Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why I Am Who I Am

I admit it: I'm a Taoist. Good luck figuring that one out. I'm still trying.

Nobody likes navel-gazing, at least most anybody who's too busy to care why someone else might believe what they do. They want to know the facts: Are you with them or against them? Do you agree or disagree with them or not?

Patient people will let you make your case. Impatient ones will argue before your point is developed. I understand that this is the way things often get processed. I shouldn't be surprised by how many people aren't (willingly) prepared to listen to the depths another person might go to arrive at what's best for the country -- or the family, or himself, for that matter.

Just now I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Noahpinion, which is by the doctoral-candidate-soon-to-be-professor-of-economics Noah Smith. His take on things economic is refreshing in its combination of humor and earnestness, and he tends to arrive at a place in economic theory that I'm comfortable with, and, as he points out, he usually defends Paul Krugman, so he's ace in my book.

Fun fact: I once had lunch with Krugman in a Vietnamese restaurant in Philly.

What he said just now in this post about why he occasionally says things that don't agree with the generally held tenets of his "tribe," that of the liberal economics bloggers, caught my attention. Smith said:
But yet I say those things anyway. Why? Because as nice as it is to have a team, I have a stronger and deeper allegiance, which is to science. And by "science" I basically mean rational skeptical empiricism. My dad raised me on these ideas; they're very important to me, and I believe they are the best.
That really struck me, not the part about science, which I totally accept, but the part about "My dad raised me on these ideas..." It got me thinking.

My parents did raise me, and they did influence me. I got from them the value of responsibility, in that I was clothed, fed, and had my own bed. I could count on these things. I should do that when I grow up.

Two different men, headed down the same path.

Basically, though, in the world of ideas, mostly what they pointed me to was the belief in the general liberalism of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. I left home with nothing more evolved than that, except for one other thing. My dad shared with me a general skepticism. You had to work to impress him, to convince him. His principal tenet, often repeated, was, "What's makes you think you're so goddam special?"

In other words, he didn't particularly believe in me, my character or innate worth. In fact, it was offensive to him that I would think rather well of myself at all.

He was a tough guy from Euclid, Ohio, and grew up in the Depression, managed to get into college and then dropped out only to wind up drafted into the U.S. Army, and then ended up getting sent to the University of Chicago for officer training, graduating in June of 1945 and thus completely missing WWII. (He did end up doing a tour of duty in Korea six years later, so he didn't totally get off the hook.)

Still, if that tough guy looks more like a lucky guy -- which he was -- he was just as skeptical of himself. He was an equal-opportunity skeptic: he didn't believe much in his own self-importance. He just ate his plain yogurt and hard-boiled egg with Tabasco Sauce for lunch and went back to work.

But my main point remains, that I was given a rough set of ideas with which to start life and had to forge the bulk of them on my own. My dad had an impact on me, albeit a somewhat mixed one, and my mother, who was just as intelligent -- he met her at Chicago, where she was on scholarship -- also influenced me, though to a lesser degree. When I look in the mirror, it's my dad's scowling face I see, nine times out of ten.

I wish it weren't so, and maybe that's my point. I went away for college at seventeen and spent the rest of my life -- now forty-six years -- away from home. But there's not a day goes by that I don't feel I've got to convince my dad I'm worth listening to. Odd, since he died seven years ago.

Not a picture of my father.

So when I do explain my beliefs, or even talk about what's in the core of me, I tend to explain them in the starkest, most direct of terms, hoping to soften them with humor. I am motivated by a desire to persuade. My dad didn't automatically believe me, so why should you?

I guess this has ended up rather a confessional than a road map to who I am. But, well, there it is. I'm not sure that I can't say that I owe my father, like Noah Smith does, a debt of gratitude. I've spent a lifetime honing my liberal, progressive ideals, and I've done my best to be more loving and accepting of my family and friends, even strangers, I guess.

The final irony might be that I'm a better person in spite of my father. I've always said about him that he did everything he could as a father to support his children; he did more than what was required of him. The pity was that he did it such that they despised him for it. It didn't need to be that way.

I keep that in mind, or try to, every day.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Into the Abyss

Michael Perry, eight days before his execution in Texas, 2010
I recently saw the documentary, Into the Abyss, by Werner Herzog. It told the story of a small-town crime involving a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas in 2001.  I don't intend to review the movie in the common sense, though I do highly recommend you see it.

I was struck by how it reflected many of the elements in our society in recent years, at least when it comes to poverty, education, religion, family values, the death penalty, regional politics, and so on. Any of these issues could be the basis for an in-depth discussion of serious import. That a movie would illustrate how all these potentially controversial elements can intersect shows its power.

My takeaway on the most basic level was the seeming banality of the cause of the tragedy. One family had a red Camaro that two teenagers want to take for a joyride. As the plot unraveled, three people were murdered for zero opportunity for gain except for fleeting moments with a red Camaro that ended up rusting in a police yard with a tree growing up its middle.

As banal as this episode was and as venal its genesis, this view of an unremittingly dysfunctional ecosystem of ignorance, poverty, and evil in the town of Conroe, Texas, is a stark reminder of how parts of rural America have, in many ways, been just as abandoned as the more commonly condemned urban environment. Race plays no factor here, though it's striking that this slice of American rural life is as white as the inner cities of America are black. Failure of this magnitude, it turns out, knows no color.

All that's needed for this kind of mayhem is ignorance and the failure of family values. And family values are put on trial here, as an all-white, American-as-apple-pie landscape in what many believe is the heartland of the U.S. is covered in blood, first by the perpetrators and later by the executioners. This version of the executioner's song is played out at Huntsville's Death Row, the most efficient executing machine this country has ever known.

What I found most puzzling -- as, I believe, Roger Ebert pointed out in his review -- was how every person in this drama, whether criminal, victim, investigator, prison chaplain or death-row captain, was deeply and unfalteringly Christian. Not a single aspect of the  tragedy at any one of its stages caused a single player to doubt the wisdom and omniscience of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

At which point Christ and His church had failed to instruct His faithful is hard to determine, but the faith of the various players remained, in the blackest of moments, unshaken. This, I guess, is what the citizens of Conroe, some fifty miles north of Houston, are willing to undergo in this life's journey to the promised land.

I'm prepared for a reasonable amount of moralizing -- certainly more than filmmaker Werner Herzog was prepared to allow himself -- as I look at this white Christian rural region of our country, as steeped in ignorance and societal failure as it is. I don't know the true place these pathetic creatures occupy in the fabric of American life, but the word salvation doesn't seem germane. If this is God's plan in America the exceptional country, then I don't want any part of it.

See the movie for yourself. If you can find solace in faith or a justification of the death penalty in any of it, please let me know. In the meantime, I'll seek to foster education and opportunity and eschew religion and authoritarianism at every turn. We can't break the cycle as demonstrated in Into the Abyss without education and a reexamination of the core values of our homeland.

I know I can be harsh on regions and demographic groups in our America. It's because of films like this, that are so identifiable of one region or group, that I'd like to reach out and really get to know the people that I identify as needing, if you will, rehabilitation. Unquestionably, there are people in rural Texas that are the salt of the earth to whom so much is accorded. And, since Google Maps doesn't a demographer make, I know little of Conroe, Texas, beyond what I could see in the film -- and what I later learned at Wikipedia. Startling fact, considering I blame ignorance for this tragedy: the number-one industry in Conroe, Texas, is public education. (Which got me thinking that in most suburban or small-town America education is almost always the number-one industry. I'll be checking on that.)

I have lived in many parts of the country and the world. By far the safest country I've lived in is Japan. Oddly, it's the only other developed nation that allows the death penalty, though is uses it much more sparingly. (In fact, the U.S. executed 43 in 2011, with Japan executing none for the first time in 19 years.) My year in the Netherlands in 1971-72 revealed the Dutch as a relatively crime-free nation, at least at the time. (Murders per 100,000 are 4.8 in the U.S. to .87 in the Netherlands, as of 2011.) By contrast, my current town of Sonoma, California, the murder rate for 2010 was .0019. For the previous five years it was zero. I couldn't find statistics prior to that, but I'd be surprised if murder happened very much over the years.

Also by contrast, Conroe, Texas, has seen both its property crime and violent crime rates drop dramatically in recent years. 2005 seems a watershed year. Since then its crime rates have been drastically reduced, though its violent crime rate was still above the national average by 2.13% for 2009. The drop appears to track its change from mostly rural to increasingly suburban in nature. Of course, crime has been dropping all across the nation during this whole period, so Conroe may simply be tracking the national trend.

My town of Sonoma's violent crime rate was 41.52% below the national average in 2009.

It's good to see violent crime, for whatever reason, drop in Conroe, Texas. Let's hope it continues, and scenes like those in Into the Abyss can become part of its history and not its future.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

SCOTUS Gives Us a Reprieve (John Roberts? Wow!)

John Roberts has a happy...
 Okay, I didn't tell anybody this on the blog, but my optimistic self had predicted a 6-3 decision in support of the individual mandate, with Roberts and Kennedy joining the liberal members of the Court. Kennedy's siding with the three off-their-rockers in dissenting AND saying they would have thrown the entire thing out, well, I could never have predicted. But Roberts voting to allow the mandate -- and on tax grounds -- I did hope for. Kudos to Talking Points Memo and reporter Brian Beutler for suggesting this outcome (I had noticed it during oral arguments but had forgotten it until I read Beutler's piece, which was quite prescient).

My pessimistic side had assumed we were doomed. We may yet be, but not today. Today we rejoice and enjoy watching the Republicans and Mitt Romney twist themselves into pretzels. As Paul Krugman says, today is "double scotch time." Make mine wine, but I will toast come happy hour.

...Antonin Scalia has a sad.
As for pretzel time, Rand Paul and Jim Inhofe declared fuck the Supreme Court, we're going to refuse to follow the law anyway. Mitt Romney says -- in spite of the fact that his healthcare achievement in Massachusetts relied on an individual mandate -- he will repeal the ACA on day one. All the other conservative talking heads, and some liberal ones as well, are harping on the "lie" that Obama said the ACA wasn't a tax. A little digging reveals that Obama didn't say it wasn't a tax, he said it "wasn't a tax increase." Check it out.

All those referring to Obama's saying that it was not a tax, are referring to that ABC interview. In it, Obama declares that the ACA is not a tax increase. Now, I get that part of his argument is that regardless of whether or not you elect to buy insurance or pay a penalty -- collected by the IRS -- the overall impact of the ACA is that your costs for health care will go down, while coverage for the American citizenry is broadened. And I essentially agree with him.

There's a simple way to dismiss this tax argument: no responsible adult needs to pay the penalty; all they need to do is obtain healthcare coverage. End of story. And the 85% of Americans already covered by health insurance don't even enter into the uninsured penalty zone anyway.

But to argue sensibly with the conservatives is a waste of time, unless you enjoy pretzel watching.

James Inhofe, the Senate's in-house science denier, literally had  a pretzel.

I prefer to move on to what the SCOTUS decision made me consider. Now that the law will come into effect by 2014, how can savvy state politicians take advantage of the situation for their home states by preparing early for the law?

The answer hit me like a brick, and I hope that it stands up upon closer examination. Here's what I recommend to, say, Jerry Brown, my California governor:
  1. As required by the ACA, each state in the nation needs to set up health insurance exchanges, which are to be the marketplace where the uninsured, as of 2014, can acquire affordable health insurance.
  2. A smart way to make a state's health insurance exchange truly affordable is for it to be based on an already functioning and affordable system. Most states already have such an exchange available to its public sector employees, where they can choose from a variety of healthcare packages. (I participate in such an exchange. I did, first, as a public-school teacher, and do so now, as a retired teacher who isn't yet of Medicare age. I'm 63.)
  3. So, as soon as is practicable, Jerry Brown -- in my example -- should find a way, either through legislation or state agency policy, to declare that all state employees are now de facto participants in the health insurance exchanges.
  4. All local government agencies, whether towns, cities, or counties, should be invited to join in the state exchange, in order to create an even larger negotiating pool, placing participants at a better competitive advantage with the health insurance providers.
  5. Next, all private-sector businesses should be invited to join.
  6. Lastly, all uninsured private citizens should also be allowed a mechanism for participation.
There you have it: a series of steps for creating a state health insurance exchange, in stages, that will bring down costs as slowly or quickly as a state might decide, as long as it is fully in place by 2014.

I would further recommend that the state require a small fee, say $10, to participate in the exchange, with a $20 reinstatement fee if someone leaves the pool or allows his participation to expire (to discourage flightiness). This fee would have little impact on individuals but would easily finance the bureaucracy needed to run the exchange.

Everything I know about economics says that the sooner a state or public entity participates in such an exchange, the sooner the state's healthcare costs go down. This allows states, municipalities, counties, businesses, and even individuals to make their healthcare costs affordable. Seems to me states could radically reduce their budget shortfalls.

What am I missing here? Seems like a no-brainer.

Mitt Romney, reacting to the SCOTUS decision, literally has a no-brainer.

Update. Somehow in this post I failed to mention an important point, though I had intended to: Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, didn't uphold the individual mandate because it was a tax. He upheld it because, by the most generous interpretation of language (demanded by precedent), the penalty could be inferred to be a tax -- because it was collected by the IRS -- thus allowing Congress to pass a law with an individual mandate using its taxing power. Congress did not have to rely, then, on its power to regulate commerce, which was precluded by Roberts' opinion.

Update 2. You've just got to see this, courtesy Andrew Sullivan's blog post of "reader reax."Here's one such reader's email:
Just imagine if Romney had originally stood by his Massachusetts health care mandate when he began his run for 2012 president. Today's SCOTUS decision could have been Romney's big win - the triumph of a health care plan conceived by conservative leaders that Romney himself successfully implemented in Massachusetts.  He could have proclaimed himself as a national visionary of conservative health care, while painting Obama as a pale Romney-imitator. But such are the perils of pandering to today's conservative base: Forswear your prior political successes instead of building upon them, then let your opponent reap the rewards of favorable SCOTUS decisions that you could have claimed.
 Live by the pander, die by the pander.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gettysburg, Romney, and Other Thoughts

I'm back from my trip to DC. Since the requirements of my small work at the National Science Foundation -- aside from the prep, reading and analyses and all that -- took only two days, I added a few days and took in a few sights because I could.

So, realizing Gettysburg was only 90-some miles away, I headed up to see the site of the costliest battle ever fought on American soil. To say it was a moving experience is understatement. The glory, courage, doggedness, competence, timidity, insanity, and just plain imbecility that the battle -- and all war -- represents was evident, even if only in the distant echoes across the fields around the town. But because the fields and trees and old farms have been so well preserved, the experience really isn't only a matter of memory or echo but a visceral one: the battlefield is alive and tangible. And to walk it is brutal. Educational but deeply brutal.

Since my charge here at The American Human is to examine who we are -- from a humanist perspective, of course -- I couldn't help but weigh the meaning of the battle, as well as the War to which it was so central, in the context of today's politics and today's cultural and racial divisions.

Not only am I a northerner by birth -- Illinois -- but I'm also a federalist and a progressive one at that and therefore instinctively a supporter of the Union. I learned in the starkest terms that southerners didn't like us in the 50s when as a child I lived in rural Georgia for a couple of years, and they certainly don't like us today. Kids would ask us where we were born -- they knew from our accents we weren't like them -- and in one case would physically attack us, dismissing us contemptuously as "Yankees." We got over it, hell, we were kids. We just climbed trees and made beards out of moss and dug forts, all the while dodging the armies of killer ants.

I liked hunting cypress stumps (also called knees) in the swamp by our house.

And while I respect the culture of the South, at least the literature, the food, the music, the sheer complexity of it, and the marvelous mix of races, persuasions, and passions, I've always believed that the South is deeply flawed, even today. It's biblical in the extent of its failure, which is apt.

I don't want to let the North off the hook, with its cities rife with racial tensions and political corruption; we haven't solved many of the basic cultural conflicts there, either. But the South clings to a separatist, narrowly individualistic vision, all the while, yes, clinging to their guns and religion. And this vision is innately juxtaposed to what our forefathers were hoping to build. The South as a block of constituents and voters have managed an unusual moral hat trick, if you will: they've sought to defend the Constitution while simultaneously wanting to blow up the country and yet believing they are the Essential, the Real, the True Americans.

Sorry, but, my ass you are. And I'm sorry that my trip to Gettysburg -- where I did indeed sense and respect the bravery and determination of both sides -- didn't yield an appreciation for the Southern cause. It certainly didn't. The right cause prevailed in Gettysburg, as it did in the Civil War. The Union was preserved.

Sheridan French, author of "My Southern Life" in Southern Flourish magazine
Now my beef with the South (yes, it continues) is that it supports the conservatives, er, the Republicans, as if the beliefs of yesteryear exist in a never-ending, never-bending continuum. It was states' rights then, it's states' rights now. It was the preservation of the white prerogatives then, as it is today. Why that might accrue to the benefit of Mitt Romney -- a carpetbagger if there ever was one -- is astounding in its lack of coherence.

I remember listening to a southern woman in 2004 talking about how George W. Bush had made an obvious blunder in leading us into that unfortunate war in Iraq and admitting that he used something not akin to the truth in making his case. And yet she said that she was probably voting for George again. When asked why, she thought briefly and responded, "because he's a Christian."

There you have it. I can try to persuade you all day and night that I harbor no ill-will for the Southern Man of the Neil Young song, or that I believe that those in the Confederacy were no less brave -- and no less a tool of the prevailing ruling classes of the day -- than their Union brethren, but I do. The South that I talk of is not the whole South but a disturbing and obvious prevalence. By and large the South is a block and an albatross around our country's neck. They are red states, who predominantly suck wealth out of the blue ones, and rarely if ever give it back.

Click for a more readable view.

And you'll never get me to think that there's a New South. Well, maybe there is. There's a New South, same as the Old one. And though it's famous for its hospitality, it's not hospitable to the secular rationality it takes to behave as one nation. They proved that long ago. And they're still proving it today.

On a final cantankerous note, the U.S. would be the most boring place I can imagine if it weren't for the blacks, the southern ones at first and later the northern urbans. They have been for over a century the source of our American musical soul -- though as a member of the Scotch-Irish tribe, I'll grant us our own place in America's musical evolution. But our former slaves have trumped that whiter contribution, if only because the depth of their pain has made them so fiercely resonant. Man, they came ready to play.

As if anyone hadn't noticed.

Without the blacks, we'd be Switzerland. What have they ever given the world besides cheese with holes, watches, and tax havens? Nothing. Oh, maybe yodeling.

Monday, June 11, 2012

I'm Alive, Alive I Tell You! (trust me)

Believe it or not, I'm in Washington, DC, doing some work for the National Science Foundation, which must not be named (no, I'm not a spook). We're just operating with a non-disclosure agreement to guarantee fairness in the process. But I can say it involves my previous vocation and one of my great loves: technology, computer science, and so on. Long live all things digital, and all things educational! I'm grateful just to help. Be back to my own shrill self soon. (What a nice break...)

Monday, June 4, 2012

How Would I Run the Country? (Part Three)

I was due to share my views on social justice, and I will soon. I just wanted to throw in an important item that is not always looked at, especially in these days of wildly divisive issues and socially destructive tribalism. I want to speak a word or two about transparency.

I've made a point on this blog of speaking openly on all issues. I once was a Catholic; now I believe strongly that the origin of all religious thought is a combination of superstition and fear. If I hurt anyone's feelings with such a pronouncement, I'm sorry, as in I'm sorry, wish you felt better, but I still think you're nuts if you're a Mormon, Methodist, Catholic, etc.

I once was homophobic; I couldn't help it, I grew up around and played sports with and hung out with guys that laughed nervously just thinking about it and made fun of the gay just 'cause it was icky and made them feel weird. I thought it was icky, too, gay sex I mean, but then again before I really hit my stride, I thought heterosexual sex was icky, too, but it definitely proved to be my cup of tea. It took a hundred years (not really that many), but I got over it. Gay sex is not icky, and if it is, too bad. It's not fucking about me, as Atrios so eloquently put it. Now I support gay rights, gay marriage, not altruistically but because, you know, I evolved, as in stopped storing my brain under a rock.

That's another example of being transparent, or open, about one's thoughts, feelings, or evolution. It's still not necessarily (fucking) about me, but this being my blog, that's beside the point. The point is that transparency solves a lot of problems. There's no mystery about my opinions, and though I may belabor a point or two, I usually  effectively catalog the items that shape my beliefs.

I did just that two posts ago -- which I also cross-posted at Daily Kos. I do that from time to time because, for whatever reason, people (so far) don't comment very often here, and I elicit a fair number over at Daily Kos. In that last post, I clearly stated that I'm for a nearly total ban on guns, with a tightly-controlled exception for legitimate hunting purposes. The reaction at Daily Kos was surprising. No one agreed with my position and either said it was impractical or I was being king of the world or autocratic or just in general taking their "freedom" away. I was somewhat taken aback, to put it mildly.

I don't want to re-litigate the issue here, but I do urge you to read my original post here at The American Human and also view the comments at my Daily Kos diary here. Then I'd love to have anyone who cares to do so comment on any aspect of gun ownership, including the yea or nay of it and most especially in answer to this question, which I'm just dying to know: If you own a gun for your protection -- and you believe it's a very important right and that you believe it makes you safer -- please let me know how many times you've used your gun to protect yourself or others, giving details and any information you care to share as to why you did what you did. Also, don't hesitate, please, to let me know that you own a gun but have never used it. Finally, if you don't own a gun -- whether you believe in the 2nd Amendment as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court or not -- tell me why you don't own a gun. If you don't own a gun and never really thought about that, share that, too.

The only thing I would ask is that you not share your opinion anonymously. You don't need to give a real name -- that's not so important -- but a screen name shows that you're willing to go on record. My screen name is calross -- big surprise, my name is Calvin Ross -- and I don't mind going on the record.

Now that I threw a few examples out about issues that should be handled transparently, let me offer an addendum that goes to How I Would Run the Country: If I controlled Congress and could write and drive legislation through and get it signed (maybe by me in my perfect world!), I'd make it the law that all figures in major public office, either elected or appointed, would be required to publish their financial records, including all current investments and savings, and all tax returns for the last ten years. Anyone who contributed to any candidate for elected office, whether local, state, or federal, any amount over $1,000 would have to file a public affidavit identifying themselves. Not exceptions, and for every single such contribution.

Now, I'm not weighing in on Citizens United and SuperPACs (they blow hard), but I'm making the case that a society that allows its publicly elected officials to practice politics without stringent transparency or allows financial involvement with and support of said elected officials without total transparency will inevitably suffer the consequences if secrecy is tolerated. The result will be corruption. Full stop.

If you have a better idea of how to conduct our political life, let me know, as well.

And I mean it: I really want to know the extent to which you've actually put guns to use in preserving your safety. If you believe in the right to own guns, you must have a reason. And that reason should include the practical, not merely the theoretical. I can, of course, appreciate that many of you might want a gun for protection and over an entire lifetime never have to use it. If that's the case, also please share that and tell us why you believe you've never needed to brandish or fire your weapon. That might be germane to the discussion, too.