Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Wide Left Turn

First it was marriage equality. Now it's the minimum wage. And prison reform. And some lefty laboratories in cities across the country. It's not a sharp turn to the left as many had anticipated with Obama's election in 2008. It's a wide turn, and the country's already done the first hand-over-hand on the cultural-political wheel.

If you haven't seen the Frontline series on American prisons, please go their post-haste and watch what you can. The growth of the prison population in this country is staggering, and is a direct result of the conservative policies that created minimum sentences and the mandated arrests of millions of low-level and non-violent offenders, most of whom were males of color. Pair that with the creation of laws that, in some states, treated 12 year-olds as adults, and the results are are explosive. We built prisons, then made sure we filled them up.

That's changing. Many states, such as Kentucky, are trying to reform and rewrite their legal codes to provide the kind of care that young, at-risk juveniles and older, clearly sick men and women need in order to avoid jail time. One of the stories on the program shows a clearly distressed young women who needs counseling, medication, emotional support and a mentor if she is to thrive as a citizen. Otherwise, she's going to wind up as a ward of the state and she might commit a violent act against someone. Another story shows a 67 year old addict who's been released from jail to a halfway house with nothing. No money, no prospects, no clothes other than the sweats on his body. And he's supposed to get a job? Go on welfare or food stamps (that the GOP wants to cut more)?

And while we were spending all of this money on being punitive, the right wing also told us that we needed to spend less on schools and lower taxes that paid for needed government services. Spending more on prisons and less on schools has had a direct impact on our culture. But as I said, that's changing.

There are other signs of a wide left turn. Minimum wages are going up in some states. In New Jersey, the people voted to raise the wage over the objections of Governor Christie. Today's vote to try and raise the national wage ended in a Republican-led filibuster, which will show up in Democratic ads come the fall. The national reactions to comments from Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy shows that, although there are still racists in the United States, they will not be tolerated as they were before. Courts are striking down voter ID laws, most recently in Wisconsin, which is a welcome sign for democracy.

We still have work to do, and there will be setbacks, but slowly and surely, ideas that for years were ridiculed as soft and unworkable are seeing the light of day.

A left turn indeed.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Christie: Classless and Clueless

It's not enough that Governor Chris Christie is not going to make a full contribution to the state's public worker pension system, despite promising to do so as a result of his signing the pension and benefits bill in 2011. And it's also not enough that he continues to blame public workers for the state's economic and fiscal messes.

It's far too much, though, for him to blame cuts in cancer research and other programs on the fact that the state's pension obligation would take too much money out of the budget. Yes, it's politics. Yes, it's a tactic to deflect interest and attention away fro the George Washington Bridge scandal, and yes, it's not beneath a man who will say anything to become 2016-relevant again. But this kind of class warfare is disgraceful.

Blaming public workers and asking them to pay more for their pensions, which would take money out of the economy at a time when he should be stimulating it, continues Christie's consistent failures on the economy. He could instead be asking the wealthy to pay more to help bail out the state. He could have approved the third railroad tunnel between New York and New Jersey, which would have provided jobs and a needed infrastructure project. He could have raised the nation's lowest gasoline tax, which not only would have provided funds but would have sent a message that it's time for New Jersey's drivers to economize for the environment.

Hell--he could have allowed Tesla to sell some cars in New Jersey.

But no. New Jerseyans are stuck with a governor who hasn't a clue about how to successfully grow an economy and invest in education. All he has is a surplus of bluster, and that we don't need.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Health Care Horror

You'd think that people were dying because they signed up for health insurance. You'd think that people were going broke because they had to leave behind their old policies that didn't cover needed expenses and treatments. You'd think that the opponents of the Affordable Care Act would come up with a specific, viable alternative that they could run on this November.

Oh, the horror. None of this is happening.

I will say for the final time that the website rollout was terrible and horrible, but it's now time to move beyond that because over 7 million people now have health insurance and the numbers keep going up. Citizens living in the most prosperous country in the world will not have to worry about medical costs bankrupting them or forcing them to lose their houses or their livelihoods. People can now make decisions based on their own life choices, rather than having to stay at a dead-end job because of the benefits.

Oh, the horror?

The real horror is being perpetrated by the states that refuse to take free federal money to expand Medicaid and cover even more people. These states are led by governors and legislatures that are acting on ideology rather than common sense. They have convinced themselves that president Obama wishes to enslave their citizens through federal programs, making them dependent on the government for their happiness. It's irrational and will eventually lead to defeat for the politicians that are erecting the legal roadblocks to health care.

The history of the United States has moved inexorably in one direction, and that's towards equality, access and enhanced civil rights. The Affordable Care Act will survive and thrive because it enables citizens to live better lives. In the end, it is truly American.

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Abortion Freeport Doctrine

In 1857, the US Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that slavery was legal and that slaves were property. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, in debates with challenger Abraham Lincoln in 1858, was a supporter of popular sovereignty on slavery, That is, he wanted to let the people of a territory decide if it was to be legally free or slave. This, obviously, wouldn't be possible given the Court's decision because the justices said that slavery could not be banned. So Douglas came up with a dance that came to be called The Freeport Doctrine. This doctrine would allow slavery, but would encourage territories to enact high legal boundaries to its implementation, rendering it moot in practice.

Despite the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, anti-abortion groups have stopped at nothing--not even the law--to enact high legal hurdles that inhibit the right of every women to control their reproductive lives and health choices. In one of the presidential debates in 2004, George W. Bush even invoked Dred Scott as a guiding principle for his judicial choices. Abortion equals slavery. Welcome to the Abortion Freeport Doctrine.

Three states have taken this tactic to new extremes. Texas passed an onerous law that will result in the closing of more than half of the remaining clinics in the state. Arizona passed a law, now under judicial review, that would restrict medication abortions. And Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said today that he will sign a law that will prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and with no exception for rape or incest This is all on top of restrictive laws that have been passed, and have passed judicial muster, over the 41 years that Roe has been the law of the land. The Supreme Court is now weighing whether the Affordable Care Act can require all employers to cover contraception for all of its employees, because those companies consider some contraception to mimic abortions.

This is an emotional issue and the debate over abortion does not yield any middle ground. But we can find a way to make abortions less likely, provide contraception and sex education, and allow women and their doctors to make decisions that are in the best interests of the patient. That's called freedom of choice and it's something I hear a great deal about from those on the political right who want the government out of our lives, except in the bedroom. Or kitchen. Or back seat. get the point.

My solace comes from the belief that the conservative tide has crested and that we're seeing the worst of the restrictions now. Many will stay in the most conservative states, but the idea that a women's body is her own is pretty much a settled social idea that the court overturns at the country's peril. It's worth remembering that the Freeport Doctrine went nowhere. It's also worth remembering that it took another hundred years for African-Americans to gain their full legal rights. I hope we're not still debating the choice issue 60 years from now.

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