On Mongering Doxy

September 29, 2008

Doxy is one of the many colorful words for prostitute, but the root dox means opinion or belief. Orthodoxy denotes commonly held opinions, for example, while the iconoclast tends to commit heterodoxy.  And whether the words be high-tone, low-brow, upscale, or overused, doxymonger seems an appropriate title for a forum designed to pimp out the editorial detritus of the mind.

Culture War: Prop. 8 is Just One Battle

November 8, 2008

I am sorry that my home state of California passed Proposition 8 (although I am not surprised) and am personally angry on behalf of my gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances.  The battle over same-sex marriage, however, is not a gay vs straight issue and goes far beyond the matter of civil rights.  This battle, for the Protectors of Marriage (the POM, if you will) is about winning a larger war in which their desired outcome is a less secular, more Christian state.  This battle, therefore, is not exclusively a forum for homosexuals and their liberal friends; it is a battle for every American who believes that this country was founded on the genius of men schooled in the Enlightenment more than the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

A visit to the website protectmarriage.com yielded the following from Dr. Jim Garlow, a California Pastor:  “We are at one of those moments.  This is THE major change point of the last few decades.  While the abortion issue is a foundational issue, the marriage definition issue is a survival issue.  No single social issue has threatened to forever muzzle Bible believing Christians like this contest.”

American Christians who echo these sentiments throughout the country are literally terrified by secularism; and they have become very adept at spinning the story to make themselves look persecuted, as though they are forced to live in contradiction to their own beliefs by our insidious adherence to the notion of civil rights and equality.  How, one might ask, can anyone’s marriage threaten to “forever muzzle” someone else’s personal beliefs.  The only logical answer is that those beliefs are anything but personal; they are evangelical, and they are inexorably linked to a single cause — a Christian state.

Some will claim that they are just fine with “same-sex couples enjoying the same legal rights as long as we don’t call it marriage,” but why?  It’s not about semantics; it’s about their prejudice that marriage is fundamentally religious and that homosexuality is anathema to religion.  By religion, though, they really mean Christianity, which begs the question why they don’t come out against Jewish or Muslim or Hindu weddings.  I believe, truth be told, they would if they could get away with it; and by allowing them to win on gay marriage, we slide one step closer toward their dangerous, radical utopia.

When you back some of these folks into a corner, they will eventually admit that that, yes, they believe America should and was always meant to be more Christian.  They argue that the framers were more Christian than history tends to reveal, but these are people who have spent more time swooning to the minstrelsy of Ann Coulter than actually reading the works of the framers.  Thomas Paine, who made a pretty good case for the right to rebel against England, also wrote unambiguously against all religions in The Age of Reason, although he did believe in God.  Thomas Jefferson, who personally wrote more of the language we use to define America than any single human being, was quite clear in both The Establishment Clause and The Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment.  The former establishes that there shall be no state religion, and the latter establishes that the state needs a damn good reason to disrupt the anyone’s right to worship as he sees fit.

The Christian agenda aims to subvert the Establishment Clause by claiming victimization under the Free Exercise Clause.  The logic amounts to this:  allowing same-sex marriage forces them to accept that these unions are as valid as their own, which inherently diminishes their sanctity and is, therefore, tantamount to infringing on their right to worship as they please.  Again, the logical extension of this argument can only lead to the conclusion that all marriages, including other religious marriages, are technically a refutation of their Christian marriages.  Hence, protecting same-sex marriage is tantamount to protecting all marriage (and quite possibly much more) that does not square with Christian doctrine.

It is interesting to note the role played by the Mormon Church in getting out the vote on Prop. 8. because the first test of the Free Exercise Clause occurred in the Utah Territories with a mormon named George Reynolds.  Not yet a state and relatively lawless, Utah attracted a population of people who preferred to fly below the radar of federal authority, which included bigamists and polygamists.  Reynolds was tried for bigamy and attempted to argue the 1st Amendment in his own defense.  The court ruled against him, stating that religious freedom does not protect the right to break civil law, and the “wall between church and state” withstood its first blow.  How amusing it is today to see a church that fights so hard to define marriage as “between a man and a woman,” has so often tried to use the 1st Amendment to protect the right of marriage between a man and a woman and another woman and another woman and another woman . . .


Finally, a note about the 2006 case in Massachusetts in which 2nd Grade students were read a book entitled King & King.  Because marriage is part of the public school curriculum and because same-sex marriage became law in Massachusetts, it followed that same-sex marriage be incorporated into the school curriculum, hence the reading of King & King.  Needless to say, this case was a strong selling point for the POM when recruiting voters to pass Prop. 8 this November; and I happen to think this is one of those times when well-meaning liberals failed to grasp the magnitude of either the battle or the war.  

There is a world of difference between passing a law that protects everyone’s rights and gaining universal acceptance; and if one’s aim is the former, it is often best to have a lot of patience regarding the latter.  If the nation is going to put on its big-boy pants and start acting all grown up (i.e. legally protecting all of its citizens), then liberals are also going to have to figure out that tolerance is not achieved by forcing it down people’s throats. Tolerance is innate; it is intolerance that must be learned — given seed, fostered, and nurtured — and this is often unwittingly sparked by a preemptive and miscalculated strike in some classroom.  Why in the name of all rationale is marriage of any kind included in a grade school curriculum?

New Rules

November 5, 2008

The cliche tells us that we get the leaders we deserve; but occasionally, the forces of history conspire to grant us the leaders we require, and I believe it was clear from Barak Obama’s acceptance speech last night that he is such a leader.  Among its many merits, the deft invocation of Lincoln simultaneously acknowledged the significance of the moment for African Americans and reminded everyone that the country was once more manifestly divided than it is today.  But above all, his speech (as has the tone of his whole campaign) politely rejected the entire post-WWII, post-Reagan, political paradigm that stopped being relevant before W. even took office.

I believe and hope that the overwhelming mandate of the electorate yesterday was not a victory of democrat over republican, was not merely a referendum on the abysmal failures of George W. Bush, but that it was the dawn of a collective recognition that the old labels and the old platforms no longer apply.  I think it is safe to say that the republican leadership burned their playbook at midnight; but it is significant that in their gasping efforts to hold McCain’s campaign together, they lobbed every dud grenade in the box at Obama — liberal, socialist, Marxist, terrorist, and let’s not forget, black.  In the last several weeks, the McCain campaign became an unstable element, like uranium, radiating particles as it decayed; and now, just as with chemistry, the the element itself has changed, but the radiation is still dangerous.

Last night, my wife visited a conservative blog on which she has spied for the last  year or so, and she found comments like, “I’m a racist and have never been so proud to be one,” and “I’m going to buy a gun tomorrow.”  And while it may be easy to dismiss these voices as the lunatic fringe, they represent the underlying fear millions of Americans feel at the prospect that everything they believe in is changing.  The Change We Can Believe In is also the change that scares the hell out of these people; and the only thing more dangerous than a coward with a gun is several million cowards with several million guns.  

Transformation in America has never come without a heavy price.  Barak Obama has inherited a volatile country, and I hope, therefore, that neither his supporters nor the press turn him into an unwitting Icarus.  I am already uncomfortable with this morning’s references to “The New Camelot,” a story that ends in tragedy every time.  Let’s not make Obama into JFK or Clinton without baggage or a liberal Reagan; those are the habits of the generation we just retired.  Instead, I think Obama is asking democrats also to wipe the slate clean.  I think, when nobody was looking, shortly after the republicans threw their playbook on the fire, Obama quietly snuck over and dropped the hand-me-down tomes of the democrats on top of it and watched both smolder into memory.

On Plumbing and Tax Relief

October 18, 2008

Let’s face it:  listening to presidential candidates compare tax plans is a lot like choosing between two proctologists.  I mean one might be better than the other, but either way, . . .y’know.

Nobody in the mainstream media seems to want to spend too much time talking about the pros and cons, though, of either tax plan or even assess the validity of what the  candidates say about one another.  After all, it’s more fun to chase down Joe the Plumber and dig into his state tax and licensing status and than to deal with anything remotely related to the issue of tax code.

The republican strategy continues to be one where they paint their opponents’ plans to tax wealthier entities as tantamount to an increased tax on everyone and/or inevitable job loss.  To Obama’s plan to lower taxes for the majority and raise taxes on those making $250k and above, McCain counters that small businesses will end up closing, laying people off, or at least be unfairly overtaxed just for working hard and “living the American dream.”

I’ve been self-employed most of my life, and it is mostly an American nightmare; and tax code is a big reason.  Still, there are two things I don’t understand about the McCain argument:  1) why anyone who has ever run a small business would believe it; and 2) why Obama isn’t more clear when the issue comes up.  When he answered Joe’s question with the vague notion “spread the wealth,” he played right into republican hands.  “Spread the wealth” just sounds like you’re going to take my hard-earned money and give it to somebody (and let’s not forget racial undertones here) who hasn’t worked for it.  It’s language the campaign should have abandoned early on.

What Obama should have said was, “Joe, do you expect that either your salary or your net profit will exceed $250,000 in the next year or two?  If so, let’s talk.  Otherwise, you’re way better off with me, and let me tell you why.”

Corporate tax and personal tax are two different animals.  Corporate tax is assessed against profit, which is why most small businesses operate as close to zero profit as possible.  Moreover, the average small-business owner is lucky if he/she can pay all the bills, pay any employees, and still take home a decent living, which is rarely anywhere near $250,000 a year.  

For Joe the Plumber to clear $250k, he probably has to gross about $350k.  Working entirely alone, he’d have to plumb 365 days a year, 10 hours a day, at an average billable rate of $96/hr.  That’s working alone, so taxes won’t be Joe’s biggest problem because he’s going to die.  So, assuming he has any employees and carries any insurances at all, Joe will probably find it hard to take home a quarter million personally; and the odds of his business showing that kind of profit are extremely thin.  Moreover, as a small business, it’s a lot smarter to reinvest in the company than to show that kind of profit.  And reinvestment in any form, whether to hire someone else or make new capital expenditures, is what actually fuels an economy; so McCain’s argument needed a plumber, just in a completely different way.

Nevertheless, when a small business does make a profit, it is taxed way too high.  A colleague of mine who showed a profit one quarter actually had to borrow money to pay the taxes on it.  Think about that one for a while and see if you can calculate at what point that vicious circle ever stops spinning.  For a small business owner to have to service a debt used to pay taxes on a profitable quarter is absurd and detrimental to the economy.  

At the same time, self-employed individuals are double-taxed and often find themselves in debt to the IRS because of the volatile nature of their incomes.  One good year in a run of five mediocre years can wipe a person out; that’s not how the dream is supposed to work.

I agree with Obama’s plan in principle; but he might have set the number too low.  $250k really isn’t much money in American middle-class life anymore, and it’s a paltry sum in contrast to the extraordinary private wealth held and hidden by the smallest percentage of our citizens.  And $250k is literally nothing compared to the extraordinary profits attained by many corporations, some of which operate in a manner counter to the interests of average Joe Plumber, Six Pack, et al.

If we want to change tax law to help much of the middle-class, the tax rates have to come down for small businesses and/or they have to have options other than debt service for short-term windfall profits; self-employment tax should be abolished and income-averaging should be re-established; and the entire medical care/insurance fiasco needs to be overhauled.  Those are the issues killing small businesses in America, and I don’t see how even Obama’s plan addresses many of them.  Also, it’s worth mentioning that most state taxation departments make the IRS look like the Make a Wish Foundation.

We seem to forget, too, during presidential campaigns that presidents don’t make laws, including tax law.  If the democrats hold or increase their majority in Congress, they’d probably give Obama’s plan a free pass and block McCain’s.  The reverse would likely be true if the republicans regain the majority.  In general, though, most of the best intentions of campaigning presidents tend to get pretty mangled by the time Congress is done passing any law, if they pass one at all.

All the talk about “green-collar jobs” and a “new economy” is predicated on investment in a lot of start-up technology companies.  America’s first industrial leap into prominence came at a time without taxes and almost zero regulation.  It was unfair, even cruel to most of the labor force, but it also built the now crumbling foundation of our economic strength.  I believe the challenge we face now is how to once again build on that kind of early 20th century scale in a paradigm that is more civilized but still free enough from bureaucracy to thrive?

Build, Don’t Bail

October 7, 2008

Recently, Thomas Friedman’s column entitled Green the Bailout made a point that others have tried to make — that the energy challenge is really an economic opportunity for the U.S. to become the world leader in a brand new industry, one that just happens to create a lot of manufacturing jobs.  Meanwhile, the New York Times also reports that Congress is deadlocked over the issue of extending a tax bill that includes incentives for the development of renewable energy technology. 

The reason that we, the world’s leading emitter of CO2, have our heads up our stranded assets is that transforming our energy paradigm is complex, and politicians serve their own self-interests more effectively when they offer simple, if baseless, solutions.

In 1997, I wrote an article about cogeneration and learned a few things about energy, energy policy, and global warming.  It seemed obvious then that an overhaul of the American energy infrastructure would mitigate carbon emissions, spawn new economic growth, and result in a system that is more efficient, more reliable, and more secure.  But even today, inasmuch as “going green” has caught on as a concept (Hey, we’re buying Priuses and twisy light bulbs!), there is no leader or presumptive leader who is honestly describing the scale and scope of the audacious project required to achieve legitimate change.

In the early 20th century, when the initial investments to electrify America were made, there were technologists who recommended a distributed network of smaller, cogenerating power plants serving individual communities and making use of “waste” heat to warm buildings through a network of steam pipes.  Instead, Congress voted to build the centralized system we have today, which is based on fewer, very large power plants sending electricity over a vast network of wires (the grid) and emitting their heat in the form of useless clouds of steam.  

The U.S. was fully electrified by the 1950s, and what we got out of the deal was an oligopoly of lumbering utility companies with no incentive to innovate, a system that burns roughly 2/3 more fuel (mostly coal) than necessary, and a network that is more vulnerable to massive blackouts than a distributed system would have been.

It is an unfortunate reality of politics and human nature that a significant change in mindset tends to require a catastrophic event; and although we haven’t yet witnessed anything on the scale of The Black Plague or WWII, events from 9/11 to Katrina to the current financial crisis are scary enough to demonstrate significant flaws in our thinking about security, climate policy, and the economy.  

There isn’t a candidate who doesn’t use the phrase “end our dependence on foreign oil.”  After all, it’s not every day you get to appeal both to environmentalism and jingoism at the same time.  And while oil, foreign or otherwise, is fundamental, it’s only part of the energy picture.  If oil is the blood, then power generation is the entire cardio-vascular system; and to change that system requires investment on the scale of a war or the Apollo program.  That means the support of Congress and the mandate of a president who, like Kennedy and the moon landing, says it will be done because it must be done.  (Not unlike the way W. unilaterally marched into Baghdad, only you know, less stupid.)

The Apollo Program cost $135 billion (adjusted for 2005 dollars), and just last week Congress passed a $700 billion bailout package for which we taxpayers do not even get some cool TV footage of a guy stepping on the moon.  Instead, we get a pile of nearly worthless securities that are going to be valued by the very crooks who created them in the first place.  Meanwhile, we still have middle-class Americans losing jobs or unable to afford basic needs and we still have an outdated energy infrastructure. 

So, as long as the republicans’ cherries needed to be broken, and they had to accept a bill that reeks of socialism, why not a different kind of investment?  What if we took the same $700 billion and subsidized private sector R&D in new energy technology?  What might the results be?  Jobs, new companies investors could back with confidence, and creation of a new energy infrastructure that would be safer, more reliable, cost less to operate, and emit less carbon.  Naive?  Maybe. But probably not more naive than buying a bunch of worthless securities and asking the perpetrators of the fraud to help us navigate our way out of the mess they created.  

Americans who seem to insist most loudly that this is the greatest country in the world are also the ones most likely to vote for the people who keep dismantling it.  It’s time to build things again.


VP Debate: You’re Kidding, Right?

October 4, 2008

I have been trying to write something for hours about that fiasco Thursday night, but I can’t get past the idea that the incoherent dross that kept falling out of Palin’s mouth warrants any more attention than a dismissive wave of the hand.  But it really happened.  She really went on TV, really said all that stuff, and millions of Americans are really going to vote for McCain knowing that she could wind up as president.

I blame myself.  Since 2000, I have been saying (and I know there are others of you out there) that I would sooner vote for a lobotomized baboon than see W. serve another minute in office.  Clearly, I underestimated the capacity of the Republican Party to find a lobotomized baboon among their ranks.  Enough already.  I’m glad Biden was a gent because he needed to be, but it was an insult that he had to be on stage with this twit whose only claim to legitimacy is that, for now, she is governor of a state that can technically be run by a schnauzer.  THERE’S NOBODY IN ALASKA!  The only people in Alaska are miners, oil workers, drug-addicted refugees from the mainland, and the Inuit.  There are Manhattan city blocks with more population.

Despite all indications that Palin is, shall we say, non-traditionally intelligent, she’s here, we’re dealing with her, and even if McCain loses, she might be back.  It’s pretty clear the republican power brokers like a puppet; and if you think Bush was easy to manipulate, you can just picture Karl Rove making himself a Sarah marionette right now and practicing a little show they’ll be performing in 2011.

For now, though, I offer a few of my favorite highlights from the “debate.”

PALIN:  And as for who coined that central war on terror being in Iraq, it was the General Petraeus and al Qaeda, both leaders there and it’s probably the only thing that they’re ever going to agree on, but that it was a central war on terror is in Iraq. You don’t have to believe me or John McCain on that. I would believe Petraeus and the leader of al Qaeda.

I don’t know what to mock first, the rambling profusion of words, the fact that what she means to say is just plain untrue, or the subtle suggestion that Gen. Petraeus and the leaders of al Qaeda might agree on a few things.  You can almost hear the sphincters of the Joint Chiefs gripping leather in the Situation Room.

PALIN:  There have been huge blunders in the war. There have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with every administration.

It’s true.  Every administration starts an illegal war on false premises; bungles  emergency management after a natural disaster; turns trillions of dollars of surplus into trillions of dollars worth of debt; and oversees the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression.  Happens all the time.

PALIN: Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be all, end all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.

I can’t fault her on this because I think it was Einstein who first said that nuclear holocaust would be the “be all, end all of just too many people . . .”  Gosh, that nuclear war’s a real pain in the keister, don’tcha think?

PALIN:  We’ve got to become energy independent for that reason. Also as we rely more and more on other countries that don’t care as much about the climate as we do, we’re allowing them to produce and to emit and even pollute more than America would ever stand for.

Energy, according to the pundits in the pre-game show, was to be one of Palin’s “strengths” in this little donnybrook of the mind, and this was her bringing her A-Game.  It may be possible to find countries who care less about the climate than America, but it is not possible to find any who have yet to put as much carbon into it.  Just imagine if we didn’t care.

PALIN: We’re circulating about $700 billion a year into foreign countries, some who do not like America — they certainly don’t have our best interests at heart — instead of those dollars circulating here, creating tens of thousands of jobs and allowing domestic supplies of energy to be tapped into and start flowing into these very, very hungry markets.

Okay, this one’s comprehensible, but it’s a tired old chestnut the republicans drag out whenever the subject of domestic drilling comes up.  The facts are simple:  1)  the U.S. doesn’t have enough oil to fuel its own economy; 2) many of the billions we spend go directly to American and Western European oil companies because they’re the ones who actually develop the oil for our sometime enemies in the Mideast; 3) developing new sources of fossil fuels is a backward view of the economic/energy/climate paradigm.   Again, this is supposed to be one of her areas of expertise.

PALIN: One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let’s commit ourselves just every day American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say never again. Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars.

This one may be my favorite.  It is because Joe Six Pack and the hockey moms across the nation do band together and vote for politicians opposed to any form of market regulation that they have had this financial crisis shoved firmly up their fat, soon-to-be-unemployed asses.  

Yawn of A New Era: Presidential Debate 1

September 29, 2008

Boy, that was a barn-burner, wasn’t it.  Debate is a word that functions either as a noun or a verb, and last night it was definitely a noun. Watching the two presidential nominees square off, it seemed clear to me that either candidate would make a fine United States Senator. In fact, but for Jim Lehrer, I could easily have believed I was watching C-Span.  At a time when Americans are begging for leadership — what with two mismanaged wars, a rising cost of basic needs, and a financial crisis that has eerie similarities to The Great Depression — neither McCain nor Obama managed to distill the emotional weight of our national challenges into a single, memorable phrase that said, “I get it, I know how you feel, and I see a way through this mess.”

This is atypical criticism coming from me; I’m not a sound-byte kinda guy.  I like a president who knows enough about a lot of things to occasionally sound a bit pedantic.  I used to ridicule anyone who called Gore “boring” as if that were a legitimate criticism of his capacity for sound governance.  No question I’ll take dull and competent over folksy and stupid any day; but there are times when style counts a lot, when the ability to lead is aligned with the ability to speak; and one of those times is now.

During the bombing of London, Churchill’s greatest contribution as a leader was his tremendous capacity to give voice to the resolve of the British people.  And although we may not be huddled underground waiting out an air raid, America currently faces challenges that can be no less devastating to the foundations of its society; and I think everyone, no matter what their politics, understands that our role in the world is crumbling.

Both men last night talked about plans, but neither demonstrated vision or passion.  I’ll support Obama because I prefer his politics and believe that he actually does understand the fundamental and systemic problems in this country; but one cannot lead by being too nice.  I admire his determination to be a gentleman and to avoid the glib and divisive politics that score short-term points while serving nobody.  But with the gross mismanagement of the country laid bare, he (or his writers) ought to have the capacity to distill our collective outrage into at least a few stirring words.  This debate should have been easy for him.  Without attacking McCain, all Obama had to do was look and sound presidential, look and sound like the guy who could see through the wreckage to a new definition of American prosperity; and McCain would have sounded like the decent but out of touch old man that he is.  Barack blew it big time.

There’s a reason certain presidential quotes make it into the history books, and it’s because they beautifully sum up a seminal moment so well that little else need be said.  For my money, I have only heard one history-book quality statement in this entire campaign and it came from Bill Clinton at the convention.  He said, “We lead better by the power of our example than by an example of our power.”  I believe these sixteen words encapsulate the ideological flaws with both our current foreign and domestic policies better than Obama’s entire acceptance speech (not that it was a bad speech).

Obama should stop worrying about people thinking he’s too intellectual and, if he has it in him, start putting a few teeth into his words.  We’ve spent eight years with a president who lacks the leadership skill to be the last lemming over the cliff, and the cost (which is still rising) has been dear.  If Obama wants to lead, he has to start by keeping us awake.