Category: Governance

Kudos to Trump for Yanking US Out of TPP

On his third day in office, Donald Trump has managed to make me and  lot of other progressives happy by cancelling America’s signature to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This trade agreement took all eight years of the Obama presidency to get finalized. But ultimately, it was a bad deal on a number of levels.

Traditionally, Republicans favor such trade agreements while Democrats resist them. But the last two international trade agreements we’ve entered into were both negotiated and signed into law by Democrats — Bill Clinton on the infamous North American Free Trade Agreement and Obama on the TPP.

I had been publicly opposed to TPP almost from the beginning. While the vast majority of the agreement’s contents were not disclosed to the public, what we did know of it rankled me. The provisions on intellectual property — a subject that is near and dear to my heart — were egregious and threatened the sovereignty of the United States at a fairly fundamental level. The fact that it was negotiated completely in secret with only a few top business execs in the room made the whole thing reek of crony capitalism.

So I’m glad Trump pulled us out of TPP. He’s done a number of other things I disagreed with — some of them vehemently — but on this one, I think he got it right.

Ignorance Wins Again: Yoga is Not a Religion

When officials at Bullard Elementary School in Kennesaw, Ga., implemented a meditation mindfulness program recently, they stirred up a hornet’s nest of ignorant blather that is forcing them to severely alter or eliminate a program with nationally proven success in helping teachers deal with classroom behavior and student performance.

Ignorant parents decided that Yoga is a religious practice rather than a relaxation and exercise technique and forced the school to rethink the program. One of the uneducated (about this subject at least) parents said, “Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation,” he wrote. “This is very scary.”

Yup, fear is driven by ignorance. Yoga and mindfulness do not include crystals or religious chanting, and they certainly do not comprise a “mystical religion.”

It is true that in its broadest sense Yoga is a term for religious discipline and practice. But Yoga as practiced in the West has all but eliminated the religious overtones of the practice and turned it into something bland but nonetheless helpful that thousands of schools and businesses across the country are using to great effect.

But not in Kennesaw, Ga. No, sirree, Bob. Down thataway they protect their kids from ideas that are different from their own narrow viewpoints. Hopefully none of their kids will grow up to be as ignorant as they obviously are and then find themselves in positions of power.

This is just silly.

Hey, Progressives! Watch the Language!

Today I return to one of my recurring themes. I’ve been saying this for years. In political confrontations with conservatives, we progressives (aka liberals) consistently concede the other side too much of the argument credibility by defaulting on the labels.

Labels as political shorthand are not going away. Unless we learn to master them the way the other side has, we’re destined to start out with a language deficit on important issues. This has been particularly evident in the culture wars battles over a woman’s reproductive rights.

pro-choiceFrom the beginning, those who would deny a woman the right to determine whether and how to give birth have called themselves “pro-life.” Meanwhile, progressives have been for the most part unwilling to clearly differentiate ourselves as “pro-choice”. Instead, we find ourselves being labeled “pro-abortion”, “anti-life”, and “abortion rights supporters,” which seems to be the latest label being used by journalists like Dana Milbank who are supporters of pro-choice. I do not know of a single pro-choice person who would accept or embody any of those labels. It’s not the right to abortion — and by implication, in the conservatives’ minds, abortions themselves — for which we stand, but the woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion.

If those who are anti-choice (the only proper label for their perspective on this issue) were truly pro-life, they would oppose capital punishment and they’d be concerned with what happens to newborns, infants, toddlers and children. But these are consistently the very same people who support the death penalty and oppose childhood health programs as well as early childhood education and other government-funded activities designed to enable children and young people to live healthy, productive lives.

They hide behind a completely bogus label in a futile effort to disguise themselves as “pro” anything. They are, in fact, anti-government. Except, of course, when it comes to inviting that same government into the most private aspects of their lives to intrude where there’s no room for anyone other than the prospective mother, her doctor and her God.

 

FAA Earns Kudos With New Drone Rules

I’m not always impressed with either the alacrity with which the Federal Government responds to changing circumstances or the wisdom of their responses when they get around to them.

Today, I’m impressed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on both counts.

faalogoThe agency today announced the release, ahead of schedule, of a national drone registry along with a minimalist and understandable set of rules about how it will work. They even did a good job of figuring out how to get people to sign up for it sooner rather than later.

The new national registry will go online soon, prior to Christmas (smart!). It will require all owners of drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds (the drones, not the owners, heh heh) to register their devices online. They’ll pay $5 per drone which, strangely, is the same fee charged to register any other aircraft in the U.S. including Boeing 747s. Go figure.

When they register their drone, the newly minted aviators will be issued a tail number which they’ll be required to affix to their aircraft. In the future, failure to register the drone, apply the tail number or fly an unregistered drone will result in civil fines of up to $27,500 and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and three years in prison.

But for now the FAA is focused on encouraging registration so it’s waiving the $5 fee for the first 30 days of operation of the site.

Existing drone owners have until Feb. 16 to register their aircraft while new ones purchased after Dec. 21 must be registered before they make their first aerial excursion.

An association of drone owners is predictably pissed that they should have to reveal their ownership and operation of these fun but potentially very dangerous “toys”. Funny. I don’t see “freedom to fly in airspace” mentioned anywhere in the freaking Constitution.

 

Politics by Principle, Not Polemic

There is a lot of emphasis these days on the idea of getting the money out of politics. I consider that an all-but-impossible dream. It’s like saying, “We have to get the politics out of politics.” We may be able to dampen the influence of some kinds of moneyed interests in the governance of our nation but we are too far down the road of money as speech now to turn completely back.

Frankly, I’m at least as concerned — if not moreso — by the escalating influence of raw, unreasoned, knee-jerk reactions and polemic speech as I am with the influence of money. I suspect — with admittedly no raw data to support my position — that it is the constant screeds from both ends of the political spectrum that turn more people off to the value of political participation.

All of us who really care about politics and governance have allowed ourselves to become emotionally engaged in the debates, in the analysis, in the predictions and in our own commentaries, public and private. The result is the nearly complete disappearance of Reason with a capital “R” from the political scene.

Progressives can’t find a single Republican they can stomach as a viable White House candidate. Conservatives think the sitting President is an illegitimate interloper and a Communist to boot, and they find all of the current crop of Presidential hopefuls to be ignorant, anti-American socialists or worse.

Meanwhile, all we actually produce is heat. There is very little light being cast on the American political scene these days.

It seems to me — and I’ve said this in different ways many times over the years here and elsewhere — that the problem is that politics ought to be about philosophies of governance and moral priorities. Those with whom we disagree need not be found to be universally unlikable and outright enemies. In other words, we need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. To that end, it might help if we had a rational basis for discussing our points of disagreement; even if we can’t resolve them in some mutually agreeable and acceptable fashion, we may well be able to lower our collective blood pressure and turn down the volume a bit to enable serious discourse.

Conservatives say that their strongest guidance comes from the Constitution, to which they owe loyalty above all else. But as a Progressive/Socialist thinker, I find the Preamble to the Constitution to be a pretty thorough-going description of the so-called Founding Fathers’ intentions.

The Preamble sets forth six overriding purposes that undergird the entire Constitution. These are the framework, the First Principles on which the rest of the document is built and according to which it should be interpreted, regardless of one’s political persuasion.

These six purposes are:

To “form a more perfect union”. Bringing greater unity, commonality of interests, solidarity of causes, and a better planned governmental system than that set forth in the Articles of Confederation which the Constitution superseded seems to be part and parcel of the plan for the document.

To “establish Justice”. In the late 18th Century, the term “justice” was widely understood to mean fairness, egalitarianism and the other other principles for which the American and French Revolutions had been fought.

To “insure domestic Tranquility”. In other words, to enable the nation and its inhabitants to live in peace and harmony.

To “provide for the common defence”. Provision was made for a military department whose primary responsibility was the protection of the nation and its people from outside attack or interference, though the text of Article I, Section 8, paragraphs 11-16 places some fairly severe restrictions on this “militia” and its scope.

To “promote the general Welfare”.  By this clause, it seems the founders meant to extoll the virtue of providing for the well-being of the citizens and residents of the nation. By the word “general,” they specifically did not limit it to the welfare of a specific class of citizen.

To “secure the blessings of Liberty”. This is the first word in the French Revolutionary sloganeering of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, which the American colonists had also adopted and adapted. Liberte implied freedom from oppression by a ruling class but also probably carried the connotation of freedom from oppressive government as well.

Whatever else might be said of these six purpose statements for the founding of our representative democracy, one thing seems clear: the provision of at least several of these promises would require the presence of a central Federal government capable of raising taxes and making spending decisions based on these priorities.

Establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare all seem to me to define legitimate functions of government as envisioned by our founders. To the extent that conservatives oppose government broadly or refuse to support specific programs designed to have these effects, they act counter to conservative philosophy and to the intent of the Constitution. To the extent that progressives are seen as willing to trade liberty for any of the other provisions of the Preamble or to prioritize any one of them over the others, they act counter to progressive thinking and to the intent of the Constitution.

The Founders had had the experience of the Articles of Confederation which provided for a terribly weak, decentralized form of government that really consisted of a very loose association of states, who retained all power to govern. The Constitution must be seen in large part at least as a counter to that experience, which clearly did not work well. The fact that the Constitution is framed as a set of carve-outs from those Articles is also not a coincidence, however. The founders were as leery of a too-powerful central government as they were of a too-weak one. So all of the powers that are not specifically allocated to the central, or Federal, government are reserved to the states and/or the people by the 10th Amendment.

Most of the arguments about the Constitutionality of a given law or executive action take place on this front. Strict constructionists take the position that any power not very specifically reserved to the Federal government should be left to the states. Progressives claim that the founders could not possibly have foreseen many of the changes in our society and in our culture and in our politics over the decades and centuries and that we should read the Constitution as preferring a single, national solution to problems that don’t clearly fall solely within the boundaries of a state.

There will never be an end to the debate and there shouldn’t be. But there needn’t be rancorous screeds bombastically exploding forth from proponents of either of these extreme positions. Perhaps what’s needed rather than a Constitutional Convention (which is being increasingly talked about as a solution) is a meeting of the minds on the First Principles of American Governance as set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution. Maybe then we could find ourselves once again in a position to govern this nation and move its agenda forward as we accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number consistent with these principles.

Polls and Ratings. Who Cares is Not Interesting

Two news bits related to polling and popularity ratings crossed my desk in the last couple of days that my fertile imagination connected.

First, it was reported that Democratic Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (my personal choice) doesn’t pay for, commission, or follow political polling. When he was asked about it, he replied, “I believe in making decisions based on what’s right, not what’s popular.” We’ve had far, far too much governance by poll outcomes in this country over the last quarter century or more. A leader doesn’t check with the public to see how people across broad spectra of demographics “feel” about something before making a policy decision. S/he consults his or her inner guidance, spiritual or moral principles, then does what is right. Sanders is so spot-on with this.

Second, a new Gallup poll was announced today indicating that Pope Francis’ popularity among Americans of all faiths has dropped from 76% favorable to 59%. This kind of polling is nonsense. Who cares how popular an unelected leader is? Does anyone at Gallup seriously think anyone anywhere cares, least of all the Pontiff? The WaPo story about this result speculates and hypothesizes all over the place about why Francis might be in decline among Americans. It concludes that the outcome is “largely driven by conservatives who often disagree with Francis on the causes of environmental and economic problems.” In other words, this world leader (who happens to be a trained scientist in the bargain) is making their hobby horses look bad by trotting out actual scientific and spiritual Truth, so they don’t like him.

It is refreshing that two of my very favorite personalities of the present era are both immune to the question of “What’s popular?”, a question that deserves asking only in the context of plans to increase peoples’ spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need.

 

SCOTUS: Big Oil Profits Before Children’s Health

In one of the most blatantly calloused and greed-driven rulings in its checkered history, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of mercury pollution from power plants can’t be enforced because profits were not taken into account before they were drawn up.

In a dissent from the 5-4 ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority view “deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that the responsible Agency, acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many lives.” The majority relied almost solely on the issue of the need for Federal regulators to take into account the impact of their rules on private companies’ costs and profits as part of determining the fairness of their proposed rules. In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia writes that “it is unreasonable to read an instruction to an administrative agency to determine whether ‘regulation is appropriate and necessary’ as an invitation to ignore cost.”

Translated, “Let’s not pay too close attention to the cost in human life or well-being. If a regulation is too expensive to implement or enforce, just do away with it.”

I know I shouldn’t be astonished.

Predictably, Gun Nuts Blame Dead Pastor for SC Church Shootings

“If only he’d supported the right to carry in churches, eight of his parishioners would still be alive.” That’s the pronouncement from a number of nationally prominent gun nuts in the wake of Wednesday’s mass killing at an historic African-American church in Charlotte, South Carolina.

According to this piece on Huffington Post, National Rifle Association board member Charles L. Cotton took that position on a Texas discussion board. The NRA seldom comments diretly on mass shootings. Also voicing that indefensible and insensitive position as right-wing radio talk show host Bryan Fischer (who stopped just short of directly blaming the Rev. and State Sen. Clementa Pinckney). Conservatives rushed to the airwaves all over the nation to express the same insanity.

The underlying theory that you can stop violence with violence has never once been true in the history of humanity and it still is not today. Violence is a cycle. Someone — generally someone more civilized, more enlightened, more compassionate — must be the first to say, “Enough!” The NRA’s political clout is a myth. It’s time to call their bluff and pass meaningful outright registration and permitting rules for gun ownership. As President Obama pointed out — again — yesterday, we are the only developed nation in the world that still allows the private ownership and indiscriminate use of guns.

Enough, dammit!

Progressives Stick to Their Guns, Derail Obama’s Request for Fast-Tracking Trade Authority

I was delighted at the news today that progressive Democrats in solidarity with labor and environmental activists disrupted President Obama’s ill-considered attempt to get Congress to give him authority to fast-track a secret trade treaty with 11 Pacific Rim nations.

My congressman, Sam Farr, announced on Thursday on his Web site that he would vote with the Republicans and Obama on this legislation, which I wrote and phoned him urging a change of heart.

I don’t know whether the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is 100% bad or only more than half bad. But I do know it’s been negotiated in secret, its draft provisions are being guarded as if they were nuclear weapons plans, even our elected representatives in Congress have been cut out of the loop, and the draft provisions that have been leaked are uniformly bad trade policy. Today’s vote made it impossible, without further concessions by the Administration, for Obama to get the fast-track authority he sought for the treaty.

Even though the House followed the resounding 297-127 defeat of the first bill (Trade Adjustment Authority, or TAA) with the narrowest possible 219-211 win on what was generally seen as the main bill (Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA), the first vote essentially rendered the second meaningless. Without its provisions, TPA is a hollow shell of its former self.

This means that if President Obama wants to continue to negotiate the TPP and submit it to Congress, it won’t be for a straight up-or-down-no-debate-or-amendments procedure by the legislature. Which means it will be a more transparent process. Which is what Obama always said he wanted, except when being transparent was too inconvenient for him and his tightly secretive inner circle have been from Day One.