The American Way

I really love my country. I still get that cliché lump in my throat when singing the Star Spangled Banner and thinking of great American icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Cady Elizabeth Stanton and Frederick Douglas. Our constitution and the form of government it has produced are, by far, the best in the world, after all, countless other nations have emulated it. I love the United States of America. E pluribus unum.

Now that I got that out of the way, let me say one thing: My nation is incredibly stupid. We are in the 13th year of the 21st century, you know, that magical time when most of our problems were supposed to be solved, we’d be living like the Jetsons, and shit would be great for everyone? Despite the fact that information and knowledge is literally at our fingertips (and free), there are massive amounts of ignorance in America.

Income inequality – that huge gap between the richest and poorest among us – has increased to historic levels as the wealthy and the most profitable corporations in the history of mankind continue to pay little to no taxes (thank you, tax code and loopholes). The poorest continue to be hit the hardest by economic hardships and the middle class is continuing to shrink. Our leader’s solution to this problem: more trickle-down, austerity magic! Shame on us.

Climate change is a globally recognized, scientifically accepted fact of life on Earth now. Our science has only gotten better and the cause of accelerated, devastating climate change is us, humanity, burning the remains of dinosaurs and other Cretaceous plant and animal life. Storms, floods and droughts are worse than they’ve ever been and the global average temperature has continued to climb. The oceans are more acidic, a result of absorbing more carbon dioxide than they should naturally be absorbing. Nasty feedback loops have eaten away a shocking amount of the planet’s polar ice caps. Several animal species are approaching the point of extinction. Agriculture and other industries reliant on the Earth itself are already seeing the devastating results of a planet less hospitable to their business, where areas that were once fertile and green are becoming barren, arid wastelands. Parts of the planet that have been traditionally cold are becoming more tropical. Tropical diseases are becoming more common globally. The effects of these catastrophic phenomena have already displaced or killed several million people around the globe.

And yet, nations like the United States and China continue churning out billions of tons of carbon dioxide from dirty sources like coal because, apparently, that’s what “progress” looks like. True, natural gas produces half the emissions coal does and while it is a good thing that more focus is being placed on it as one of the major alternatives to coal, we are still releasing far too much carbon dioxide than the planet can naturally and safely absorb. Renewable energy? We’re investing more in it than we ever have before and that is a very good thing. But to combat a warming planet and ensure our survival sustainably we need to lead the world in massive investments into renewable energy sources like we once did with the interstate highway system decades ago.

Despite the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence and natural disasters stemming from climate change, a large portion of the American public thinks it’s all a hoax (most likely because they heard it on talk radio and saw it on Faux News). There IS  silver lining, however: a majority of Americans agree that climate change is something our leaders should be doing more to address and alleviate. But it should be a vast majority because remember, the information and research on climate change, not to mention the news reports of devastation, are instantly accessible. Shame on us.

We also elect disgraceful excuses for leaders; After the 2010 midterm election, the once-great Republican Party – poisoned by the religious right and purchased for several billion dollars by corporate America – picked up a supermajority of the House of Representatives and state legislatures across the country, as well as governorships in many states.

The philosophy of this terrifying brand of conservatism sees government and taxation of any kind as oppressive. The social safety net? It’s the makers vs. the takers! Investments in education and infrastructure? It’s a commie plot to destroy America! Don’t even mention raising government revenue via tax raises on the super wealthy! Nut jobs like that used to be relegated to the fringes. Now they’re running the party.

The result of electing these jokes to office:

The use of the filibuster exploded to dizzying heights, grinding the process of governing and government itself to a halt; the economic recovery and the transition to a more sustainable, greener future is being painfully suffocated by severe budget cuts, sequestration and a dogmatic refusal to pass anything resembling a job program; restrictions on abortion that would effectively outlaw many forms of birth control and fertility treatments flood state legislatures; the Defense of Marriage Act  (DOMA) – prohibiting all same-sex couples in the nation from having the 1,100 federal benefits that straight couples have – was ruthlessly defended at a cost of millions of dollars to the American taxpayers, despite the fact that the majority of those taxpayers think DOMA needs to go; members of the LGBT community can be fired for being who they are in several states because of Congress’ refusal to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA); new restrictions on voting rights were passed in battleground states controlled by Republicans, restrictions specifically targeted at young people, African-Americans, and the poor (groups that usually vote Democratic); the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed cross-country pipeline that would expose millions of Americans to filthy tar sands oil spills (like the recent one in Arkansas) and would also act as an exacerbator of climate change has been pimped and promoted by all Republicans and several Democrats in both the House and Senate; and mass shootings have increased in frequency thanks to successful lobbying by the National Rifle Association and the fact that an assault weapons ban, high-capacity magazine bans, and universal background checks aren’t federal realities.

Shame on us for voting in this insanity.

Even Republicans are stunned, and not in a “look at the pretty fireworks” kind of way. Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush and lifelong Republican, captured the sentiment in a single quote:

“…the party, by refusing to recognize reality, is going to end up looking like the ‘stupid party’ that fails to adapt and evolve to changing circumstances in our society…On issues where the physics are moving irre…vocably forward, like immigration, gay rights, and guns, the Republican Party continues to look backward. And backward is a sure path toward irrelevance.”

Because of gerrymandering after the 2010 GOP landslide, ousting this far-right crop of Republicans is harder than ever. For example, Democrats received over one million more votes in congressional elections in the 2012 election than Republicans did. But because gerrymandered congressional districts are an affliction effecting many states, the GOP still holds a *slim* majority and majorities in too many state assemblies and senates.

But there’s another silver lining: thanks to rapidly changing demographics and the insanity of their current positions, Republicans will possibly lose their majority in 2014. Until then progressives (not all Democrats, including President Obama) in Congress must hold true to their convictions of advocating for all Americans, not just the wealthy, and helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The nation that is supposed to be that Shining City on a Hill, that beacon of hope to all the world, the global example for what democracy looks like, has descended into utter chaotic stupidity. Until Americans become more concerned with the state of the country and planet rather than the vapid lives of celebrities and the latest results from reality television shows, this epidemic of stupidity will continue. Until we demand that our leaders govern in reality and in our interests at the ballot box, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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Congress Sucks

Congress sucks. Literally. Progress, governance and any faith Americans put in their legislature has been steadily sucked out and replaced with deep cynicism and distrust…and for good reason.

The use of the filibuster – essentially debating a bill to death – has been used more over the past two years than in all previous Congresses (for those who don’t know, the present Congress is the 113th Congress). Even historically non-controversial bills like infrastructure funding have become bitterly partisan fights. The overall number of bills that have passed is historically low, making the 112th Congress the least productive in American history.

This lack of productivity has also translated into a historically low approval rating; the 112th Congress (2010-2012) had the lowest yearly average of all Congresses, finishing 2012 with a mere 15 percent, according to Gallup. In January of this year – at the start of the 113th Congress – congressional approval was even lower, at 14 percent.

Most of the problem lies in the House of Representatives, where far-right, tea party Republicans have waged war on their very duties to govern since taking office.

Back in 2010, the GOP took control of the House thanks to a poor economy and anti-government fervor fueled by the then-new Tea Party, a faux “grassroots” movement fostered by the billionaire Koch Brothers (“Koch Industries, Inc.”) and conservative media outlets like Fox News.

This brand of conservatism and the Conservative Movement at large see government itself as a problem to be fixed. Safety regulations? That’s repressive to the economy! Returning federal income tax rates to the historically low Clinton tax rates for the wealthy, where taxpayers in the top bracket paid 39.6? It’s a pinko-commie plot to destroy America, or something! Closing tax loopholes that allow large corporations to dodge paying taxes? That will hurt the “job creators!”

This attitude has wreaked havoc on the country. In 2011, America nearly defaulted on its debt after Republicans in the House refused to raise the debt ceiling until the last minute.

This close call shook the economy, which had been steadily improving, and resulted in a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating. The reason for this refusal to budge: Planned Parenthood was receiving federal funding (none of which went toward abortions, by the way).

Congress was barely able to raise the debt ceiling and agree on new tax rates for the wealthy last month. Thanks to pressure from members of their own party, Republicans in the House agreed to raise the debt ceiling…..but only for three months. The Clinton tax rates were restored….but only for those making over $400,000 annually.

The debt ceiling has been raised several dozen times since the 1930s and without controversy. It’s Congress’ way of saying, “We will pay off the debt we have racked up. No problem. On to the next proposed bill.”

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Congress racked up trillions of dollars of debt via large tax cuts and two wars – all unpaid for. When President Obama took office and the far right had a meltdown (“He’s a Kenyan, Marxist, possibly gay, foreign-looking dictator!”) government spending itself became unfathomable and unacceptable.

It should be noted that the private sector is doing well, having added nearly five million new jobs since early 2009. However, the public sector (teachers, police, firefighters, post office workers, etc.) has been devastated. Over 700,000 jobs have been drained from the public sector during the same period of time, a number that could mean the difference between a recovering economy and a healthy economy.

Even the United States Postal Service, set in place as a public good, has suffered from mismanagement and neglect. Later this year, the USPS will end a 150-year-old service and no longer deliver first-class mail on Saturdays. It will rely more on part-time workers rather than full-time employees and it will end overtime pay as a way to cut costs and survive thanks to an unresponsive Congress.

These cuts in public sector jobs are mostly due to an irresponsible Congress that has demanded the cuts above all else. You want to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government running? Cut government jobs and “spending” (public investments) and maybe we’ll talk. The fact that over $200 billion has been cut from the deficit since 2009 means nothing to the House. It isn’t enough for them.

The country cannot function under this extremism and refusal to govern. Americans of many different political persuasions are tired of the stubbornness and grow increasingly annoyed with members of Congress refusing to do their jobs. How can we trust politicians whose view of reality is so warped? Why did we just re-elect many of the same extreme congresspersons back in November?

We’ve been steadily recovering from the Great Recession and the world continues to change daily. We need a legislature that is serious about its responsibilities. We need sensible congressmen and congresswomen who understand the dynamics of compromise and governance. We need November 2014 to be here already.

House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama

House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama

The Ultimate American Ideal

“The independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter but of little importance, had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments. She made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages herself could receive.”

– Thomas Paine

All  are equal…that is the ultimate human ideal.

Liberty Enlightening The World (Lady Liberty’s original, brilliant name). She will be 126 years old on October 28th.

Happy 236th Birthday, America. We may be hypocritical at times and we may get some important things horribly wrong, but by and large, we are the greatest nation on Earth. What we don’t get quite right, we eventually make right. We may not always learn from our mistakes, but we become stronger with every challenge or adversity. We cherish our lives, liberty and pursuit of what ever happiness we want for ourselves. We die to protect our equality.

I love my country and am optimistic about her future, no matter what challenging times we face. Our simple yet powerful constitution, with its promise of freedom and equality for all, our people, national spirit and pride are what make this incredible democratic republic work (which is why it is vitally important that every one who is able to votes). Here’s to another 236 years, and countless more! I hope you all had a great 4th of July. 🙂

Revitalizing California (And The Rest Of The Nation) Via High-Speed Rail

In 2009, President Obama announced a plan to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within the next 25 years with funding from federal, state and industrial sources. To accomplish this plan, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) created the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program (HSIPR) to revitalize and update America’s railways. The program focuses on three key objectives (direct from the FRA’s website):

  1. Building new high-speed rail corridors that expand and fundamentally improve passenger transportation in the geographic regions they serve.
  2. Upgrading existing intercity passenger rail corridors to improve reliability, speed, and frequency of existing services; and
  3. Laying the groundwork for future high-speed rail services through corridor and state planning efforts.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Obama in 2009, gave $8 billion to railway revitalization efforts. Since then, an additional $2.1 billion has been added to HSIPR, making the program’s total funding $10.1 billion.

One of the many projects HSIPR is investing in is the California High-Speed Rail project, an 800-mile-long route through the heart of the largest US state. HSIPR added a $300 million investment to the $9.95 billion funded by Proposition 1A, passed by CA voters in 2008. It will be the nation’s first 220-mph high-speed rail system and allow commuters and tourists to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours (it currently takes around eight hours via one reeeally long drive). Passengers will be able to travel the amazing system beginning in 2020 and once it’s completed, it will be possible to travel from Sacramento to San Diego by train.

Is high-speed rail expensive? Definitely. To revitalize and upgrade the nation’s railroads, billions of dollars are needed. Current estimates for the California High-Speed Rail project put the cost at around $100 billion. Despite the high cost, high-speed rail investment is most definitely worth it. In the short-term, projects like the one in California put 600,000 people to work constructing the rail line itself. In the long-term, commuting times between cities hundreds of miles apart are shortened (by hours), almost half a million people have jobs working for the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), existing routes are updated and improved, travel across the state – whether for business or pleasure – is clean and efficient, and goods and services can move quickly across great distances. Oh, and the fact that we’re in a bad economy is all the more reason to invest in improving the channels through which our economy operates.

Several nations around the globe have invested in high-speed rail and the results have been positive. Economies are stronger and the world is a little smaller and cleaner. California and the rest of the United States are going in the right direction by revitalizing their national railroad systems, laying the groundwork for a prosperous century.

*As a California resident, I think it’s amazing that my state is once again leading the way in innovation. I cannot wait to travel across the state in such a state-of-the-art, fast train. 🙂

The Big Picture: The CA High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2009 Business Plan

California High-Speed Rail: A Visual Tour

American High-Speed Rail System Plan

Historical Perspective on Income Taxes

Through all the debate and screaming on income tax-rates, I think it is important for us to have some perspective…

Below is a chart showing the income tax-rates for both the lowest and highest brackets since the income tax was implemented in 1913.

Income Tax-Rate History in the United States

 

Politics Before National Security

Senator Jon Kyl should be ashamed of himself.

Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, negotiated a nuclear nonproliferation treaty known as “Trust But Verify.” This treaty called for both nations to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads they had. It also allowed both superpowers to “verify” that warheads were, in fact, being reduced through inspections. Not only did this help avoid a nuclear holocaust but it also drastically reduced the amount of nuclear weapons in the world.

Unfortunately, inspections are no longer taking place (the treaty expired on December 5, 2009). Now, the United States has no way of knowing whether or not Russia is providing terrorists with nuclear arms.

Last year, before the treaty expired, Republicans and Democrats alike were very concerned. Senator Kyl had this to say last November (2009)

The U.S. will lose a significant source of information that has allowed it to have confidence in its ability to understand Russian strategic nuclear forces.

Another treaty was made and nearly signed earlier this year…until it was slapped down in the Senate by Republicans. Really.

This is one of the reasons why partisans and wing-nuts don’t belong in Washington. They get obsessed with doing the opposite of whatever their perceived mortal enemy does so they can be re-elected. They are willing to put our nation’s security on the line for their jobs.

If President Obama likes PB&J sandwiches and The Beatles, Senator Kyl and those like him cannot stand PB&J and The Beatles. If the President kisses a baby, they refuse to kiss babies. If the President is close to reviving a nuclear nonproliferation treaty for the sake of global and national security, Senator Kyl and his friends team up to jeopardize it. Disgraceful.

 

Blacklist: 2010 Edition

I’m so sick of hearing about the “controversy” surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

For the record, it’s not only a mosque – which has been there for over a year in an abandoned retail space – but a community center that is not even on the Ground Zero site itself but rather blocks away. “Park 51” or “The Cordoba House” is the proposed name for the facility by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Of course, all sorts of people have come out of the woodwork to protest the project. Halting construction of all mosques in the US and carrying offensive signs has become all the rage with these xenophobic fringe groups.

Pat Robertson has declared that all Muslims intend to take over the nation and there’s even a fundamentalist pastor in Gainesville, Florida who is planning an annual “Burn a Koran Day” on the ninth anniversary of the attacks.

Playing on prejudice and extremely negative stereotypes, men like Robertson and the Gainesville pastor are helping create a toxic atmosphere where equality and reason are not present.

This kind of bigotry and intolerance represent a common theme that has remained throughout American history: scapegoating an entire group of people when times are turbulent.

Jews, Catholics, Blacks, communists, socialists and gays are just a few of the more notable groups to be stigmatized and bullied in American history. Now, Muslims have joined the blacklist.

The United States is the best country on the planet. We should all take pride in the fact that our democratic republic is the longest-surviving in history. With over 300 million citizens, we’re a melting pot of tradition, art, religion and language. We’ve sent men to the moon and cured diseases that once devastated countless lives.

We don’t always agree with each other and that’s one of the most beautiful things about this country: We’re free to disagree and protest amongst ourselves and our government.

However, when irrationality and bigotry cloud one’s judgement, the end result is ugly. Instead of peaceably having an enlightened discussion, some resort to name-calling and prejudice and while we do have the freedom to protest this way, it doesn’t change the fact that behaving in such a manner is an embarrassment to the nation.

While many are using fear and an “us vs. them” argument, my hope is that those who have remained silent during this controversy will speak up. Together, let’s drown out the ignorance.