filibuster, money, and other small things that might not make a difference on their own. Really, the article is fascinating, and you should read the whole thing.

The thing that struck me is that all these changes favor the party with the majority, both in the House and in the Senate. No longer do legislators reach across the aisle. I think a lot of these changes have come about as the parties (on both sides) have become dominated by extremists. As the extremists become more and more vocal, they elect people who agree with them, and any others who are elected think they are agreeing with their constituents if they go along with the extremists.

However, I do not believe that most Americans hold these extreme views. I believe most Americans are in the middle, but don’t speak up. They either don’t vote, especially not in the primaries, or they just pick someone and forget about it later. They don’t contact their elected officials, saying they don’t agree with the extremists. I know I have been guilty of this.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the extremists get listened to. What should the silent moderates do? First, speak up. My first step in speaking up is writing this post. Second, if you know of any moderate political groups in your area, join them. Be sure they’re not the extremists, though! Third, don’t vote for extremists. At this point, I would rather leave my ballot blank than vote for an incumbent.

(Note: I did not say I would stay home from the polls. In the United States, we have the right to vote, and we have the privilege to do so without risking our lives. It is incumbent upon us to continue to exercise that right — those who do not exercise their right to vote risk losing it. And if people in emerging democracies are willing to risk life and limb to go to the polls, then I certainly am going, even if I am not going to vote for any of the candidates from the main parties.)

Actually, what I would like to do is vote for a third party. However, my area is quite dominated by one major political party, and I’m not sure there are any third parties or their candidates I find acceptable. (And before you ask, I have quite enough on my plate without planning to start a branch of a third party here. There’s a difference between speaking up and taking on a monumental task.)

How will you speak up?

Newspaper Column: Social Security and the Destruction of Hope

Medicare & Social Security Deficits Chart

Image via Wikipedia

Lately I have been seeing a lot of people writing and complaining that Social Security should not be lumped in with the rest of the national budget and debt for cuts, because it has its own trust fund and so is separate from the rest of the national budget.

This is true to a certain extent. However, what these people aren’t saying is that all of Social Security’s trust fund has been lent to the rest of the federal government. Therefore, it is only available for Social Security in the event that the federal government does not default on its debt. In a hypothetical situation as was being discussed at the end of July, if the federal government runs out of money because Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, there is no separate pot of money for Social Security to tap for its checks. In that event, the only money Social Security would have is the current money being paid in by current workers, which would not cover its obligations to retirees.

I hate to tell this to the baby boomers who believe that nothing is wrong with Social Security, but if nothing is done about it, the trust fund will be exhausted by 2036. In a 2011 report, the trustees of the fund wrote, “(a)nnual cost is projected to exceed non-interest income in 2011. … However, total income, including interest earnings on trust fund assets, will be sufficient to cover annual cost until 2023. The dollar level of the combined trust funds is projected to be drawn down beginning in 2023 until assets are exhausted in 2036.” After the trust fund is exhausted, then obligations to retirees must be met by current worker payments, which are insufficient due to the size of the baby boomer generation and increasing longevity.

If nothing is done to fix Social Security (e.g. making income over $250,000 subject to payroll tax as Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested), there is no way it can pay to the baby boomers’ children the money they have been promised. By closing your eyes to the future, you are sponging off your children and destroying any hope they have of getting back the money they are paying into Social Security.

This column was first published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on September 1, 2011.

The Debt Limit

As I write this, the debt limit of the government of the United States must be raised in 2 weeks, by August 2, or the US Treasury will run out of money. Congress cannot reach an agreement, even with the intervention of the President and Vice-President. The Republicans insist that taxes must not be raised, the Democrats insist that spending must be cut.

You know what? I don’t care which side is right. I think they both probably are. What I care about is that if no agreement is reached, the US government will not be able to pay its obligations and it will come to a screeching halt as most money is diverted to interest payments. If we cannot pay the interest, this great country will default on its debts.

Does the populace care? No, as the hubris of our elected Congressional Representatives threatens to destroy the ‘full faith and credit of the United States of America’, we fiddle. We fiddle on Twitter, on Facebook, on our other beloved social media, chattering about this and that, while Rome burns.

Years ago, in a personal finance class in college, I asked the professor if the United States would ever default on its bonds (this was about the time that Argentina defaulted). You’d have thought I asked if the sun would go dark tomorrow. No, I was assured, the United States would never default on its bonds. It would take worse than civil war, it would take the rending of the country into feuding regions, the destruction of the government, before that would happen.

And yet, here we sit, in peace in the country itself, winding down our major war obligations abroad, unattacked in a decade, and we appear to be about to default.

The hubris of our elected politicians is astounding. Elected to represent us, the people, they are about to destroy our economy over a matter of egos. As I said in the beginning, I don’t care how they reach agreement. The important thing is that, as we come out of the worst recession in eighty years, the economy is allowed to keep growing and recovering, not drowning under a huge influx of unemployed government workers and pensioners without Social Security checks.

For numbers, I refer you to something my husband wrote up:

Notes on budget.  Based on 2011 figures from http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy11/pdf/budget.pdf pg 149 See also http://www.treasury.gov/initiatives/Pages/debtlimit.aspx

First of all, the budget for 2011 is already passed, the US just needs to raise the debt ceiling to borrow more money to implement the budget.

To simplify the calculations, I am using the amounts for the whole year to get an idea what the percentage reductions would be required.

The fiscal year 2011 budget has $3728 billion of outlays and $2583 billion of receipts.  Social Security is $730 billion of the outlays and $674 billion of the receipts.  Medicare is $492 billion of the outlays and interest on the debt is $250 billion.

If we keep Social Security, Medicare, and debt payments, those total 730+492+250=$1472 billion.  This leaves 2583-1472=$1111 billion dollars for the rest, which is 3728-1472=$2256 billion.  So the rest of the budget would have to decrease by half (1111/2256=49%)

If we keep the mandatory programs (everything but discretionary programs) and the debt payments, this is 2100+250=$2350 billion, which would leave 2583-2350=$233 billion for everything else (which is 3728-2350=$1378 billion dollars) so the discretionary funding would have to decrease by 83%=(1-233/1378).

Defaulting (failing to pay the debt interest) would cause all kinds of havoc.  It would also trash the “full faith and credit of the United States”.

Comment on Social Security: While social security is a trust fund, the extra money is invested in US government bonds. If the US defaults, these bonds are worthless. For 2011 it is estimated that there will be $674 billion dollars of payroll taxes and $730 billion dollars of payments. If the US defaults, Social Security would not be able to pay the full amount of the checks.

This great country is about to be brought to its knees through the hubris of politicians. It makes me sick.

 

Loving Day

Today was Loving Day, a celebration of the 1967 Supreme Court decision in the case of Loving vs. Virginia, in favor of the Lovings, declaring unconstitutional miscegenation laws that made marriage between whites and African Americans illegal. Often celebrated nowadays as a celebration of the freedom to marry.

Did you celebrate Loving Day? Tell me about it in the comments.

Newspaper Column: Wikileaks

United States Capitol building

Image by Bernt Rostad via Flickr

Don’t ask me why it was top secret, or even restricted; our government has gotten the habit of classifying anything as secret which the all-wise statesmen and bureaucrats decide we are not big enough girls and boys to know, a Mother-Knows-Best-Dear policy. I’ve read that there used to be a time when a taxpayer could demand the facts on anything and get them. I don’t know; it sounds Utopian.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (1951), chapter 24

If the United States was ever such a Utopia, it isn’t now. The Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971, and are still classified. Does it matter? Ordinary citizens can certainly read them. Think again. Are you an ordinary citizen? Not if you work for the federal government or a contractor for the federal government and have a security clearance.

The same rules apply to all the classified diplomatic materials recently leaked by WikiLeaks. The federal government has warned everyone with a clearance not to read Wikileaks documents or talk about their content, or read their content in other venues. Occasionally, more extreme measures have been taken, such as the Army blocking major news websites, such as the website of the New York Times, that publish the material.

The government has a right to protect its information. But the government has spectacularly failed to protect its information, and now it is widely read and discussed, except by the United States government employees. This is pointless, and in some cases, damaging to U.S. interests.

As a Department of Homeland Security official put it (quoted on the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy Project blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2010/12/govt_response.html),

If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don’t, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we’ve been intentionally left out of the information loop.

One could argue that government employees, and employees of government contractors, are the people in this country most informed about government affairs. How can we formulate effective policy and make good, democratic decisions if they are muzzled and cannot contribute to public discussions?

What kind of government doesn’t want to be talked about? Not one I want to live in. A democratic government retains the right to withhold certain information to protect its citizens and its interests. But those rights should be exercised judiciously. When the information is no longer protected, then anyone should be able to discuss it.

This column first appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on March 29, 2011.

Daylight Savings Time

Time change at the start of Daylight Saving Time

Image via Wikipedia

I’m sure that all across the United States and Canada (and perhaps more places than that), today and yesterday, have been written blog posts complaining about the time change. I’m sure I don’t have a unique perspective, but by special request, I will bring you my commentary on daylight savings time.

Actually, I don’t mind the idea of daylight savings time that much. In fact, it makes sense in the actual summer months, when on standard time it would be light at 3 or 4 am and dark before 10 pm. I love being able to work in the yard up until bedtime. I get so much accomplished in the light.

But at this time of year, it is worse than useless. It is pointless. On Saturday, it was just beginning to be light at 6:30 am. Very nice. Now it’s light right about when I really ought to be getting up.

But wait. Now it’s Sunday and pitch-black at 6:30 am. It’s not light until 7:30 am. And while I admit it was a little nice to have it light until 7:30 pm, it’s not like I was doing anything outside. I came in from yardwork at 4:00 pm Sunday afternoon, and it was plenty cold enough for me. Today is windy, and I won’t be doing yardwork or other outdoor activity no matter how light it is outside.

I think I would like daylight savings time from perhaps May until September. Those are the months that it is warm enough here in the northern part of the United States to make it worthwhile to be outside longer. But having it start in mid-March is just ridiculous. Perhaps we should just have daylight savings time year-round, in that case. Any particular time is just a human construction, anyway.

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