Omnibus Budget Has a Lot of Crap But at Least One Useful Thing: Medical Marijuana ‘Legal’

The $1.1 trillion omnibus budget bill the Congress passed in its waning days of existence and that President Obama is unwisely expected to sign next week is full of corporate giveaways, regulatory bypasses and other decisions that hurt ordinary people. But there is at least one useful provision that sneaked into the bill and my Congressman was instrumental in making it happen.

That provision prohibits DEA from enforcing Federal laws against marijuana use against medical users in states where that usage is legal. It stops short of legalization but it effectively makes it safe to buy and sell pot for medicinal purposes at states’ discretion. I suspect we will now see a significant increase in the number of states allowing that use.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) along with Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa co-sponsored and managed the bill through a surprising bipartisan group of backers in the House. Although the provision merely codifies what had already been established as Obama Administration policy, it secures it against a future administration feeling less kindly disposed toward medical marijuana buyers and sellers and revoking what was an administrative regulation.

I personally know a number of people who have been helped over the years by the medical use of marijuana so I was glad to see this happen. As a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), I look forward to the day when this relatively harmless drug will be dealt with humanely and in an enlightened way. As it is, the “Reefer Madness” of the 50’s and 60’s has resulted in it being labeled as a drug that is more dangerous than cocaine, which is laugh-out-loud stupid.

 

Could Elizabeth Warren Be the Beneficiary of the New Realpolitik?

warren-for-president-signAfter I wrote yesterday about what I see as the near-term political landscape, conservative new York Times columnist David Brooks penned an op-ed in which he tossed in one of the wild cards I alluded to in my prognostication. In a piece entitled, “Warren Can Win,” he posited that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a populist of the first rank who is also a firebrand and a fighter for what she believes in, could win the Democratic Party’s nomination for President next year.

He concluded his essay with this paragraph:

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

The “emotion” defined by Warren is, as Brooks says, an “emotional register of the Democratic Party [that] is growing more combative. There’s an underlying and sometimes vituperative sense of frustration toward President Obama, and especially his supposed inability to go to the mat.” I can attest to that sense of frustration, though I’d up the fire a bit and call it disappointment bordering on outright anger. And the view Warren defines? Pure populism with a healthy dose of anti-big-finance born from her childhood roots and honed on the battlefields of regulatory necessity.

If Warren can wrest the nomination from the presumptive candidate, Hillary Clinton (who has little fight and no legitimate claim to populism), then she alters the political equation fundamentally. By not being a “Republican Lite” Democratic candidate, Warren might ignite large numbers of previously inactive folks along with those who are fed up with Obama’s lack of progressivism and pull off a win in the General. In that event, the overall situation could look much different than I predicted yesterday. By forcing the Democrats back to their roots and creating a strong opposition to the Republicans’ obstructionism, she could shift the debate and the power struggle back toward the people in ways no other candidate I can see on the scene right now could.

 

The Next Decade of Titanic Constitutional Power Struggle in America

It seems to me that the following broad outlines of the American political scene are clearly visible and likely to remain in place for at least 10 years:

  • The Republican Party, dominated by its ultra-conservative wing, will continue to hold majority positions in both Houses of Congress.
  • The Democratic Party, dominated by its centrist wing and largely ignoring its progressive base, will continue to carry the White House.
  • The Federal Government will, as a consequence of the above two conclusions, continue to malfunction, staggering along with very little actual governance, which is precisely in accord with the agenda of the conservative movement broadly.

Tactically, if the Progressive Movement in this country hopes to regain any of its former power and influence to carry out policies with which broad swaths of the population concur when polled on the issues themselves outside the context and baggage of labels, it must immediately shift its emphasis away from attempting to regain control of the Congress and toward regaining control of state governments. Only by doing so will the Democratic Party and its coalition partners (see below) be in a position to take advantage of the 2020 Census. That Census, reflecting as it inevitably must the broad shifts in demographics taking place in this country and which further enhance the governability of the Progressive Movement, will determine the makeup of Congress from 2022 and beyond.

Near-Term ‘Governance’

During the next 8-10 years, a struggle of increasingly titanic proportions will be waged between the conservatives and the progressives. Unlike previous such struggles, the center will not hold as it continues to be diminished in economic and political power by virtue of its own fatigue with a stagnant holding action that passes for governance. In stark terms, the Presidency will seek to take on more and more authority via Executive Orders and other direct execution tactics while Congress attempts to assert its power by using the purse strings and veto overrides to impose legislatively what the Framers intended to be done by the Executive.

That will be the underlying theme of politics in America in the next 10 years.

liberals-vs-conservativesAs a result, the political process in this nation will continue to fragment. The two-party system cannot hold. The centuries-old idea of Republicans and Democrats will realign into Conservative and Progressive. I predict a viable three- or four-party system with coalition governments reminiscent of the Europe of the last century.

The Tea Party will either take over the Republican Party completely or splinter off into an alternative conservative power. On the Left, the Democrats will either expand their tent to embrace Greens, Working Families Party members, and Socialists, or those parties will create their own leftist party. I see this as inevitable. If this shift happens, as I believe it will, before the 2020 Census, then party realignment will completely reshape the governing landscape within four years after that Census.

The two-party system is an anachronism. It is not possible — if indeed it ever was — to define the spectrum of American political opinion into two camps. The current system will crack under the strain of a global problem set that neither wing of the political parties can solve without aligning with elements of the other.

The Longer View

Eventually, this country must shift its energy and its governance from “me” to “we”, from a completely selfish form of capitalism to a regulated and managed form of social democracy with heavily modified capitalism. Short of that, America will either fall of its own weight as the needs of the less fortunate overburden the hoarded means of production or open insurrection — not necessarily but possibly violent — will topple its systems and chaos will rule for some period of time before an adjustment takes place. I do not see any other alternative. The system is too fundamentally broken.

The likelihood of the peaceful insurrection — a more or less sudden transformation — increases to the exact extent that leaders emerge who govern with compassion, vision, a clear understanding of the vital necessity of the Middle Class, and the ability and willingness to be bold in implementing extensive and fundamental change in the underlying structure of things. And the likelihood of that happening is directly connected to the degree to which progressive social policies can be brought to bear to solve the immense global problems of poverty, climate change, sectarian warfare and violence. Note that these are all problems that the conservative elements in our society do not value as serious problems worth solving. Indeed, they either argue for their non-existence, claim they are overstated or explicitly support them for selfish economic reasons.

Nothing less than a spiritually based evolution of consciousness provides any hope for humanity here. The good news is that there are many indications that such a transformational tipping point could well be in the offing. It is incumbent on each of us who would prefer that we all rise together to greatness to take an active role in this process.

 

High-Energy Physics on the Tabletop? Sign Me Up!

The announcement yesterday of a highly successful, ultra-small linear particle accelerator caught my attention. According to this piece on ElectronicWeekly.com, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have accelerated electrons to 4.25GeV over 90mm. For comparison purposes, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center achieved 50GeV electron beams with traditional technology, but they needed a linear accelerator two miles long.

A tabletop linear accelerator would presumably allow at least some amateur scientists to work on the deepest secrets of the Universe, searching for evidence of the beginning of time, what happened just before the Big Bang (or was there a “before the Big Bang?”). Quantum scientists and cosmologists would be able to unlock many secrets that today require large spaces and prohibitively expensive equipment.

One of the things that is necessary for citizen science to flourish is to get the size, weight, cost and complexity of key tools — like the particle accelerator — down to manageable ranges. The more interested and specially trained or educated citizens who might well be capable of huge breakthroughs are not confined to the ranks of the super-rich. Just as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is tapping into the unused CPU cycles of tens of thousands of ordinary people’s computers to look for appropriate patterns in signals being received on Earth every second, so cosmology may be able to tap into a similar network if the price, size and accessibility of linear accelerator technology gets a boost.

As a lifelong amateur scientist and s-f fan, I’d love to get my hands on a tabletop linear accelerator. I hope I live to see that possibility come to fruition.

 

Niners Humiliated by Raiders; Harbaugh is History

The San Francisco 49ers today lost a humiliating one-sided game to the Oakland Raiders, who had previously won one game in 13 outings this season. The score was 24-13 and Niners’ Head Coach Jim Harbaugh probably sealed his fate with one of the most poorly coached games of a recent spate of klinkers.

Read my full post at my new sports-only blog.

 

‘Nudging’ is a Good Idea Daily Beast Should Continue to Develop and Others Adopt

One of the big problems with the way most people find and consume news today is that it too often ends up backing us into an echo chamber. We find and hear only news about subjects we are already interested in that express opinions with which we already agree. On TV, this is epitomized by Fox News and MSNBC, which take hard right and left (respectively) perspectives on the news, focus a lot on politics (particularly MSNBC, which at one point had the slogan, “THE Place for Politics”), and tend to the news style known as the screed when it comes to contrasting opinions on things about which it believes its viewers care.

echo-chamberBut the problem is even more insidious on Internet news feeds, even those which have at least a patina of objectivity. If you follow news only on Salon or Slate or Daily Beast or even Huffington Post, you will find yourself being fed a steady diet of pretty carefully screened opinions on things that assume a lot about you as a consumer. Those assumptions are probably right. But switch your news to (or supplement it with) more eclectic sources like Google News or some other relatively opinion-free aggregators, one of the major national daily newspapers’ sites,or perhaps even a collection of site with different agendas, and you still find yourself ghettoized, at least potentially.

That’s because the Internet features the ability to pre-filter news by topic and source in ways that guarantee you won’t accidentally pollute your perspective on a subject by allowing a contrasting viewpoint to enter your awareness. This personalization technology is a two-edged sword: while it allows you to ignore extremes in news (like feeds from Fox and MSNBC, e.g.), it also allows you to ignore perhaps more responsible voices of the right and left to which exposure might well be valuable to you as a citizen and voter.

The Daily Beast — a news outlet with liberal founders that seems to me to trend more to the right — has just implemented a new technology it calls “nudging.” Using this process, as Nieman Labs describes it:

Red and blue nudge boxes pop up increasingly as readers more actively use the site, offering suggestions to readers. “We may say: ‘You’ve read a lot of politics stories, maybe it’s time for an entertainment story?’ Or, “You’ve read a lot of stories by this writer, do you want to follow him?’” says Dyer. It’s the data readers generate (+1 for reading more than half of a story, -1 for “skipping”) that fuel the kind of individuated nudges readers get.

This is a baby step in an interesting direction that is sure to generate some controversy. It is a manifestation of the long-debated question of whether it is the news media’s job to give you the news it thinks you need to know and understand or should it confine itself to providing information in which you are interested? Going back to Thomas Jefferson, true leaders of our democratic society have had a fundamental belief that only a well-informed electorate could effectively hang onto and manage a real democracy. As Jefferson said, “”. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” On that basis, a strong argument can be made that the news media need to provide accurate and objective information (as opposed to analysis) about what is going on in the world around us. But in the information-wants-to-be-free model of the Internet, freedom to choose what you’ll see or read and when you’ll experience it are entirely in your control. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is as dangerous in our society as criminal conduct, perhaps moreso because it affects far more people for far longer.

The first news outlet that ventures into the field of “Here’s something you should read. You can bypass it if you like, but we’re going to remind you that you’re doing so.” is going to score some major publicity and visibility. And, undoubtedly, not a little scorn.

Orion Passes First Orbital Flight Test With…As It Were…Flying Colors

The NASA spacecraft designed to handle the first manned mission to Mars underwent its first high-orbit test today and passed it with flying colors. Orion traveled 3,600 miles from Earth during the test, marking the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.

This is very exciting work even though its fruition is still a long way off. I’d love to live to see it carry out its ultimate objective of taking Earthlings to Mars. That’s the stuff of the real science fiction I devoured as a teen and young adult and have remained interested in, more or less continuously, my whole life.

There are a number of intermediate missions for Orion before she transports Homo sapiens to the Red Planet, of course. It’s an ambitious plan in some ways, though critics have objected that it’s too slow-paced and modest to be worthy of the mission’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar price tag.

But Orion has already begun to restore America’s — and humanity’s — passionate dream of reaching the stars. As NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary on the perfect test flight, “America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future.” The analogy to the completion of the east-west rail lines in the Frontier West is not lost. During this mission, most of the system’s mission-critical components were thoroughly tested and gigabytes of valuable data gathered for analysis. While this mission was unmanned, it was still a vital first step, resulting in the successful test of something like 55% of the total technology package needed for manned flight operations.

With an anti-science Congress peering blindly into its myoposcope, and grim economic reality at every turn, it’s not clear that NASA will be able to line up the funding it needs for the entire Orion program. Right now, the next flight for the mission isn’t scheduled until 2017 at the earliest and probably won’t happen before 2018. Not because of science limitations but because spending money in space is still a difficult sell despite the billions of dollars in commercial value spun off from previous space efforts.

It is, however, encouraging that the NASA exploration budget that finances Orion is one of the few non-defense budget accounts for which House Republicans have proposed an increase from President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 request.

I recognize the problem and I appreciate it. But I think the answer lies not in pruning back space projects but in fostering cooperative undertakings with other space agencies, particularly the European Space Agency (ESA) which is enjoying huge success with the Rosetta mission. We have long since passed the time when nationalistic interests should hold sway in the exploration of space; these need to be Earth missions, humanity-owned-and-operated. I’ve long thought that creating a functional unit of the United Nations to carry out space exploration would go a long way toward addressing a number of issues plaguing national programs. But I expect that’s just another one of my personal windmills.

Meanwhile, I say, “Go, Orion!” and turn my eyes once again skyward if only to dream of the time in the 2030s when Earthlings set foot on the mysterious planet that has held such fascination for science-fiction writers and fans for a century or more.

Yes, There IS a Religious Left, Virginia

Perusing Salon.com recently, I ran across a piece by Elizabeth Stoker entitled, “Liberals are overlooking a major political ally: Yes, there’s a religious left!” The piece itself was a meandering, lost-in-the-wilderness-for-40-years kind of “analysis” that shed very little light on its chosen topic.

But along the way, Ms. Stoker made this observation: “It is simply not the case that religious, even committedly and strongly religious, must mean right-wing.” To which I can only say “Amen.”

In fact, right-wing fundamentalists represent a fairly small portion of just Christianity, let alone the broader religious and spiritual community. Just looking for a moment at Christians, a Pew Survey found the following breakdown of Americans who self-identified in each of these broad categories:

  • Evangelical Protestant Churches – 26.3%
  • Historically Black Churches –  6.9%
  • Mainline Protestant Churches – 18.1%
  • Catholic – 23.9%
  • “Other Christian” – 0.3%

Leaving aside the (very important but somewhat distracting) question of whether any of these groups can be described homogeneously as “liberal” or “conservative”, let alone “fundamentalist,” one could conclude that Evangelicals — comprising, for the sake of argument, those in the first category and arbitrarily half of Catholics — would constitute about 38% of the population, leaving another 38% or so on the more liberal, or progressive side of the ledger.

Most people who are mainstream Protestants would not identify as evangelicals or fundamentalists. And there are quite a few elements of Christianity that would identify as progressive, including, e.g., Friends, New Thought (Unity, Religious Science, and other metaphysical churches), several of the mainstream denominations, and a scattering of churches who belong to or support Progressive Christianity.

My point is not to get bogged down in a statistical analysis discussion over exactly how many of each type of Christian is in one camp or the other. Broadly, I suspect Christians follow the major population trends with respect to how they see themselves politically, though that may be wrong.

religious-left-stickerBut then if we factor in all the non-Christian religions — and some that are Christian according to some folks and not according to others — we end up with a fairly healthy group of people we might well consider the Religious Left.

This group is largely politically progressive. And the Democratic Party has for years missed opportunity after opportunity to mobilize this force in its own support because it sees the label “religious” or “Christian” as meaning “conservative.”

I happen to be a member of this Religious Left. As an active leader in a New Thought community, I can tell the Democrats — if only they’d ask or listen — that support for their policies, programs and philosophies are very, very strong within these faith groups.

It would behoove the Party to identify ways of activating this portion of its base to take part in GOTV efforts and campaign tactics. If they were made to feel an important part of the process rather than being incorrectly lumped in with the right-wingers with whom we have as much trouble a anyone else on the Left, I have a feeling it could help in some places in the country.

In any case, it couldn’t hurt.