Hucking the Fiscal Cliff

I guess it is time for my blog to address the economy and the looming fiscal cliff. So far, most of my posts have documented my dissatisfaction over why the economy has been the only focus of political discussion and public interest. But, with another deep recession looming, it is time for Congress and the government in general to get to work and solve this crisis. I think one of the reasons I am hesitant to write this blog is that I just don’t know where to start as there are so many factors and issues at hand. Some of my readers are probably very up to speed on the issue, some are not and still others are people from other parts of the world. Even though the numbers are small, I really like that there are people that I have never met actually reading this on the other side of the globe. Or at least a few are visiting my site and returning. So writing a readable blog to that audience on this subject has admittedly been a challenge that has been on the unfinished blog plate for a while now.

Since this is an opinion blog, I guess I will start with a very quick synopsis of the issue as I understand it. We have a “fiscal cliff”. In other words, there is a law that says that if we don’t come to an agreement on some budgets and deficit items by the end of the calendar year, then automatic across the board cuts will automatically go into place based on this previously signed law.  All analysts agree that unless an agreement is reached, the automatic cuts and tax increases will likely send our economy back into another deep recession. Seems like a good idea and an easy way to ensure that congress will have no choice but to compromise. After all, there is no way that Congress would allow the nation to intentionally fall into another deep recession based solely on political ideology would they? Oh crap, I again forgot about the Tea Party. They have done it once, what would stop them from doing ti again?

So both sides say they are willing to compromise, but for some reason we have a stalemate. The stalemate that looms is over two issues. The Democrats do not want the burden of the debt to be settled on the backs of the less fortunate of society in the forms of cuts to Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid or otherwise known as “entitlements”. The Republicans want the cuts to come from raising the retirement age for eligibility and from privatization of those “entitlements” which would favor the wealthy. Once again, these types of “reform” have zero impact on the upper class but huge impact on the lower and middle class.

Tragically, meaningful defense spending cuts are not on the table for either party as apparently the war machine is an upper middle class jobs program that neither party is willing to touch.

Yes, something has to be done to address the crisis in health-care costs, but is this the only solution to take it out of the hide of the less fortunate, poor sick, elderly, and children? The Republicans on the other hand are not willing to compromise on raising revenue in the form of additional tax to the wealthiest among us. As a way to raise revenue, Obama and the Democrats proposed a compromise that consisted of allowing the Bush Tax Cuts to expire, but just for the wealthy, or those making over $250,000/year. The tax rates for these people would go back to the modestly higher levels that they were during the Clinton Administration.  The lower and middle class people that unarguably have been hit harder in the recent economic downturn would still retain the lower rates associated with the current plan.

First, let’s discuss the Republican line in the sand which is tax rates for the wealthy. First of all, why exactly are so many Republicans willing to lay it all on the line for a bunch of rich guys? Sure they may lose the vote of the people making over $250,000/year, but how many votes are we talking about there – not many. Sure the rich minority does have all the money, but they do not have all the votes. What is Trump going to do then? Vote for Obama or a Democrat? Not likely. What do they have to gain? Or lose? If they give in to Obama and allow the tax rates to go back to where they were, do they really believe that the economy would simply collapse under the burden of a few percentage points for this group?

I am sorry but I actually graduated from college in 1998 when businesses were subject to the crippling Clinton tax rate and I attended a few job fairs in that time as well. Luckily for me, Best Buy was not the only company recruiting Electrical Engineers like they are at those same job fairs today. I am just not sure I buy the argument that this is all about protecting small business and ensuring job and employment growth. The numbers don’t add up and neither does the rhetoric. Nope, for the Republicans, once again, this issue is about ideology and big, big corporate money. The problem is that there are just not enough rich people to provide voting numbers to ensure that this agenda for the wealthy gets through. That is where Grover comes to the rescue.

Grover Norquist is a name that some people know and one that some people probably don’t.  Whether you know the name or not, his impact on the course of the world is undeniable. You see back in the “read my lips, no new tax” days, it was a very popular thing for Republicans to declare during a campaign that they promise or swear that, under no circumstances, will they vote to raise taxes in any way. Grover and his political cronies jumped on this movement and created a generic no tax pledge.  A lot of big money then poured into a strategy to make sure that only Republicans that sign this pledge could get elected. In other words, they go around with this pledge and basically get right in your face and say if you don’t sign this then we will go after you with all of our power and money and make sure you don’t get elected. If you break it, we will see to it that you never get re-elected as you will be shunned by the party. This is exactly what happened to the first George Bush when he broke his “read my lips” pledge. So in spite of the fact that both Reagan and Clinton successfully used tax increases to assist in deficit reduction and recession mitigation, pretty much every GOP congressman in the last two decades since has taken and held this pledge. We are currently living with the repercussion of this peer bullying.

This reminds me of similar pledges that were thrust upon me in high school asking me to sign all sorts of pledges. Under heavy pressure, I signed a pledge of devotion to Christ, chastity until marriage, and to not try alcohol or drugs. After all, if I didn’t sign it, I just made a public admission to my friends and family that I am aligned with Satan; I plan to have premarital sex and plan to use drugs and alcohol. Wasn’t high school great?

Well, this bully strategy is exactly the strategy Grover Norquist and his supporters have been using for twenty years. Exactly like those pledges in high school, they may work for a while, but make no mistake, eventually you are going to have unplanned babies coming out of your ears and no strategy to pay for them as the drunk Prom King breaks all three of those pledges in approximately 23 seconds of earthly debotury.

I also really, really love the pledge that is the center of this controversy. Here is the actual document that every single top Republican was bullied into signing and adhering to with no possible exception.

If you are reading this and thinking that it looks like it was written for a person with a 5th grade education, well, you are actually correct. This is presented to people across the country and especially those with lower education levels and lower levels of understanding of it actual ramification. The Tea Party crowd for instance can really get behind a candidate that “ain’t going raise taxes no more”. Unfortunately, if a student created this pledge and turned it in as their solution to an assignment on “how to fix the economy”, an eighth grade civics teacher will probably justifiably laugh and give an F.

So, for example, under this pledge, what happens if an elected Republican official is faced with a need to send troops into war for an entire decade? How can they do that and still cut taxes and uphold their pledge? Or what about a bill to fund the ever increasing number of troops now coming home from years of war and in need of employment and ongoing financial and health assistance. Well currently, these Republicans have two choices. Vote for the new tax to pay for the war and properly support those they send to fight it, or vote to keep their own job and screw veterans and the entire World economy in favor of elitist ideology.  So far, it seems the decision has been pretty easy for most Republicans in Congress and their presidential candidates.

To be fair, the Republicans are willing to compromise on the new tax. What you are going to hear on TV and the Sunday talking heads is that they are willing to agree to the same level of revenue increase but not in the form of an across the line tax rate that would cause them to break that brilliant pledge they all signed. They want to do it in the form of elimination of tax loopholes. I am in favor of elimination of loopholes as part of the revenue plan, but it has to be combined with a minimum tax rate. Let’s further examine why, from a critical thinking standpoint.

Warren Buffett, the only non-greedy Billionaire in the entire world has proposed a brilliant and simple solution in a recent NY Times Column that includes a minimum tax rate for the wealthy that ensures millionaires and billionaires do not find ways to scam the system by paying little or no tax the way they currently do. Unfortunately, it will never work and here is why. First of all, there is too much money and greed behind that pledge. Second, the reason the GOP is so insistent that the cuts be from loopholes is once again so that they can be in control of just who gets hit and how hard.  In other words, the loopholes that keep Exon Mobile paying close to zero tax are likely firm, but the one that fund Planned Parenthood, NPR, and PBS can be easily chopped as the pending filibuster count grows exponentially along with the advancement of a very certain and obviously biased social agenda. Meanwhile, the economic gap continues to grow exponentially as well. The Democrats and Warren Buffett are right on this one. Generic elimination of undefined loopholes is not enough. The statistics in Buffett’s column that show the recent rise of the wealthy is simply sickening when you consider where most of the country has gone over the same period.

Enough is enough! The wealthy should not be sitting on a golden pedestal and it is up to individual citizens to dictate political policy not Grover Norquist and his corporate backers.

Let’s move on to the entitlements which are the Republicans sticking points. Democrats have taken Social Security off the table and justifiably as it really has had no impact on the current deficit problems and cutting it to save them is not good policy and certainly not the will of the majority of the electorate that put them into office. The ridiculous rise in healthcare cost does have to be addressed as the Medicare/Medicaid system cannot continue to fund it at the current rate of expansion. Once again the solution is promoting and increasing funding for wellness programs to cut into the high and growing cost associated with illness care, but once again, the only solution acceptable to the GOP is cutting funding and basic protection for those that are most vulnerable. It is simply mind-boggling.

Like in the tax issue, the compromise also has to be fair to the working class. People are living longer and the entitlement period is extended and the expense of the healthcare is growing as well. It makes sense that we have to increase revenue into the program and raising the retirement age sure seems like the easy an obvious choice. As someone that will likely be dealing with these new age mandates, excuse me if I do have a few concerns with this typical ideology and talking point. One concern is that a person’s retirement age is not always their choice in today’s working environment. The current private employment structure leaves little job security, pension plans, or the right to collectively bargain. So simply choosing to work until you are 70 or 75 is not exactly going to work for a great number of people and especially those in the working and middle class. You can work giving your heart and soul to a corporation for 30 years and you may still find yourself out on your ass the first time that company needs to trim the bottom line by cutting the high salaried and slowing down old guys with limited skills with lighting fast new technology. I am really looking forward to finding a completely new career and healthcare plan at age 65, that should be fun!

I also just love the fact that the majority of the white baby boomers that are the ones demanding these entitlement reforms, also always include the caveat that these changes will not affect their generation. Thanks guys. You are the best!

Ultimately, I do believe that most of the fiscal cliff stuff is posturing and I believe some sort of agreement on spending cuts combined with increased revenue will be made or the issue will again be postponed. I don’t actually anticipate a fall off the fiscal cliff. Regardless, it is about time that Democrats, Republicans, and high school students band together and take a solid stand against bullying and these childish lifetime pledges like the one Grover and his cronies have been shoving down our throats all these years.

Congress, rip it up and make a pledge to yourself to use your own brain to do your own critical thinking! That is really the only true solution.

 

It’s the End of America as We Know it…And I Feel Fine!

A day after the election, the doomsday nuts are out in full force, more than I would have even guessed. On Facebook today here are just a few of my personal favorites:

  1. “America will never be the same. We are so screwed”
  2. “I’m convinced that America as we’ve know her died tonight”
  3. “America is officially dead and will never be strong again.”
  4. “America died last night. And my grandchildren will never know how great we once were.”
  5. “Guess I better plan on going back to being an “employee” of someone rather than running my own business. Depressing!!”

The first four were cracking me up, but I think #5 is the most telling. Sure he was kidding but still, in response to about how business is today, the answer in another post was “Our business is fine and going strong.” As an entrepreneur that also has a business that has been “fine” and “going strong” under Obama’s first term, I think this perfectly highlights the unbelievable high level that the rhetoric has reached. Given the sheer numbers actually out of work and suffering in the recession, I simply cannot imagine being so crass. I think the biggest irony is that every one of those came from self-proclaimed Christians. What would Jesus think? I think he might tell them they are being a little self-absorbed and then leave to help the poor and to spread the message of love and compassion.

As usual, and I guess not surprising, is that Obama-care and welfare in general is still the resounding rallying cry of the right. I am always surprised that this bill has generated this amount of focus and public attention. Yes, you can debate the relative worth, but when you hear the rhetoric about how it will bankrupt the country, and end life as we know it, you have to scratch your head because the numbers simply do not add up. That is usually when I flip on Fox News and realize, oh, I forgot about them.

As a self-employed entrepreneur, I have been purchasing my own health insurance on the open market for the last 10 years or more.  The amount that I have paid monthly into the system over that time is tremendous. I went to the doctor one time a few years ago to have a boil lanced but I did not come close to exceeding my deductible for that year. I did get some form of health care from a guy that helped me devise an exercise program to help me with the genetic lower back disorder I inherited. None of that was covered by my insurance and I paid it all out of pocket. The surgery that I am working hard to try not have in the future will be covered 100% and I am sure they could happily be slicing and dicing me in under a week, no questions asked. I guess I should be happy that I am protected by the greatest health-care system in the World. My back is a little nervous about that though.

I also pay for a yearly blood test out of pocket and I am in perfect health, except for my back. I am meticulous about exercise, diet and wellness and my wife and I have both taken advantages of alternative care and wellness services so that we can stay as healthy as we can, as long as we can. Again, all out of pocket and not covered by insurance.

So, what I would like, is for someone to explain to me why exactly I should be outraged about Obama-care? When you consider just how much money I have forked out for health-care in the past ten years for medical care I did not receive, why exactly should I be more outraged about having to pay for a surgery to save the life of a poor lady that got hit by a car, than I am about having to pay for a surgery to make it physically impossible for a wealthy fat lady to eat five Whoppers? And when you consider that I already am paying for the care of the uninsured poor lady on the back end with my ever increasing insurance dollars, and that the lady, that was already too poor to buy insurance, is now going through an expensive public bankruptcy process, the outrage becomes even more of a critical thinking mystery. Unless I guess, you are hoping the uninsured just don’t bother going to the hospital to save themselves. In that case you are correct, the current system probably does save a few dollars. I guess that is better than socialism?

In a world where most people get their health insurance through their employer as a benefit, I think it is difficult for them to understand how much they each already are paying for socialized health-care for, pretty much every single citizen less the few that Obama-care picks up in an effort to curb the cost we already pay for the uninsured. If people had insurance expenses taken out of their paycheck like I do instead of off the top as a company “benefit”, I think the obvious path toward a public option would face little opposition.

Only in a public option framework can we then move toward a more reasonable and productive system where health-care providers are not compensated by the number of procedures or drugs they sell, but instead by the number of procedures or drugs they help their patients avoid. They wouldn’t be penalized for treating ill patients but there would be an incentive for patient wellness where there simply is not in the current system. And if as a patient in a public system, I have an option to meet wellness goals to lower my tax that might work well for me too. In fact, the incentive is actually the opposite for for-profit health-care providers. With a little new motivation, I have a strong feeling that quite a few health-care providers will start finding surprising new ways to motivate their patients, and quite a few of those “last resort” bariatric surgeries might not be needed; and neither will a good number of the dollars I currently spend paying for them. In a for-profit entrepreneurial reality, those bariatric surgeries are an absolute gold mine. That is just one example. Please feel free to do your own critical thinking on other scenarios.

Is this line of reasoning that difficult to accept on a critical thinking level? What exactly am I missing? And sorry, your answer cannot be “Obama-care is Socialism” or “Obama-care is killing America”, although I do realize that limits your options.

An Election Day Walk

On Election Day 2012, I started my day, as I do most, with a cup of black coffee and a little morning news. But this morning, I also had another task of filling out my election ballot. You see, in Colorado, we have this crazy thing called mail in balloting. Many years ago, I went online and changed my voter registration preference to “always mail”, and ever since, my ballot arrives in the mail, and I can either mail it back or drop it off at my convenience and after I have a chance to research all that I am voting for. No cumbersome absentee process, voting booths or hanging chad. It is very simple and it makes me wonder why morning news headlines are still detailing voting issues across the country. How stupid? I am pretty familiar with most of the ballot issues and candidates so the process is more of a formality for me than a big new deliberation. There was a time in life when I took this less seriously and when I tended to read ballot issues for the first time standing behind a curtain, late for work.

As I opened the ballot I was at first struck by the fact that the entire ballot was printed in both English and Spanish. Although it may have been the case, I don’t recall this before, and I thought for a minute about just how angry this will make some people in my state. I then replaced that with a thought about how good it feels to instead be happy for the fact that a larger number of citizens will be able to intelligently exercise their right to vote this year. I also thought about how not long ago, I was not even aware that I had a choice about how I feel, and that my reaction can actually be a conscious decision, and not a selfish, thoughtless reflex.

I actually had an easier time voting for Obama this year than I did four years ago. No, I am not satisfied with the state of our country’s economy or government and I am definitely not pleased with the Democratic Party. But unlike most of the US that seems to just knee jerk, and always kick the current guys out when things are tough, I actually watched the last four years very closely. I watched the actions and the rhetoric of the President, and I also closely watched the actions and rhetoric of the Republicans in congress as well as those working on that GOP machine. I watched a concerted effort of large scale, and considerable money to undermine any, and every, effort the President made to govern. It reminds me a lot of the end of Clinton’s first term. I, and all my conservative friends and family, were just outraged and astounded that Bill Clinton and his radical socialist agenda could possibly be re-elected. Exact the same message you can hear about Obama within 5 minutes of flipping on Fox News today. All the while, we were bathing in the glory of a remarkably good economy, relative world peace, and an unprecedented balanced budget in government that was a marked change from the Republican he replaced. Oh the humanity. Clinton was the worse president in history. At least that is what I always heard on the radio and TV at the end of Clinton’s first term. Sounds familiar doesn’t it.

To be fair, left wingers did exactly the same. They warned of incompetence, cronyism, and complete disastrous repercussions if we elected Bush. Two illegal wars based on false pretense, unthinkable death, destruction and murder, mystery weapons of mass destruction, unjustifiable tax cuts to the wealthy, constitutional bans on gay marriage, no child left untested, 911, government sponsored torcher, botched Katrina, housing market collapse, worldwide financial system meltdown, bank bailouts, unemployment and job losses going to record levels, deep recession. Good times and memories! That was a hell of an 8 years for the GOP. Especially considering where they started. Oh, but I forgot, Clinton and Obama are radical socialists.

In addition to the President, I marked the ballot for state officials, congressman and judges.  I also voted on issues to fund our public school system to add back previous unavoidable cuts in the arts. Even though I do not have children, I voted in favor of additional taxation upon myself for education spending even for expendable pursuits such as the arts. Not because I think that public schools are doing a great job, and that they should be rewarded, and not because I think my taxes are too low. I do it because I am more than aware that the public school system needs more resources; not a redirection of resources away, toward private schools that favor the wealthy. I am also very aware of how the long term benefits of public educational spending outweigh the short term penny pinching excuses for why education spending today is somehow excessive.

Like a few other states, I also voted on a Marijuana legalization measure. In my state, like many others, we already have legalized medical marijuana, but this amendment seeks to further legalize and regulate the sale similar to laws in place regulating alcohol sales. This amendment also sends the first 40 million of tax revenue directly to our public schools. I also support this measure as well as almost any grass roots effort to challenge the archaic Federal laws that affect an individual’s civil liberties and that perpetuate the failed drug war. Outdated drug laws also mire our penal system and needlessly ruin countless lives in an endless cycle of unthinkably expensive insanity that also severely jeopardizes the security of our nation’s borders. The opposition said that medical Marijuana legalization would bring crime and chaos to the city streets of Denver. We now have medical dispensaries more common than Starbucks and the threats and fear campaign against, just did not turn out to be true in the least. This is one of the few votes I cast, that actually felt very nice and easy. Not an ounce of second thought.

As the sun warmed the day, with my ballot in hand, I decided, as I did on Election Day 2008, to walk the mile or so to my nearest ballot drop off location on another mild fall day in Denver. As I did four years ago, I walked alone. No wife or dogs and not a word said. I also made a specific commitment to stay in the present during my trip. No background thoughts about the work email, or phone call I might be missing. No bitter feelings toward any ridiculous Facebook propaganda a friend recently forwarded and no excessive dwelling on the past or future for more than a second before moving on. I walk my dogs nearly an hour every day so the neighborhood, sights and sounds are not exactly new, but as it did four years ago; my neighborhood appeared quite different to me on this day.

I passed by my local elementary school and I considered all of the teachers and students that pass through those halls and the immensely important and often insurmountable challenges that they face every day. I thought about the fact that almost every parent I know, with money in my neighborhood, drives their kid to a private school farther away. I thought about how much better this school would be if that were not the case and if instead, those parents were active in making their public school better. Those, like my wife and my mother, that dedicate their career to making a difference for children that have absolutely no connection to them, are the true hero’s in our society. They are the ones that must be the priority of our government. Educators are the true job creators and where our economic stimulus dollars should be focused. The attacks from the right against teachers, unions, and public education have been hard for my wife and me to stomach. I moved on and thought about my wife, my mom, and my own elementary school experience.

I walked near the ever expanding hospital complex and watched as huge cranes erect ongoing large scale expansion near my home. I marvel at a private corporate capitalistic business that, unlike most in this country, is booming and expanding at a furious pace. The expansion has also brought these great new “parks” adjacent to the hospitals. They are large grassy areas complete with benches, and doggy cleanup stations. Only these are not public parks, they are owned by the private hospital, and part of the agreements they have with the city as part of the expansion plan. Unlike the public funded parks nearby that are underfunded, uncared for, and infested with stickers and weeds that stick in my dogs foot, these parks are lush, green, and in perfect condition. The hospitals have a lot more money than the government in my city. I guess that should be argument for private healthcare, but as much as I like these hospital parks, I am not so sure I like what it actually represents. At least my dog can crap without standing in a patch of thistle. I guess this is the way of the future where private companies do what the government use to do. It is hard to ignore the potential down side of this type of arrangement.

This leads me to think a second about the increasingly poor health statistics that unfortunately fuel this unprecedented economic growth in the medical, hospital industry. I also think for a moment about those lying in bed on the other side of those walls. As if catastrophic health problems are not enough, it is hard not to think about just how many are also dealing with the reality that their health problems, and lack of insurance, could very well, financially cripple them and their family, irreversibly, for the rest of their lives. That is, if they survive, or even bother to go to the hospital in time. I can only imagine. How can they erect new buildings research centers and parking garages if they keep treating the uninsured for free? Not my problem or responsibility right? Those people should have chosen to buy health insurance for $500 a month like I do. What is that matter with poor people anyway?

I also wonder just how many patients suffering from pain and nausea are being drugged and are starving to death, in a complete stupor, with such extremely addictive and powerful drugs as opiates and morphine while others, just blocks away, are in an all-out war trying to ensure that the same patients do not have access to a natural, harmless, plant-based, home remedy that could absolutely provide meaningful relief, with far fewer harmful chemical side effects, and at a fraction of the cost. But then again, how can they erect new buildings research centers and parking garages if people could simply grow their own medicne in their back yard. I moved on, both physically and with my thoughts.

I walked a bit further and paused while a watched group of men tearing a whole in the street in an ongoing effort to replace all of the aging gas lines from the road to thousands of houses in the city of Denver. I recognized the same guys working as the ones that were doing the work at my house a couple of months ago. Steady job it seems. Seeing how far they had gotten, for a moment, I had a sheer understanding of the enormous complexity and unbelievable and impressive capacity of our public works and infrastructure system. I thought about how all the neighbors have been complaining about the inconvenience of parking, and dirt, and road closures. And about having to pay tax. I thought about all of the anti-government propaganda from all of my Facebook friends about how government is the problem and that we have to eliminate it or privatize the function. Then, for a moment, I considered the alternative, and I felt bad for just how much we take for granted during our everyday lives as US citizens. Yes, we pay too much tax and yes, our government is often dysfunctional with spending, but do we ever appreciate what it does provide ,or do we even have a concept of how often it does not fail, even on some fairly complicated endeavors? What would life be like without government in a system where everyone pays their own way? How many miles of aging gas lines were replaced this summer in Denver with only mild disruption to the hundreds of thousands that live here? I moved on, although slightly out of my path to avoid the damn construction.

My redirection passed me by my neighborhoods’ “Senior Support Center”. The typical long line out front is usually an image that us city dwellers have become immune to, but today, I spent an extra second looking at the wrinkled faces standing in that line, waiting for a handout. I thought about who they were, how they got there, and what life for them must be like as they age and as their health begins, or continues to fail. Obviously these are part of the 47% that are not the concern of Romney and his camp. Mooching off the tax payer and living the good life of free food and medicine. No one can convince them to “take responsibility for their own lives”. Funny, but the looks on the faces in that line sure didn’t reflect any great option I could see.  I thought about how thankful that I was that my parents and grandparents are not the ones standing on line outside, in November, at a senior support center to get food, clothes, or medicine. I pictured what life would be like if they were. I thought about for how many, this is the reality. I shivered as I humbly moved on.

I passed a couple of Mexican guys working on a car. I always find it funny that no matter how big and tough or tattooed or serious some of these guys look; they almost always are playing this very loud carnival like Mariachi music. I smiled and said hello as I passed and again smiled as the thumping base of another passing car playing gansta’ rap caused my heart to stop beating momentarily. The black driver was wearing a hoodie. I shook off the effects of the bass. I watched as another guy rode by on an undersized bike, holding a baby under his arm like a football.  I am sure such a scene makes some people cringe. It makes me feel at home, as does the broken bottle of King Kobra Malt liquor that I ignored and stepped over as I moved on.

As I walked, I glanced down an alley and made very momentary eye contact with another gentleman slowly pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans and scrap metal. I recognized him like I do many of the transients around the neighborhood. We have names for them like “Blue Sweatshirt” and “Shifty Eyes”. I feel guilty as I contemplate how not human they are to me on most days. Shifty Eyes looked more human to me today, as I moved on.

I passed a soul food restaurant that was packed full of white businessmen scarfing down pork bar-b-q and collard greens. I passed my fire station and I thought momentarily about the terrible tragedy on the east coast and the heroes that make a difference for so many.  I thought about how often I see that fire station but how little it actually affects my life. Usually only when all the fire house guys are at the grocery store stocking up on corn chips and animatedly yuckin’ it up with the staff and store patrons. Watching the news reminds me of how my relationship to those guys could change in an instant, as can my life and health. I moved on towards my destination.

I watched a young lady sprinting full speed about two blocks trying to catch the light rail train that slowly pulled away as she pounded the side of the closing door, cursing breathlessly. I considered how crucial public transportation is to some, and what a nice clean feature a light rail system is for those in urban settings. I also thought about how crazily desperate that lady seemed to be about getting on that train. I checked around to make sure she wasn’t being chased, and when I didn’t see anything, I complimented her on her speed and agility. She smiled and slumped down onto a bench dejected, and I presume late. I thought about the fact that my wife and I should use public transportation more often than we do. I thought about my SUV parked at home and my wife’s car parked, like it is most days, unused at the airport parking lot while she is away for work. I thought about how lucky we are, as I moved on.

I noticed the rack of red city bikes on the corner. We have this great city wide program where all you have to do is swipe a credit card and you can check out a pretty nice bicycle for a reasonable daily or hourly rate. The first hour is always free and you can return it at any station around town. Pretty cool way to get around the city, although it is somewhat controversial because only people with money and credit have access to the bike program. In other words, guys like me with two cars are the ones that end up using them to ride to a baseball game for $8, cheaper than parking, but for the people that really could use them in their daily lives, those red bikes might as well be Mercedes Benz’s.

Next, I passed a medical Marijuana dispensary with a big green cross and bright red “Open” sign. A guy walked out with a brown paper bag full of schedule one illegal narcotics and committed a felony under Federal Law. He got in his car and drove away. He was a middle aged white guy with a golf shirt tucked into jeans. A peaceful transaction in broad daylight and in plain sight of a policeman in his car parked only blocks away. State taxes were collected on the sale and state and federal taxes were paid on the generated income from a plant grown organically, and then sold and consumed locally. All against the law of our Federal government. And best of all, unlike the weed most people buy and smoke in this country, no Cops in Mexico got their head chopped off in order to make this transaction possible.  I wondered if the full legalization amendment on the ballot will pass and what that might lead to if it does. I moved on.

Finally I arrived at my destination, the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, where, like four years ago, I cast my vote for the first African American President in our country’s history. I took a moment to contemplate this as well as how far we have come in race relations in many parts of this country, and how far we still have to go in others. I also contemplated the brilliant and important role public libraries have played in the advancement of our society and the education of its citizens. I wondered if this library was a place for African Americans to do research, or if it was a place for everyone to research African Americans. Based on what I have seen, it is a little of both.  I thought about my mom who is a librarian in a public elementary school, and I felt proud.

As I dropped my ballot in the box, I also considered how truly lucky I am to live in a neighborhood where black and white, Hispanic and Asian, young and old and even rich and poor live together in relative harmony. There are no large gates separating the million dollar homes from the subsidized housing, and likewise there is very little animosity or conflict between races or classes. I have spent enough time in other parts of the country to appreciate how unique this is. Traveling outside of the city limits of Denver by even a mile seems to cause this formula of harmony to break down very quickly. So many of our country’s political, international and even economic problems could be solved if people just let go of their fear and judgment of those that are different or unknown to them. I am confident my vote is a vote forward for our country toward the type of racial and class harmony we enjoy in the city of Denver and away from division, segregation, and the fear based hate that I see so commonly in other regions.

As I complete the process for yet another election, as usual, I am more confident that I made the right vote than I am that either candidate will have success moving the country forward in a meaningful manor. With the help of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court, the corporate money and influence will not dry up, and neither will the associated all-out efforts of one Party to undermine the other. With insane no tax pledges, and under new well timed Filibuster rules in Congress I don’t see much getting done.  Clearly, compromise in Congress has been relegated to political history and my primary voting concern is that we don’t launch any new wars.

I also realize that community involvement in politics does not start and stop on Election Day. I like too many others have spent much of my life on the sideline in political debate, crippled with fear about who I might offend and simply going along with the crowd, and popular propaganda. I intend to continue my change, away from silence and fear and onward and forward, regardless of whom is elected or whom I offend. I hope others do the same, as make no mistake, if we stay silent in political discourse our silence and subsequent thoughts will be replaced by the hypnotic message of corporate influence and big money propaganda. As difficult as the political discussion and discourse can be, the alternative is government, not by the people with the most reasonable argument, but instead, by the corporation with the most money to back up its agenda. It is not just our vote that can make a difference, but also our intellectual curiosity followed by brave voices that will bring about the change we all desperately desire.

Election 2012 is over. I moved on, and so did the world around me.

The Times (And Minds) They are A-Changin’

A Facebook friend of mine suggested that I expand upon why my political views have changed over the years so I have decided to take her up on her suggestion. My former blog explained how I thought 12 years ago compared to how I think today as it relates to what political candidate for president I support. I guess for this blog, I am going to do my best to explain the yada, yada in between that led to the change.

First of all, I have never been associated or registered with either political party and my vow has always been to vote based on my own beliefs and values and not a Party line. In that regard, I guess I haven’t really changed at all. Secondly, in addition to my shift of views, I think it is also fair to point out the shift in the Republican Party in recent years. The emergence of the Tea Party has completely overhauled the landscape of this group including its core values and fundamental agenda. Being a science minded educated person almost creates a conflict automatically. It is nearly impossible to support a Republican candidate in this country unless you have some VERY extreme views about climate change, taxation, labor rights, education funding, women’s rights, humanitarian issues, immigration issues, and especially Christianity’s place in government. The fact that an entire political party is so closely aligned with a very fundamentalist sect of Christian beliefs should be a concern to more moderate voters than it seems to be. Way, way too much actual political policy and law is currently being advanced based strictly on a very narrow, literal, and often logic-less interpretation of Judeo-Christian Biblical scripture. Everything from the climate of the planet to the basic rights of citizens to the use of military force is being dictated by a set of unchangeable beliefs that this group believes they were given at birth. All you have to say is “I believe the word of God”, and that can be the end of your justification if you’re a Republican congressman or state elected official in a great number of regions in this country. And for whatever reason, the moderates in the Party refuse to challenge them. I simply do not recall this fundamentalist Christian agenda being anywhere near as prevalent or as closely and actively associated with just one of the two political parties. I know of so many people that do not have these types of extreme religious views (including many Christians) but they somehow still justify their support of this type of governing and the Republican Party. When I step into a voting booth, I simply refuse to cast a vote for a bigot or someone who openly rejects proven scientific fact based on their unchallengeable, fixed belief system.

Ok, so I have touched on the shift in the Republican Party so now I will try to go into how and why my thinking has also changed over the last 10 or 12 years. It did strike me that my friend that also knew me in high school was so surprised to hear about my change of views. I wonder, have I really changed that much? Doesn’t everybody change their views as they learn and experience new things in life? I guess it would seem to me that having different political views than you did when you were a child would be more common than it probably is in reality. Maybe the fact that the last political discussion that I had with her was a school mock election in 1992, might also explain why my change of thinking seems more dramatic than it probably actually was.

Much of the change can probably be attributed to a subject that I have touched on in the past. This is the unbelievably powerful influence of the people around you and that you interact with on a day to day basis. When you grow up in an all-white, Christian-conservative, suburban, middle class neighborhood you tend to adopt the views of those you know. When you move from the suburbs and live in a neighborhood that has a large variety of ethnicities, income levels, and religious views, your perspective naturally become wider and more varied as a result. It is human nature. I spent my youth in middle class suburbs and I have spent the majority of my adult life living in more diverse larger cities. Had I stayed in my home town or made a parallel move, there is a good chance you would not be reading this. I don’t want to suggest that you can’t be socially open-minded to other people if you live in a small all-white town. I also lived in Aspen, Colorado for a time, but as liberal as that place is, it is not exactly what you would call a melting pot and acceptance of diversity is not a community wide priority. I am also sure that there are plenty of people that live their entire life in white suburbs, but manage to stay open minded. Clearly far too many do not. As much as I love my secluded mountain cabin, and my small hometown and family, I have found that I feel more truly at home amongst the complete diversity found in slightly larger metropolitan areas. I absolutely never would have guessed this to be the case when I was younger.  It feels strange now to be only around people that share my ethnicity, and likewise, it would feel very strange to vote for a candidate that has ONLY supporters from one ethnicity. Obama and Clinton have both recently campaigned right in the diverse Denver neighborhood I call home, and the gathering crowds look like the people I see and interact with every day. Romney, to my knowledge, has not stepped foot inside the city limits to campaign in Denver, and the faces at his rallies look more like an angry clan mob than a presidential rally of all people I know.  So even if I still did approach voting from a strictly selfish standpoint, the candidate that is interested in representing me and diverse group of people where I live is clear.

I have heard a number of people say that they are voting for Romney because Obama has failed to unite the country. This is an interesting thought considering Romney is polling at virtually zero percent among blacks on only slightly better among most minorities. So when a Romney supporter says they are voting for him because he will bring people together, they clearly have a very specific idea of what they believe togetherness should look like racially.

The next contributing factor is examining evidence retrospectively and the role that the internet and reading has played in my adult life. Having the ability to pursue answers at my own direction is something that was not as present in my life years ago when I was on a guided tour, courtesy of right wing talk radio. Yes, I subscribed to a certain ideology when I was younger, but after years of evidence and some research, it was pretty clear that the results were not always as I had anticipated or as I was told. The drug war is a perfect example of this change for me. Obviously we have a drug problem in this country. Far too many have serious addictions to some serious drugs. We absolutely have to get a handle on this societally. When you factor in the unspoken war with the Mexican drug cartels as well as the millions of dollars from our country that pour out of our borders to fuel them, this absolutely has to be a national priority. Disappointingly, this subject has not been touched on a national level during this election cycle. When you are in school learning about how things work in life, bad behavior gets you detention or suspension. When someone takes drugs, which we know is bad; they should be punished by going to adult detention or jail. Then they will stop doing the drugs so that they don’t have to get suspended or go to prison. Unfortunately, unlike a child pulling hair, drug addiction is a slightly more complicated behavioral compulsion to correct and the overwhelming evidence and undeniable result of our country’s drug war is readily available and hard to ignore. I realize now that the drug war has been failing miserably from well before I originally established my beliefs in high school, but please forgive that it took me a while to figure this one out on my own. Still, isn’t it about time the rest of the country joins me in at least recognizing the utter failure of the basic plan? It is one thing to subscribe to a theory; it is another to hang on to it regardless of years of evidence that says you are completely wrong. The same type of critical thinking can be applied to past votes. When I do that, casting a vote for another Republican candidate seems like a very bad idea.

I would be a fool to not also recognize my wife’s influence in my expanded frame of thinking. We have been married for 11 years and together for 13. I don’t know how many others out there can relate, but I married my polar opposite. I am an introvert, she is an extrovert. I am glass half empty, she is half full. She likes to dance and laugh and I like to golf and smirk. In about any personality or right-brain/left-brain comparison you come up with, we are opposite and even today we rarely see any issue exactly the same. To be honest, I can’t imagine life with a partner that does not challenge my way of thinking every day. I undoubtedly do the same for her and somehow the combination works very well for us. I believe we both benefit from truly being able to see a very different way of thinking from another human being that we deeply admire, respect, and love.

More than any other way, my wife has challenged my thinking on money. She absolutely does not make big life decisions based largely on monetary influence and she never has since the day I met her. At first this presented budgetary challenges, but once we got that ironed out, I really started to see why the pursuit of money can have a blinding influence on a person’s life. Unfortunately, I was definitely heading down that path when we met. How much can I make? How much can I save? How many square feet can we buy? What job has the highest starting salary? The government is stealing my money and giving it to people that didn’t earn it! Mine, mine, mine, me, me, me! I had an uncontrollable need to strive toward ever growing and lofty financial goals which I believed would ensure my future happiness. Not that you do not have to be mindful of financial matters. Obviously, I believe this is important. But, when money (especially future money) becomes a fixation in your life, where stock tickers are watched hourly and gas prices fluctuations cause you to have to take medication, you may need to reassess things in life. Clearly this is the way the Romney camp approaches almost every single issue as do a great number of their supporters. Ironically, people like my wife that do not approach everything based primarily on money tend to have fewer problems making enough to be happy. Those that place extraordinary value in this singular and insatiable pursuit seem to never have enough.

Finally, I am sure the shift toward selflessness is apparent in my previous blog. This is primarily a result of the impact that meditation has had on my life. Learning to quiet the mind and live in the present moment has helped to reveal some of the flaws in my previous thinking and the illusions inherent in my own concept of self. I am not sure a blog about meditation or selflessness is something I want to get too far into at this point but if anyone out there is interested in learning some of the basics I strongly recommend the book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham. The book and my subsequent practice have changed my life in ways I am only beginning to understand. For a lot of others out there who’s mind tortures them with endless worry and chatter, I believe that the concepts introduced in this book are worthy of at least some exploration.

In the end who knows why my thinking changed the way that it has. Maybe, the Bob Dylan in my headphones won out over the right-wing sports talk on my radio. All I know is that today’s way of thinking feels more peaceful and complete, for me than the way I thought 12 years ago. I would be a fool to promise that this won’t change, and in fact, a far safer bet would be that it will. Far too many in this country seem content to shut the door to new ideas and information once they get to a certain age or once the message of fear penetrates too deep. My one and only goal is to not go down that road sooner than my aging brain forces me to.

Learning, growing, and changing should not stop when we complete our formal education. That is when it should just begin.

A Voting Retrospective 2000 to 2012 – A lesson in Critical Thinking

What I thought then: November 2000 What I think now: November 2012
I have been working and earning a paycheck ever since I was a kid. Sure my early jobs were not too tough but I still had to be at work on time. The place was clear across town and I wasn’t even old enough to drive when I started. Most people that can’t hold a job end up getting fired because they don’t even show up for work. I am proud to say that I don’t think I ever missed a day. I have been a hard worker my whole life and no one gave me anything. I worked for it! How lucky was I that at 15 years of age my family hooked me up with a steady job washing dishes and bussing tables part time at a private country club? I never had an interview and didn’t even fill out an employment application. They knew my family so I just showed up and they handed me a broom and started writing me checks. Even though it was across town getting to my job was actually easy because my family had three cars. And if they couldn’t give me a ride, both sets of grandparents had multiple cars and so did all my aunts and uncles. Heck any one of about a dozen of my family friends or neighbors probably would have given me a ride on any given day if I was desperate.  The sad truth today is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of adults in this country that would gladly take that job I had when I was 15 but they will never have the opportunity or anywhere close to the material necessities in life required to keep it. It is so easy to take some things for granted when you have always had them. I can only imagine how different my life would be without a supportive family and 24/7 access to a reliable vehicle since birth. Hard work is about 10% or less of what it really takes to be successful in this country.
Even before I had a dish washing job, I had a bank account where I deposited my allowance money. After high school, I opened a credit card and started earning and learning to manage credit. I got my first auto loan after my first post-college job, financed a car, started socking away money in a 401k and now I will easily qualify for my first home loan. It really is not that hard just takes some self-discipline and hard work. I now know that absolutely none of my early and subsequent financial achievements would have happened without the credit and cosigning power of my parents as well as their skilled guidance in financial matters. For that I am very grateful, and lucky. The truth is that none of this would have been possible for me had I been born, like the vast majority of people in this country, to parents without credit (or money). The fact that the handling of personal finances is not an important focus of public school curriculum is an absolute form of ongoing class warfare.
I studied, got good grades in my highly regarded high school and worked hard enough to earn a degree in electrical engineering from a good private University. Yeah, my parents paid for a lot of it, but I worked during school and graduated with school loans like everyone else. I am thankful for the employment opportunities that my hard work has awarded me and I am looking forward to a long and successful career as an electrical engineer and wage earner. Everyone knows you have to get a degree to get anywhere in life and I have no idea why so many choose to not get an education. My high school course work was relatively simple since I am pretty good at short term memorization. Nothing against my high school I just think we could be doing so much more with the amount of time we spend during those years. Yes, my college degree has opened a lot of doors for me but to be honest, I don’t use the education in the least and I never have lest some basics and problem solving skills. Seems more to me that a college degree indicates a bit more than a high level of learnedness or practical working skills. It is the initiation in to a special club that is exclusive, very expensive, and gives you all sorts of privileges if you are rich and lucky enough in life to belong. When I graduated college in 1998 they were handing out good paying jobs to anyone with an engineering degree and I am glad I am not instead paying for or graduating from college at the end of a long and deep recession. Again, luck played a pretty big role and anyone that says that it doesn’t is full of crap. I hope that this changes in my life as an education and employment opportunity should not be the exclusive right of the wealthy or a stroke of good luck and timing.
Sure there are some people that legitimately need welfare and food stamps but most of them are able bodied people simply taking advantage of the system. If you take away the free stuff they will have to stop mooching off my tax dollars and go find work. This is a simple problem that has a simple solution. The number of families living in and born into poverty in this country is simply staggering.  Although there is abuse, there is no large scale conspiracy amongst the poor to fleece the earners of their money. That is a complete lie perpetuated by millions of corporate, right wing, political dollars. Unfortunately, this message is easily soaked up as truth by those such as myself 12 years ago that have a fairly limited exposure to the realities of the life of the 47%. If educational opportunities leading to good paying jobs are there, the people will take them just exactly like I have in my life. The propaganda message that somehow the poor are the cause of our country’s economic problems instead of the result, is a sad reflection of the true face of greed in our society. Unfortunately, this problem and its solution are about as complicated as they get.
There is no such thing as God. There is no such thing as not God.
I am so happy and proud that my country has the strongest and largest military in the world. No way is anyone going to mess with us regardless of who we elect! Our ramped up worldwide rhetoric and constant chest pounding and illegal warfare under 8 years of GOP leadership has made the USA a continuing and growing target for worldwide hate and terror. Although under Obama we have made small but very positive strides in ending the wars and improving our badly damaged reputation around the globe, the last decade of offensive style warfare has been more devastating than I could have possibly imagined. The number of dollars spent and people killed or wounded is unthinkable. Romney has taken up where Bush left off threatening the world and emboldening our so called enemies.  If we truly want to lead the world in something how about we give peace a chance. Please.
Seriously, I don’t have a problem with gay people. I just think that  marriage is between a man and a woman and I don’t understand why a civil union is not good enough for them. I use to be a thoughtless, small-minded jerk.
Al Gore is the most annoying man on the planet and voting for George W. Bush represents my best bet for ensuring that a guy like me gets the absolute most out of life. I am scared to think about what happens if the bleeding heart liberals get into power! Al Gore is still the most annoying man on the planet but I now know that getting the most out of life has absolutely noting to do with a “guy like me” way of thinking. Romney is of the same cloth and elitist character as G.W. and he embodies the exact same ideology and supporting staff of characters.  I will not be fooled by his sudden late political shift to the center. There is too much at stake for far too many people. Not just guys like me. Literally millions of lives are at stake just like there were in 2000. Had I only known. I now understand the true definition of “liberal” and I consider any such label directed at me as a high compliment. I am also truly happy to say that fear no longer jades my political thinking. Getting to that point has been harder than I would have guessed but well worth the effort.
If I keep my nose to the grindstone, someday I will be rich and living on Easy Street! There is no such thing as Easy Street (or someday), and even if there were, I wouldn’t want to live there because the neighbors would all be assholes!
I have worked hard my entire life and I deserve everything I have in life because I earned it. Sure others may not have been born with as much but that is not my fault and my family should not be responsible for anyone else’s family’s problems and poor decisions. I was dealt a full house in the game of life. Not a royal flush, but I would have to be an idiot to screw up this hand. I know and appreciate how truly lucky I really am and how unlucky the vast majority of the world is in comparison. I hope to not waste the opportunities that I was given by taking the easy path of thinking and acting selfishly in life. Although I don’t shy away from who I was or how I thought, the pitfalls and result are clear. I refuse to stop learning and growing and I imagine my blog 12 years from now may be quite different than today’s. I have a long way to go, but my path is clearer now than ever before and I am optimistic and accepting of whatever may be for both myself and all other inhabitants of the earth.