Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Silent Majority

Before we invaded Iraq, all over the U.S. people who were against the invasion sat at their kitchen tables talking about how to persuade their neighbors to join them in protesting against the impending war. Would marches be a good way to get people's attention or would silent vigils be more effective? Should the message be that all wars are immoral or that this war was not justified? Should it be pointed out that war would hurt our economy? Should religion be invoked? Should banners be erected? Should there be a march on Washington? Should people be asked to call their congressmen or to sign petitions?

We tried everything. Nothing worked. The majority of Americans let the war happen, and they let it drag on, until finally the second president to preside over the war told us that he was stopping the war, not because we told him to and not because it was too expensive and not because it was morally wrong to continue. He never really told us why he was stopping the war. He just said the time had come.

Back during the Viet Nam war, the politicians told us that they felt justified in keeping the war going because, although a vocal minority opposed the war, there was a silent majority of Americans who wanted it to continue. It wasn't clear at the time whether the majority of Americans actually wanted the war or just didn't have any strong objection to it. It's hard to know what silent people want, because they don't tell you. Their silence makes it easy for the government to claim their support.

This time, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, a sizable minority of Americans very vocally asserted their objections, and there was, again, not much indication that the still silent majority of the country wanted it. Once again, the majority just went along with the war.

Eventually the majority of Americans grew tired of the war in Iraq. But they never abandoned their silence. They watched this war the way an audience watches a movie. They may have found the war interesting. They may have been moved by the suffering that was reported in the news. They may have become emotionally involved. But they said nothing and they did nothing.

The problem democracies face is that most of the time majorities are silent. If the representatives listen only to the vocal minority, they risk acting undemocratically. If the representatives listen to no one, they risk becoming dictatorial. The absurdity of our present situation is that the majority of Americans, although they remain silent, are upset because they feel that their representatives are not listening to them. They feel the government is exercising power not for the good of the people, but in order to further their own interests. What do these silent people expect?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Taking Down the Sign

More than a few years ago, we put a sign in our window that said, “Keep 'em safe – Bring 'em home.” It was bright yellow and red. We just took the sign down, now that the President told us that the war in Iraq is over. The sign was in the window so long that the colors have almost entirely faded away.

It hardly seems worth quibbling that the war was never officially declared or that we still have thousands of armed personnel in Iraq and tens of thousands more in neighboring countries. I choose to celebrate the fact that, by ending our total occupation of Iraq, we have taken one small step in the right direction.

Obama is trying to get as much political advantage as he can. Naturally. I choose at the moment not to argue about whether he kept his promise or whether he should have acted more quickly. Nor do I feel compelled to debate the extent to which the war, which was started under George Bush, was supported by both major political parties. I'm not in the mood to contemplate the overwhelming influence militarist corporations continue to have on our country.

All I feel right now is sad. It was all so unnecessary. It accomplished so little. So many lives were lost. So many people have been injured.

We are being told that after the Viet Nam war, our soldiers were traumatized because they came home to an ungrateful country. But that is only part of the story. The soldiers who came back from Viet Nam felt alienated because they knew themselves that they had been fighting a pointless war. They knew that the people had been lied to. They knew that their fellow soldiers had died and been injured for nothing. Even if we had welcomed them with parades, they would still have known the truth and had trouble fitting back into civilian life.

This time we are being barraged with news stories about soldiers being welcomed home by motorcycle motorcades and flag-waving neighbors. The politicians who sent these soldiers off to war encourage us to join in these displays because they want us to feel good about what they sent the soldiers to do.

I don't think the soldiers will be fooled by a few parades and welcome-home banners. They know what they did. They know what they saw. They know what an awful waste it was. They will have trouble fitting in for the same reasons that a lot of others who stayed here in the U.S. have trouble feeling at home in their own country. It bothers us that we keep sending our young people off to fight wars that should not be fought.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Can Win?

In the last several elections, Republicans have become masters at undermining Democratic support for Democratic candidates. They have been supporting candidates in our local Democratic primaries who have been hammering at the idea that the front-runner “could not win” in the general election. In each case, the front runners did gain our nomination but were handicapped in the general election because a portion of the Democratic electorate had become convinced that they could not win, so they didn't work as vigorously, or at all, to secure a victory. Their candidate having lost the primary, they sat out the general election, doing their part to make sure that the Democratic nominee could not win, and thus proving that they had been right all along.

Not being on the inside of the Republican organization, I can't know whether the candidates they supported to do their dirty work were recruited for that purpose or were simply taken advantage of. But the results were the same. We lost, because just enough Democrats were convinced that we had nominated a candidate who could not win. It didn't matter that the candidate who had the secret Republican backing did not win. What was important was that in the general election, the actual Republican candidate did.

I am hearing the same talk again. It is pretty easy to trace it back to the Republicans, since they harp on it in their blogs. They have seen time and again that we Democrats are so eager to win that we will cannibalize our best candidates on the mere whisper that they can't win. Can't win because not enough money. Can't win because too liberal. Can't win because hasn't been blessed by the extreme militant right-wing of a foreign government's lobby. Can't win because African American. Can't win because gay. Comb through the FEC reports and it isn't hard to see who is behind these “can't win” choruses. The money, and even the candidates, show up, spread their doubts, and tend to vanish until the next election.

The genius of this Republican tactic is that it recruits Democrats to destroy their own party's chances, like a virus replicating within a body. Brilliantly, the Republicans have figured out that there are Democrats who are so fatigued from losing that they welcome an excuse to not even try anymore. If our candidate can't win, why bother? And when the election is over, if we lose, they can say with great satisfaction, “I told you so.”

So far I have not heard any of our candidates themselves say their opponents “can't win”. They don't have to. The Republicans are seeing to it that the meme gets a lot of exposure, and vanity assures that there are Democrats who will carry the tune. By saying someone “can't win,” a person can imply that they really understand beltway politics; they are real insiders. Shake your head sadly when you say someone “can't win” and, like Tevya says of the rich man, “they think you really know!”

There is a defense against this pernicious attack: awareness. If you hear someone say your candidate “can't win,” recognize that you are listening to Republican propaganda. You may be hearing it from a friend or someone whom you respect, whom it will be difficult to confront. But your response need only be the truth. The truth is that no Democratic candidates can win if the Democrats don't support them, and this time around, with the new district boundaries and recent history of very close elections, good Democratic candidates can win with the support of the people. The question should be whether the candidate deserves your support, not whether they “can win.” The Republicans are the ones who want you to get those questions mixed up.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Uncertain Justice

Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for lying, trying to be corrupt, and maybe even being corrupt. As far as I can tell, he has no prior convictions. If he had shot someone or broken into someone's house, he probably would have gotten a much shorter sentence. He might even have been given probation. But a judge, many of whose fellow judges got their jobs because of their connections with politicians, wanted to make a statement about official corruption.

What is that statement? That if you are a deal-making governor and get caught, you go to jail, but if you don't get caught, you get a building named after you? That if you are a Chicago politician and get caught, you have to mop a prison floor in Indiana, but if you don't get caught, you get a job at a big law firm and travel to China? The judge didn't have to remind us that the most important thing is to not get caught. We already knew that.

There is a lot of research indicating that the death penalty doesn't deter people from committing capital crimes. Other research shows that in general criminal penalties don't deter criminals. Why? Because most criminals don't even know what the penalties are for the crimes they commit, and even if they do know, they don't care. They aren't rational businesspeople evaluating potential investments. They are dumb crooks, doing what they think of doing to make it through life. They know they might get caught, but they also know they probably won't, so they don't give a lot of thought to the length of the sentence they might get.

Politicians are mostly a whole lot smarter than common crooks. They are usually college educated, articulate, and socially adept. But there isn't much reason to believe they think about the sentences they might get for being corrupt. Like street crooks, they know they probably won't get caught, so why worry about the sentence?

And let's not forget about the white-collar criminals who made fabulous amounts of money and profited from the destruction of the financial system, leaving the entire country in a deep, long-lasting recession. None of them have been prosecuted. They knew, from the savings and loan collapse, that their chances of getting caught were slim. Why pay attention to penalties?

The judge who sentenced Blagojevich may think he accomplished something more significant than thrilling the crowd by throwing a man to the lions. But unless the likelihood of criminals getting caught increases, the penalty for getting caught really won't much matter to the politicians, judicial aspirants, and crooked fund managers who are already working their way into positions which they can take advantage of.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What About Me?

I was discussing gun violence with a friend who likes guns and thinks everyone should carry them. He sent me an article which said that the right to carry a gun should be viewed from the perspective of the person who wants to carry a gun, not from the perspective of public safety. The article said that the only important question in the gun debate is, “What about me?”

The author made the point that proponents of guns are concerned primarily with themselves and that people on the other side of the issue are also concerned about the public welfare. I would have thought that such an observation would be considered insulting to people who are in favor of guns. But my friend explained to me that he was more concerned about himself and his family than about his friends, and more concerned about his friends than about strangers. He said such self-centeredness is “natural.”

It is sometimes difficult to determine what is natural and what is not, but when speaking of humans and other social animals, both instinctive and learned behavior are clearly natural. Certainly there is competition in nature. But just as certainly, the survival of humans has always depended upon cooperation. Throughout history and before history, humans living in a great diversity of environments have survived not because we have big teeth and claws but because we were able to live together and benefit from each other's efforts. Just like bees and hyenas and dolphins and penguins do.

Somehow people on the right of the political spectrum have forgotten that humans depend upon one another. They look to their rights as individuals to carry weapons, and they reject the wording in the U.S. Constitution that says the right to bear arms is reserved to a “well regulated militia,” and that it is guaranteed in the Second Amendment because it is “necessary to the security of a free State.” Where the Constitution says “State,” they substitute the word “me.”

This same self-centeredness is one of the biggest differences between the rhetoric of today's Occupy movement and the Tea-Party movement. Occupy protesters talk about economic justice for all people. Tea-Partiers say they just don't want to pay their own taxes. When Occupy protesters promote policies because they think they will be good for society, Tea-Partiers call them Socialists.

The Tea-Partiers and a large segment of the Republican Party seem to think that concern about other people is bad. Their economic policies are based on the central idea that if we do what is good for rich people, poorer people will benefit as an indirect consequence, as the wealth trickles down. But the efforts of the Republicans are not intended to help the poor or middle-class. Helping them is just a byproduct of policies that are designed to help the rich. They reject as a matter of principle the very idea that we should even try to help poor or middle class people. They think that helping people leads them to expect help and makes them lazy, less productive, and ultimately union members and public school teachers.

The U.S. Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It's is pretty clear that the country was established for “we” and not “me” and that the benefits are intended to inure to all people. It is odd that the Tea Party, which draws its name from the revolutionaries who worked for independence, has so much trouble with the concept of the common good and the general welfare.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Afraid of What?

Police in a number of cities have tried to evict Occupy protesters, with varying degrees of success. There are several reasons why they may be trying to get rid of the protesters.

The city councils and mayors that give the police their orders and that are protecting the status quo may be afraid that the protests do not look inviting to visitors. They may be afraid that the protest encampments will become permanent squatters' villages, such as those established in cities elsewhere in the world. These are questions of appearance, and most people probably share these concerns. People want New York and Chicago and other American cities to remain livable and attractive. The powers-that-be understand that this is what most people want, so when they ousted the occupiers, they said it was to clean the parks.

The powers-that-be may also be concerned that the protests will become violent if they get large enough, even though they have been peaceful so far. Most people don't like violence, so if the powers-that-be can make the protesters appear to be violent, the public will go along with repressing the protests. The problem the powers-that-be have had in making this argument is that so far the only significant violence that has come out of the protests has been caused by the police, as has been clearly shown on videos posted online.

But the powers-that-be may be concerned about something that is much more threatening than untidy parks or unruly demonstrators. They may be worried that if the protests continue, people will start thinking more seriously about making fundamental changes to the way the capitalist system operates in our country.

Most people support some of the ideas which we are told are the foundation of our current economic system. Principally, people like the idea that they will be rewarded for their talent and effort, and they believe that the possibility of making money encourages people to be creative.

But there is an awful lot about the so-called capitalist system that people aren't particularly interested in preserving. Most people don't believe that the richest people have been able to amass large fortunes solely based on their talent and effort. They know that luck usually plays a role in financial success, and that exploitation and corruption often do also.

People don't like the idea that individuals and corporations should be allowed to accumulate vast wealth without paying their fair share to the government and without helping people who are not as fortunate and who are in need.

People don't believe that business profits should go only to the people who invest money in the businesses, without a share of the profit going to the people who work for the businesses. They think that people deserve bonuses and raises when their work makes companies profitable.

People also don't believe that businesses have the same rights as people do, despite what the Supreme Court recently decided. People think that they are more important to this country than the companies that make their toilet paper or import their waffle irons.

People also no longer believe that whether a person is wealthy should determine whether they, their children, or their parents get to see a doctor.

If the police and their bosses can keep people thinking about the outward appearances of the protesters and the tactics the protesters are using, most people will support the repression of the protests. It is not so clear what will happen if the public starts listening to what the protesters are saying about economic justice, and it is impossible to predict what kinds of changes people will make if they decide to restructure the economic system so that it acts in the way that the people think that it should.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What Do They Want?

Many commentators, particularly those who sympathize with the monied elite who are being referred to as the One Percent, have been criticizing the Occupy movement for not setting forth their demands. Maybe these critics should turn their gaze to the One Percent and ask what it is that they want.

Does the One Percent want young men who are living in gang-infested, economically distressed, racially segregated parts of our cities to shoot each other on a daily basis? Do they want innocent bystanders to get caught in the crossfire? Does the One Percent want children to drop out of high school because, seeing no successful people in their neighborhoods, they have no hope that education can help them succeed in life? Does the One Percent want middle-aged workers to sink into depression when they are laid off and unable to find work because their jobs have been sent overseas to maximize shareholders' values?

Does the One Percent want young people who cannot pay their student loans back to rely upon an underground black-market economy for their livelihoods and the goods and services they need, generating no tax revenue? Does the One Percent want to be catching colds and flu and more serious communicable diseases because people without health insurance do not get treatment? Does the One Percent want to feel they have to barricade themselves in their houses to avoid burglaries and muggings and kidnappings which increase as desperate people do what they feel they have to do in order to support themselves or their families?

Does the One Percent want their children to grow up in a world where increasing numbers of people resent them because of their privileged position? Does the One Percent want to have to walk to work through a gauntlet of beggars tugging at their sleeves? Does the One Percent want to live in fear that if they make bad investment decisions or are just unlucky they will be forced into the misery people at the other end of the economic spectrum experience on a daily basis?

An historically high level of economic disparity is the status quo that the police are protecting. Is that what the One Percent wants? Or do they really want what the Occupiers want – more hope, more justice, more equality, more respect, more peace, more democracy. If the One Percent and the Occupiers each wrote up their demands, how similar would they look? And if they were different, whose list would you sign on to?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Made In America

I went to buy a couple of pillow cases and towels because we needed them for the guests who were coming for Thanksgiving, an American holiday. At a store called Bed Bath and Beyond, I found linens made in a half dozen countries, but not in America. Three salesclerks were standing in the aisle, talking with each other, so I approached and asked if they had the items I was looking for that were made in America. They all said no. I asked if anything in the whole store was made in America. All three pondered, until one of them said there were some baking sheets at the front of the store that were made in America. That was the only American-made item that any of them could think of. At the checkout counter I saw the baking sheets, proudly displayed next to a sign saying they were made in America. The sign, which seemed to have been placed there to give the impression that the store had American-made merchandise, would have told a more complete story if it had said that the baking sheets were the only things in the whole store that were American made.

Next I went to Macy's, where they had plenty of pillow cases with brand names like Martha Stewart that sounded American. But all of the towels and bed linens were made in Turkey, India, and other foreign countries, not in America where cotton used to be king. I noticed that none of the foreign-made goods were branded to sound like they were made overseas. There were no Lakshmi towels or Patel pillowcases. There were no signs boasting that the merchandise was made abroad. You practically had to have a magnifying glass to read the little tags on the merchandise to find out where they were made. Stores must have concluded that Americans want to buy things that seem American even if they are not.

When I got home, I did find what I was looking for on the Internet. If I had thought ahead I could have ordered the American-made items and had them shipped to me. But I like to be able to feel towels and other soft-goods before I buy them so I can judge their quality, and you can't do that when you shop online.

I don't have anything against foreigners. I am happy that they are busy making things to sell. It just saddens me to think how much our manufacturing sector has shrunken. Years ago, I worked in a clothing store. It sold everything a man could wear, including socks, underwear, suits, coats, sweaters, jeans, handkerchiefs, belts, and hats. Items made of cotton, wool, linen, leather, and synthetic fabrics. No shoes. That's where I learned the importance of feeling the goods before buying. Nearly everything in the store was made in America by union workers. The quality was excellent and the price was reasonable. There were only a few foreign-made items, like some French sweaters for which there was no American-made substitute. They cost more than the American sweaters. No one ever had to ask to see merchandise that was made in America.

I remember salesmen stopping by the store and pulling samples out of their cases, proudly inviting us to feel the quality and inspect the stitching. The salesmen were Americans. I remember phone calls to the factories to reorder goods that had sold well. The factories were in America. The phones were answered in America, by Americans. I remember removing crumpled-up newspaper which had been stuffed inside of big shipping boxes to cushion the smaller boxes of merchandise inside. The newspapers were in English, and they came from American towns.

As I reminisce, I think of the people in those towns scattered all across America who used to make and pack the merchandise that I sold and I wore. I hope they enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. I hope they are healthy. I hope that those who want to work can find work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Police Procedures

The video of a police officer at a California university casually spraying non-violent student protesters with noxious chemicals, the photo of an 84-year-old woman who was pepper-sprayed by police, the video of a marine whose skull was fractured by a projectile the police shot at him, the video of police firing point-blank at a reporter, and the photo of a protester's face which was bloodied by a police baton have all become emblematic of police repression of the Occupy movement.

We have learned from recent events that, to a disturbing degree, some police all over the country are better equipped with weapons than with judgment, and they have been acting with uncalled-for brutality. The civilian authorities have not done a very good job of controlling these police. Or perhaps, in some instances, the municipalities have been pleased with the police actions.

Some people think that the police are justified in using whatever force they want, and that the protesters could have avoided injury simply by not protesting. The point that they miss is that unless police officers are constrained by well-thought-out policies that are strictly enforced, the police will become a menace to the public at large.

That is exactly what happened the other day when police pursued a man who drove off in a minivan that he had stolen from a shopping center parking lot in suburban Northbrook, Illinois. Seven police cars chased him on the expressway, where he was apprehended after crashing into four vehicles, injuring himself and two other people.

The police could have simply written a report and told the car's owner to file a claim with her insurance company, like they do with countless other auto thefts. Instead, the police created a situation which resulted in damage to five vehicles, injuries to three people, and which could have caused even greater mayhem. The police were willing to risk that innocent motorists would be killed, just to apprehend someone who stole a car.

It is hard to imagine what policy the police were following. What rational person would risk so many lives in order to recover a car? But that is what police do every day. A couple of weeks ago, eight people were injured, four critically, when a car that was being chased by Chicago police crashed into another car.

After four students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University forty-one years ago, President Nixon established a commission which investigated the killings. It concluded that the guardsmen had acted improperly and should not have been carrying lethal weapons when they confronted the protesters. In 1997, a study published by the U.S. Department of Justice said that because of the risk of injury to the public, high-speed police pursuits should only be undertaken if necessary to apprehend violent felons, and then only after weighing the risks.

Police like to think they are protecting the public. The public likes to think so, too. But unless the public insists that police follow reasonable procedures, the police can end up being more of a danger to society than the people they are supposed to be protecting us from.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction

Months ago, Democrats – astonished by some of the Republican rhetoric about eliminating government regulation – joked that the next thing Republicans would propose would be repealing the child labor laws. This week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich actually made that proposal, and he was being serious. He said that schools should save money by firing janitors and making the kids do the janitors' jobs.

Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have been lengthening the time students spend in class, in order to improve their educational performance. Newt thinks kids should spend less time studying in class and more time sweeping. If this proposal was coming from one of the other Republican candidates who have already lost credibility within their own party, it wouldn't be so newsworthy. But Newt is the latest candidate to surge in the polls as a possible challenger to Romney. He is being taken seriously largely because he actually has some experience in government, although people who remember how he behaved when he was in office are probably less likely to vote for him than people who didn't witness his antics.

Newt says that there is nothing wrong with a kid washing cars or selling newspapers to make a few bucks. I agree. I cut a neighbor's grass and shoveled snow and had a lemonade stand. But I did it in my free time – not when I was supposed to be in school. We had school janitors to mop the floors, clean up vomit, clean the toilets, pick up broken glass on the playground, balance on window ledges to wash the windows, and climb ladders to replace light bulbs. They did their jobs while I was in class. Sure, I occasionally washed the blackboards and clapped the chalkboard erasers. Other kids were playground assistants or hall monitors or bell-ringers or supply-room helpers. These were positions that were designed to teach us responsibility, and to give us a feeling of pride and involvement. We weren't just cheap labor brought in to bust the unions. Newt specifically attacked unionized janitors in his comments.

There are plenty of countries where kids still work instead of going to school. They shine shoes, sell gum, run errands, serve coffee, and mine minerals. What they don't do is get an education. They are too busy working to support themselves and their families. That's one of the big reasons we have child labor laws – to make sure kids get educated.

Another reason we have child labor laws is that when kids work, they get injured. They lose eyes and arms and lives – not shoveling snow or selling greeting cards door-to-door – but working on farms and in restaurants and factories, and falling off ladders and window ledges. Kids don't have a lot of power to insist on safe working conditions. It's hard for them to tell an adult supervisor that they don't think they have been given the proper equipment or training. Kids just do what they are told, unlike unionized adult workers.

Newt is actually proposing that adults be fired and replaced by lower paid kids. Newt talks as if this would be good for kids in poor neighborhoods. But will those neighborhoods be better off if adults' jobs are converted to kids' jobs, with lower pay? This degradation of income is one of the things that child labor laws were enacted to prevent. Newt must know this. He used to be a history teacher.

Our country has been attacked a few times, but Newt is one of very few people who can boast that he actually shut down the U.S. government, back when he was in Congress. He rose to power because of his “contract for America,” which was so destructive that it became knows as his “contract on America.” He is chiefly remembered as a guy who told his wife while she was in the hospital for cancer that he was leaving her for another women with whom he was having an affair. When he tells us that our kids should work instead of study in school, I have to wonder why anyone, even the most regressive Republican, would think it was a proposal that should be considered or that he is a candidate who deserved anyone's support.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Throwing Away Money

Once again, local elected officials seem to be in competition with the Pentagon to see who can waste the most taxpayers' money. A high school board in north suburban Chicago (Glenbrook District 225) wants to spend $3,500,000 to replace the grass on their football fields with artificial turf, and it is willing to distort the projected costs in order to justify the expenditure to the public.

In order to make the artificial turf look like it isn't as expensive as it seems, the school board points out that the artificial turf is less expensive to maintain than natural grass. Perhaps it is, but how much less? The board estimates that the artificial turf will cost only $36,500 per year to maintain compared to the $80,000 it now costs to maintain the natural grass. That is an annual savings of $43,500, which means it would take 80.5 years for the savings on maintenance to equal the $3,500,000 cost of the artificial turf. The board, in an apparent attempt to make the savings look larger than it really is, said the cost of maintaining natural grass would be $800,000 over ten years. Apparently they hoped we wouldn't notice that they were comparing ten years' costs for maintaining natural grass to one years' costs for maintaining artificial turf.

But that isn't the only problem with the figures the school board is using to justify buying artificial turf. The school board plans on borrowing money to pay for the artificial turf, so it would have to pay interest on the money it borrows, which means the turf would actually cost more than $3,500,000, which means it would take even longer than 80.5 years for the maintenance savings to equal the costs of the turf.

But wait, there's more. Because, according to the artificial turf industry, artificial turf only lasts about ten years, it would have to be re-installed seven times over the eighty-year period. The costs of each re-installation could be as much as several hundred thousand dollars, so that the total cost of installation and re-installation would be about $7,000,000, or twice as much as the $3,500,000 initial cost. In other words, it would take about forever for the cost of the artificial turf to be offset by the decreased maintenance costs.

But don't stop there. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of artificial turf. When it is uninstalled every ten years, it has to be disposed of, like a giant carpet taken out of a flooded basement. And if granulated rubber, which is made from old tires, is used to fill in the field, as is commonly done, and as was done on the artificial turf that the local park district installed, the entire field essentially becomes a big, smelly waste dump, complete with the possibility of air and water pollution from the rubber.

The school board wants us to believe that artificial turf is good because students can play on it even if it is wet, so the students could play outside in the rain and snow, instead of staying dry and healthy by playing inside when the weather is bad. The school board doesn't mention that they have just spent oodles of money building and renovating their indoor pools and field houses and other gym facilities. There is no reason for the kids to play outside during bad weather.

On the same day that the news story ran about the school board's plan to buy artificial turf, another story ran saying that up to 20 percent of the students at one of the two schools in the district are getting subsidized school lunches so they will have enough to eat. This school district is normally considered quite affluent, but in this difficult economy, families are having trouble feeding their kids. And yet, the school board wants to spend millions on artificial grass. Why? Because a neighboring school district has artificial grass.

The people who want the artificial turf originally told the school board they would be able to raise a million dollars in private donations from the sports boosters clubs to help pay for the turf. But they changed their estimate, and now say they could only raise about $500,00 over four years. Apparently they found out that people don't have as much money to throw around as they once did. The next time someone complains about the federal or state government wasting billions of dollars, we might want to remember the little school district that wasted millions, and tried to fool the taxpayers into thinking it was really saving them money.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Where Are The Young People?

Ever since the protests against the Iraq War started nearly a decade ago, people have observed that a lot of the protesters have been baby-boomers or older. “Where are the young people?” has been asked both by critics of the protests and by many of the protesters themselves. The Occupy protests, which have a large component of people in their twenties or thirties, have provided part of the answer. But there is more to the story.

All around the country, young people who have been learning about government and politics by volunteering for Obama or other campaigns or helping organize grass roots initiatives are coming onto the public stage and running for office. Last week, Holyoke, Massachusetts elected a new mayor – a twenty-two year old who was a senior in college when he launched his campaign. During the 2008 election, a twenty-eight year old from downstate Illinois became the youngest elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And where I live, young people are running for office and getting elected.

One young candidate is Ilya Sheyman, who graduated college just a few years ago. He is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House. Another young candidate is Daniel Biss, who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly when he was thirty years old, and is now, two years later, running for the Illinois Senate.

Some people have expressed concern that some of these candidates are too young to hold such important jobs. I have known both Sheyman and Biss over a period of years. A few minutes into our first conversations, I forgot all about their age, because each of them had a command of the issues and an understanding of the political process that I have only seldom encountered in other candidates and officeholders regardless of how old they were or how long they had been in their jobs. But more importantly, both Sheyman and Biss are in touch with the challenges that the voters are experiencing during these tough times, and they have genuine concern for the people and a determination to make things better.

I don't write this post to promote these candidates, although I do support both of them. I write today simply to observe that the answer to the question “Where are the young people” is “Right where we want them to be.” They are stepping forward and making themselves available when their country needs them, just like their elders taught them they should.

I understand the hesitation some people have about supporting young candidates. Their lack of life experience might suggest that they are not prepared. But the young candidates whom I have seen emerge do not fit that generalization. They are ready, eager, and able. If we want young people to take an interest in politics and government, we should evaluate them on their merits, not on their birth certificates.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Might and Right

On a recent visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and other Lincoln historic sites in Springfield, Illinois, I learned that because the Union armies won the Civil War, slavery was abolished in the United States. The docents and wall labels made it sound as if everything turned out the way it was supposed to. Slavery was evil, and it was ended by the victorious Good Guys.

But things could have gone the other way. For a while, the secessionist Southern States were winning battles. They could have won the war. If they had won, slavery would have been around longer than it was. It might be with us today. If the South had won, museum visitors would probably be told that the Confederate victory proved that slavery was indeed a good thing, and that everything had turned out the way it was supposed to.

Throughout history, our museums and schools have taught us that we won wars because we were right. Lincoln himself said that “right makes might,” so the fact that we are mighty proves that we are right. Which is really the same as saying “might makes right.” Or, put another way, might is all that matters, whether you are right or wrong.

Some people have been saying, however, that might and right are independent of each other. We defeated the Native Americans because we were more powerful. There was nothing right about our victory. We wanted the land and we took it. Period.

More recently, we have had to explain how it could be that we have been losing our military adventures. We lost in Vietnam. Were we wrong? Some people think so, but I haven't yet seen a schoolbook or museum label that said so. The books and museums try to pretend that we didn't really lose, or they say that we weren't really at war, or they say that we would have won, but we gave up. They never say that the other side won because they were right. As a country, we never say we were wrong.

The Civil War has been over for 146 years. And still, the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are not willing to admit that their side was wrong. They are still arguing for “states' rights,” which during the civil war meant slavery, a hundred years later meant racial segregation, and today means no social programs for Blacks, expulsion of Mexicans, denial of reproductive rights for women, and repression of Muslims.

Although we would all like to think that we will not have another civil war, our schools and museums continue to teach us that if you can win a war, you not only can impose your will on those whom you defeat, you can also claim that it was God's will that you won. So, as we hear that sales of guns have increased since a black man was elected president, and that the right to carry concealed weapons in public has been affirmed in all but one state, we ought to ponder just how close we may be coming to the day when angry people will once again set out to prove that they are right by declaring war on what they see as an illegitimate domination of their states that has gone on since the surrender at Appomattox Court House. If that day comes, we can expect that our schools and museums will teach that whoever won was supposed to win. And if slavery once again becomes legal, we will be taught that everything is the way it is supposed to be.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I Learned on Vacation

We took the AMTRAK from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois. The online ticket purchasing was easy. The check-in was quick, and we didn't have to arrive early or go through security. The conductor was pleasant. The seating was much more roomy and comfortable than on an airplane, and we could walk around. There was no charge for luggage.

I struck up conversations with a couple of other passengers. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the ride, which was much cheaper than flying, safer and more relaxing than driving, and less polluting than either. We arrived right in downtown Springfield and walked a couple of blocks to a hotel. We were delayed because of a computer problem experienced by the freight line that shares the tracks with AMTRAK, so we arrived about an hour and twenty minutes late. The delay was annoying, but much less annoying than construction or accident delays we might have encountered on the road. AMTRAK is talking about putting high-speed rail on this same route. Sounds like a good idea to me.

We toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum that the State of Illinois opened in 2005. It does a nice job of presenting a very limited story about Lincoln, but it probably didn't need to be built. Few authentic objects from Lincoln's life were on display. The historic district just a couple of blocks away, which is run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, is more impressive. At the historic district we toured through the actual Lincoln home, which has been beautifully restored. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and helpful. In another building, there was a well-presented orientation video. Those who say our federal government doesn't do anything well should visit this historic district. I have visited historic sites and museums all around the country, and a few abroad, and the Lincoln historic district is among the best. Admission was free. Paid for by our tax dollars.

We also visited the historic old state capitol. This is the stone building Obama stood outside when he announced he was running for President. Although some relatively minor mistakes were made in the restoration, such as putting the wrong kind of glass in the windows, the friendly docents were quick to point out the errors and to give additional information to anyone who wanted it. I walked out on a presentation about Civil War weapons. The presenters seemed entirely too in love with their killing machines and didn't seem to have any perspective on the destruction those weapons caused in their time or how they have contributed to our present-day militarism. The talk was for a general audience, and the presenters made an effort to engage the youngsters who were there. But it upset me that the only message those kids were getting about guns was “golly-gee-whiz isn't that cool.”

We talked with a few Springfield residents. They like their town but are sad to see it in its present state of economic decline. One state employee told us that the big problem is that recent Democratic governors have eliminated a lot of government jobs and moved others to the Chicago area, where most Illinoisans live, rather than keep them in Springfield, where Republican job-holders used to turn out the vote. Seemed strange to hear complaints in this traditionally strong Republican town that the Democrats are cutting government too much.

Everywhere we went, the people who depend on tourist dollars were gracious and accommodating. Over and over they thanked us for staying at their hotel, eating at their restaurants, visiting their attractions. I'm not sure that a few years ago, when people had more choices of jobs, that they were quite so hospitable.

It was good to get out of the house, talk with a few strangers, and see what is going on somewhere else. The hard times are reaching far and wide, and they will have long-lasting effects, good and bad. Just like when Lincoln was president.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Herman Cain

A woman who is generally aligned with the Tea Party posted on Facebook, “I wish I cared if Herman Cain was innocent or guilty of the allegations made against him. But after Bill Clinton, John Edwards, ... and Anthony Weiner, I only care if he will be better than the person currently in the Oval office. That answer is an easy yes.”

I don't understand how she could not care. She has a daughter. Would she want her daughter to interview for a job with Herman Cain, having heard what he's accused of doing to a woman who sought his help in getting her job back at the National Restaurant Association? If he used his position as head of a trade association to get sex, how would he abuse his power as President? Does it make any sense to not care whether he is guilty or innocent?

In general, what someone does in their own personal life is their own business. But the charge against Herman Cain is not simply that he was pursuing an extra-marital affair. He is accused of breaking the law by pressuring a job applicant to have sex with him.

The NRA paid two other women a year's salary each to keep quiet about Cain's sexual harassment. The NRA did not admit in the settlement that Cain did anything wrong. But the NRA paid these women far more than most women receive to settle their harassment cases. The NRA was represented by attorneys who were experts in this area of the law. If the charges against Cain were baseless, as Cain insists, why didn't the NRA defend the cases in court, where everyone could see just how unfounded the charges were? That is exactly what most employers do when faced with unfounded charges – they stand up to their accusers.

Our schools have a slogan they use in teaching children how society expects them to conduct themselves. The slogan is “Character Counts.” The schools are telling the kids not to cheat on tests, not to copy each other's homework, not to bully other kids. The schools are trying to counter the message kids hear over and over on TV that the only thing that matters is winning. Our schools are trying to instill ethics into our kids before the kids go out into the wide world.

The “Character Counts” slogan is a response to Olympic competitors breaking each other's kneecaps, to politicians taking bribes, to corporations ignoring environmental laws. It is based on the idea that if we have a strong moral core, a sense of right and wrong, confidence in ourselves, and sensitivity and concern for others, we will be able to make good choices as we encounter challenges in our lives. It is a message that I would have thought almost everyone agrees with, particularly people who like to think they are superior to other people because they are Conservative - Tea Party - Right Wing – Christian - Value Voter - Moral Majority, and legally in this country.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Guns In Church

The Catholic archbishops of Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse, Green Bay, and Superior say that it is up to individual churches whether to allow parishioners to carry weapons into churches, now that Wisconsin law allows people to carry concealed weapons. "Whatever an individual parish decides to do regarding its policy on concealed weapons, we ask that all people seriously consider not carrying weapons into church buildings as a sign of reverence for these sacred spaces."

I guess we've come a long way since the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy had to confront people's concerns that as a Catholic he would have to obey the Pope, which could conflict with his obligation to the nation. Today, the church hierarchy doesn't even seem to feel comfortable telling people how to act in its own churches. Now that carrying guns in church is OK, gum chewing must be, too.

I like that the church's statement encourages people to make their own choices on how to behave, although it does seem odd, coming from a church which is famous for telling people which choices they should make in their own bedrooms. And I like that the church reminds people that they are supposed to have reverence for sacred spaces. What I am having trouble figuring out, though, is why the church is being so timid. Surely the Catholic church can't think that their churches are really dangerous places to be on Sundays, or they would be arming the ushers.

For the past ten years, very few religious organizations have taken a stand on the most fundamental of all questions: whether we should make wars and kill people. I have been told that a lot of religious leaders sidestepped that issue for the very practical reason that they didn't want members who disagreed with them to stop coming to church and contributing to their church's coffers. Is this why the Wisconsin Catholic churches aren't taking a stand on guns? Are they afraid that Wisconsinites love their guns more than they love their God?

Without claiming to be an expert on Catholic church doctrine, I feel safe in saying that a basic belief of that church is that people are supposed to have faith in God, and that people are supposed to demonstrate their faith in the way they live their lives. Could the church think it would be asking too much of people to show their trust in God for a few minutes each Sunday by take their guns off?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Oakland and Chicago Occupations

Reading about the violence in Oakland, which was apparently initiated by some of the police and joined in by some of the occupiers, I have been pondering whether the occupations in Chicago and other cities can expect that they will also experience more violence, either by the police or by others. Because protests in both cities were inspired by the occupation of Wall Street in New York, news reports about them make it seem as if they were all part of one movement, and many of the protesters like the idea that they are part of a nationwide movement. In many respects they are. Most notably, they share many of the same concerns and some of the same tactics.

But there are differences. One difference is that the people in Oakland are different from the people in Chicago. Not necessarily different races or income levels or ages – just different people. It seems obvious, but the reporting on the occupations seems to have overlooked this difference in the protesters, the reporters, the politicians, and the public.

People in Chicago have to deal with Mayor Rahm, a man who was elected despite the fact that just about everyone who had ever dealt with him described him as a bully. When he had the police roust the protesters from the park where they were encamped, it came as no surprise. People in Oakland knew what they could expect, too. It is a city with its own history of police brutality and resistance to that brutality. This is not to say that the police in either Oakland or Chicago are worse, it is just to say that the protesters in each city know their own police and politicians, and they have developed their own strategies for dealing with them over the years.

Besides the people, there are huge differences between the two cities. Different industries, different histories, different geography, different neighboring cities, different climate, different everything. Chicagoans take pride in their El, the way they garnish hot dogs, the thickness of their pizzas, their jazz, their sports teams, their corrupt politicians, and their accents or lack of accents. People in Oakland have their own sense of pride-of-place, too. It shouldn't come as a surprise if the way they protest is different from ours, or if they have fringe groups among their occupation that we don't have here. When the police in Chicago get out of control, we chant, “The whole world is watching” because of what happened here in 1968. I don't know what they chant in Oakland when their police go on the attack.

The press in Chicago has been doing a pretty good job reporting on the Chicago occupation, and the press in Oakland has probably been doing a pretty good job, too. But a reporter in either city would have to do an awful lot of homework to be able to really understand the situation in the other city. Some news outlets try to overcome this problem by having local reporters cover each city and write joint stories. But with deadline pressures, even this collaborative approach has severe shortcomings. So the stories we get really don't give us much basis for drawing any conclusions about whether the activities in one city will be duplicated in another. Social and political scientists can theorize about what will happen, but their predictions usually look backward into history, and they have the same problem the reporters do of not being familiar with the differences among the occupied cities.

Probably anyone can guess what will happen next, but no one can make reliable predictions. The future will depend upon so many things. Oakland ain't Chicago, politics ain't beanbag, and things ain't always the way they seem to be. To date, Oakland is the only city among dozens in this country that are occupied where there has been any level of serious violence. The violence may be more about Oakland than it is about the occupations.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Was Wrong

When I encouraged readers to attend the Urban Dolorosa events that are being held at five churches this week, I thought I was sending people to the sorts of anti-violence vigils that take place on a regular basis when someone is killed. I attended the first event this evening and found that I was mistaken. The event was extraordinary. The music is beautifully performed by musicians and vocalists with professional-quality abilities. The photographs that were projected were powerful. The reading of the names of the victims left the room in a solemn silence, and when a few people in the audience called out names that had not been on the list, the message that violence is too commonplace was driven home beyond any doubt.
There are four more of these events this week. See the previous post for the dates, times, and locations. Make a point of attending one.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Five Chances to Stop the Killing

For the past couple of days, the headlines have reported on the killing of one suburban teenager. It is appropriate that we remember that more than two hundred sixty children were killed in Chicago in the past year – mostly by gunfire. Barely a day goes by without another killing. Some days there are more than one. I believe we can stop the violence.

This week, an interfaith coalition called Urban Dolorosa will read the names of the victims, and will present a program of music, poetry, and photography at five churches as part of its effort to make our community safer for everyone. The programs will be presented:

Tuesday, Nov 1, 7 pm – St Sabina Faith Community – 1210 W. 78th Place (Auburn Gresham)

Wednesday, Nov 2, 5:30 pm – 1st Methodist Chicago Temple – 77 W. Washington (the Loop)

Thursday, Nov 3, 7 pm – New Mount Pilgrim Baptist – 4301 W. Washington (Garfield Park)

Friday, Nov 4, 7 pm – Holy Cross / IHM – 46th & Hermitage (Back of the Yards)

Sunday, Nov 6, 5:30 pm – Hyde Park Union Church – 5600 S. Woodlawn (Hyde Park)

I plan on being at some of these programs, and I hope to see you there.

Whether or not you can make one of the programs, if you would like to get together with a small group of people to discuss helping with the effort to reduce violence, please let me know.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fox Attacks

Throughout U.S. history, people have tried to create utopias – ideal worlds in which to live. Some established communal farms or workshops. Others tried to convert the general society to their vision. Utopians included Shakers and Oneidas and Amanas and hippies. In other countries, they were knows as Harmonites or Kibbutzniks. Depending upon the times they lived in, they were either romanticized, ostracized, ignored, or destroyed.

Today's occupiers are clearly not proposing the creation of a separate society, as some other utopians did. Quite the contrary, they are seeking to reform the society as a whole, not to create an alternative to it. For that reason, they are within the mainstream of American political history, and they are able to appeal to a wide cross-section of the country. They do not pose a threat to the majority of Americans, only to the one-percent whose power and influence they seek to diminish.

Enter Fox News, defender of the one-percent. Using the same misleading techniques that it has employed time and again, it is now trying to discredit the occupiers. Fox has “reported” that some people who used to work with the ACORN organization are now infiltrating the occupation. Fox has printed an opinion piece that claims, without any support, that “Behind the current Occupy Wall Street protests is a 'red army' of radicals seeking no less than to provoke a new, definitive economic crisis,with their goal being the full economic collapse of the U.S. financial system, with the ensuing chaos to be rebuilt into a utopian socialist vision.” Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly led off his segment by claiming there was “more violence from the occupiers” in Oakland, California, despite the fact that reporters from other news outlets who were at the scene attributed the violence to the police, and not to the protesters. When asked if they had been firing bean-bags, stun grenades, and rubber bullets at protesters, officials of the Oakland police said that they had so many officers there from so many neighboring communities that they didn't even know who had been firing what weapons at whom. Fox News has also been pushing the notion that the occupiers are anti-Semites , but Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, disagreed: “The movement is not about Jews; it's not about Israel. It's about 'the economy, stupid.'”

The immediate challenge that faces the occupiers is to keep talking about their message and not be distracted by the daily attempts of Fox News and other supporters of the one-percent to portray them as dangerous, evil, misguided, and who knows what else. It is generally not a good idea for a public figure to ignore attacks, as John Kerry learned when he did not respond to untrue attacks on his record in the military. Because the occupiers function as a leaderless movement, it could be difficult for them to respond to the Fox attacks. No one individual has the authority to speak for the occupiers. But in this case, the lack of a spokesperson does not seem to be hurting the Occupy movement. The responsible media have been reporting the truth, countering the attacks that Fox has been mounting. The responsible media's rebuttal is much more persuasive than anything the occupiers could say.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why No Leaders?

Reports about the Occupy Chicago protests and other occupations around the U.S. keep pointing out that there are no leaders of these groups. The reporters, with no leaders to talk to, have had to talk with several protesters each day in order to get a sense of what the protesters want. As a result, the reports have taken on a very different tone than what we usually see in political reporting, which is a quote from a leader on one side of an issue and a quote from a leader of a group that disagrees. Instead, we are getting quotes from a bunch of ordinary people. The quotes are not all polished, but they seem very authentic and sincere.

The stories that have been written about the Occupy protesters leave the reader thinking that the protesters are not all of one mind. It's really quite refreshing. People in any political movement are never all of one mind, but the usual reporting makes it look like they are.

I doubt that the Occupy protesters are consciously trying to alter the way they are covered in the news. I do think, however, that they see themselves as different, and they want the public to appreciate that difference. The Occupiers see themselves as being part of a popular uprising, not as followers of any particular leader or party. The protesters are, to a great extent, young. They believe in individuality, and in collective action, but they reject the political organizations that they see as having led us into our current difficulties. They not only do not trust leaders to represent them, they do not feel that leaders are necessary.

People who have been involved in other political efforts and reporters who have covered those efforts may think that the Occupiers are naïve and poorly organized. They probably are. But the way that the Occupiers are conducting themselves can also be viewed as profoundly uncomplicated. At the core of the Occupy movement is a desire for change in methods, not just in message. The Occupiers have seen, in the Obama presidency, the incompatibility between a message of change and a machinery that preserves the status quo. The Occupiers are getting their inspiration from protesters around the world who achieved their goals by working outside of the established power structure, and usually by toppling that structure.

The demands that the Occupiers are making don't sound very radical. But the image that the Occupiers have in their minds of how people can exert power is very different from the way that power is wielded right now. That image is what the reporters are having a hard time covering, because it is something they haven't seen in this country in a very long time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

To the Barricades?

The Governor of New York ordered his state troopers to clear the Occupy protesters out of Albany, but the troopers decided not to try. They knew they were outnumbered and that they would not be able to control the protesters if they resisted arrest. The police in Oakland, California used teargas to disperse the protesters there. Some people on the scene said that the police had fired non-lethal projectiles at the protesters. Police in Chicago arrested more than one hundred protesters who refused to leave a city park where they had harmlessly camped out.

All over the country, police are trying to figure out what to do about the protesters, and the protesters are trying to decide how they want to protest. So far, no one has been seriously hurt. So far, the protesters have been peaceful. So far, no one has had to stay in jail more than a few hours. So far, the police have been restrained. History tells us this will probably not last.

No one knows how this will all end. In all likelihood, at some point the police in some of these cities will plant agent provocateurs among the protesters and have them throw bottles or rocks, so that the police will have an excuse for becoming violent. The press will initially accept the police story that the protesters became violent and that the police had to respond with force in order to protect innocent people and property. Later on, the truth may come out.

Once the police initiate violence against the protesters, most people will probably stay away from the protests, both because they will be afraid of being hurt by the police, and because Americans are peaceful people who won't want to have anything to do with violence, regardless of which side started the violence. If the scenario unfolds this way, the police will succeed in quashing the protests. People will feel dejected that the protests did not succeed in changing the country, and things will just keep getting worse. That is the most likely way the Occupy movement will end.

But successful police repression of the movement is not the inevitable outcome. It is possible that Americans will become outraged if the police use excessive force, as happened in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. If the police get totally out of control, public opinion may become galvanized, as happened when Ohio National Guardsmen killed students at Kent State University. It is possible that the public will pour into the streets in support of the protest, as has happened any number of times around the world when people start to believe that they can make a difference, even if the police do not continue their efforts to stifle the protests.

The outcome of the Occupy protests will depend upon how committed some people are, how upset other people get, and how foolishly the police react. Nothing is predestined, which means there is hope.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What Occupiers Want

Any number of commentators have complained that the Occupy protesters have not set out their demands in sufficient detail. These commentators are not satisfied with the one-page lists of demands that have been adopted in New York and Chicago and other occupied areas. They want action plans, legislative proposals, lobbying briefs. Or so they say. What they really seem to want is to make the protesters look unsophisticated, unrealistic, disorganized, uninformed, and generally not worthy of the attention they are getting.

I have looked over some of the protesters' proposals, and they seem clear enough. They want more effective regulation of the banking and financial service industries, to prevent future catastrophes. They want criminal prosecution of criminals who have stolen millions of dollars. They want an economic stimulus package that will help young people enter the workforce and become consumers, in the form of student loan forgiveness. These proposals are at least as concrete as the ones that were in the original Declaration of Independence. King George was able to figure out what those protesters wanted.

But the written proposals don't really capture the flavor of what the Occupy protesters want. Listen to them and you will see that they really only want one thing: justice. They want their government to treat them fairly. They want the laws to be enforced equally. They want a chance.

The critics could probably figure out what the protesters want, if they would simply listen. But they don't want to listen. They'd rather not hear the message, and they'd rather not treat the protesters as if they deserved to be heard. They'd rather feel superior to the protesters, so they mock the protesters, call them names, and tell lies about them.

Our senator, Mark Kirk, even joined in the chorus of disrespect, suggesting on radio that the protesters were all on drugs, and laughing along when the radio-show host guffawed that the protesters smelled. There was no basis for these jibes, but the senator was having fun at the expense of his constituents. It was reminiscent of politicians who laughed as they unleashed dogs on civil rights protesters many years ago. That a U.S. senator would engage in such repulsive behavior would have been shocking, if the senator wasn't Mark Kirk. But, like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond and Bull Connor, we know what to expect from Mark Kirk. We know that when people are protesting because they are frustrated with their government, Mark Kirk will be smugly chortling with the defenders of privilege, showing disrespect for the very people whom he is supposed to represent. If the critics want to understand what the Occupy protesters are upset about, all they have to do is look at the way they are being treated by their own senator.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Victory in Iraq

The president announced that our mission in Iraq is about to end. He is bringing home most of our troops after nearly nine years of war and occupation. He said they could hold their heads high and be “proud of their success,” but he didn't say what that success was. He never said we had won. He didn't tell us what we had achieved. He just said it was going to be over. For years people have been predicting that we would eventually simply declare victory and go home. But we aren't even declaring victory. We are just going home.

It was sad. Despite the president's attempt to make our withdrawal look good, the most uplifting thing he was able to say was that our soldiers will be home in time for the holidays. We all know that they could have come home last year, or the year before, or the year before that. We know that there was never any good reason for them to leave home in the first place. More than 4,400 of them died for nothing. We destroyed our economy paying for the war. Tens of thousands of military personnel will bear the physical and mental scars of the war for many years to come. The country of Iraq will bear the terrible scars of our bombings for a long time.

It is tempting to say that the war has been a waste, but it has been much worse than that. You can't simply call the killing of all those people a waste, as if ending human lives were no more important than spilling some food on the ground. The war has been a disgrace. At least the president didn't lie about that. He kept his mouth shut.

There will be parades and television footage of soldiers and Christmas trees and Teddy bears. Every effort will be made to keep this withdrawal from resembling the end of the war in Viet Nam. But no one is going to be fooled. We lived through this war. We know the truth.

Once again, we have been defeated by our own arrogance. We have mistakenly placed our hope in guns and bombs. We told ourselves that this time would be different, and now we must face the fact that war in any time is never different.

In telling us that he was ending the war, the President was delivering a eulogy. He solemnly tried to put the best face on a mournful experience, hoping that we would remember the good times and forget the bad. He encouraged us to embrace one another and think about the future. But we must not be rushed. Before we can heal, we must grieve. We must be honest about what has happened. We must take responsibility.

We have failed in a way that only the mighty can fail. Now is not the time to pretend to glory. Now is the time to be humble and ashamed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Beginning Again

When Osama bin Laden was killed, I wrote that we should not rejoice, and that we should not kill. Now officials at the highest levels of government are once again celebrating our role in the killing of the leader of another country, this time Moammar Qaddafi of Libya. Should I again speak out against the violence? Or is once enough?

Coincidentally, today Jews around the world are celebrating Simchat Torah, the day on which we read the last weekly portion of the Torah and begin the cycle again by reading the first portion. For untold centuries we have read these same portions, beginning anew over and over again. Reinforcing old lessons, hopefully finding new meanings. Teaching new generations. Recognizing the cyclical and endless nature of existence but hopefully not concluding that striving for better understanding is futile. A spiritual renewal, following closely upon the annual observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and sandwiched between the weekly observance of the Sabbath, all of which also signal new beginnings.

The lesson that I choose to derive from these cyclical special days is that if a lesson is relevant and needed, it can be repeated as often as necessary. However, to keep from boring my readers, I suggest that we have something new to ponder as we reflect upon this latest elimination of a head of state: we may be getting better at assassination. We certainly seem to be embracing it more readily than before.

This time we were told almost immediately that our unmanned drone aircraft were used for round-the-clock surveillance of Qaddafi's hometown, because that was where our informants told us he might be hiding. When he tried to flee, we used manned and unmanned planes to shoot at his motorcade. We used our communications network to dispatch fighters to the scene. Those fighters captured Qaddafi, and then, once he was already in custody, they shot him to death. We were involved in the assassination from the beginning of the operation until its brutal, bloody end.

Earlier this week, the news reported that our military will soon begin giving soldiers their own personal mini-drone aircraft which they can launch like toy model airplanes. These aircraft, however, will not be toys. They will be armed to carry out attacks on individuals. Foot-soldiers will be able to kill whoever they want by remote-control, as if they were playing on a video game console. And, of course, we know that our military probably has even more capable weapons in development that they aren't even telling us about yet.

Our country seems to accept, even take pride, that the technology we produce for killing people is constantly improving. We don't seem very concerned that our willingness to kill may also be increasing. We don't seem upset that we used to think of political assassination as something that was done by tyrants or terrorists or madmen, and was abhorrent to civilized democracies. Today, it is something that we, supposedly a democracy, do to people whom we declare to be tyrants.

There is a cycle in life, but life is not endless repetition. Circumstances change, and not necessarily for the better. Our society has put faith in the idea that certain timeless lessons will guide us in the right direction, and so we re-read the lessons over and over.

Once again, let us reflect on what we have done.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Limits of Charity

My wife and I spent the night in a church with three homeless families. Each night, different volunteers like us stay overnight to act as hosts to people who hopefully will soon have their own places to live. These people are from our community. The volunteers come from sixteen different churches and synagogues. The congregations take turns hosting the families.

Earlier in the day, other volunteers had welcomed the families and cooked dinner for them. They were available to help the children with their homework and to play with the little ones, so that the parents could have a little time to take care of whatever they needed to. Or if they preferred, they could just retire to their rooms and have time to spend with their families. In the morning, we set out breakfast and cleaned up, the children went to school, their parents went to work or to look for work, and we locked up the church and went home.

I have only met a few other of the volunteers, but those I have talked with are motivated by all the best concerns for other people, and they are putting their concerns into action. The program gives them the valuable experience of being able to spend time and talk with people who they probably otherwise wouldn't meet, and the homeless people likewise get the opportunity to see that there are people who care about them, at a time when it may seem that the world isn't a very caring place.

Aside from the nights that the volunteers put in, an even greater effort goes into making this program work. A substantial effort is required to recruit the volunteers, train them, schedule them, and make arrangements with participating congregations. The participating congregations also put a lot of work into helping the homeless families during the day, in conjunction with various agencies.

All in all, a lot of money and time goes into helping a very small number of families – three families a night. Three out of thousands of homeless families. A very worthwhile effort, but so terribly inadequate.

I have been told by tea-partiers that government shouldn't pay for entitlement programs that provide services to needy people, because that is a job that churches and charities can do more efficiently. The tea-partiers were talking about programs like the one that we volunteered for, which drew volunteers from sixteen congregations to fill 120 volunteer shifts per month to house three families a night. Three families out of thousands in need.

Do the tea-partiers think that all that we need to do is help three out of thousands? Do they expect that thousands more volunteers will suddenly come forward if the government programs shut down? Do they not understand that it would be a far more efficient use of everyone's time and money to hire people to run homeless shelters than to organize volunteers to do the task? Do they not see that there will never be enough volunteers?

We spent the night with three families. We spent the same night with thousands more who were just as homeless and just as needy, but who did not have a warm church to sleep in. We all spent the night with tea-partiers who think three out of thousands is good enough.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Financing Housing

While standing outside the hotel where the Mortgage Bankers Association was holding its annual meeting, I struck up a conversation with one of the attendees. He turned out to be a recognized expert on the way mortgages are financed both in the U.S. and in other countries. He gave me some useful information, and I followed up by doing my own research. His basic premise was that the key to fixing the housing problem is finding a way for people to refinance their mortgages.

Mortgage rates have declined over the past few years to an all-time low, somewhere around four percent for a thirty-year fixed-rate loan. Normally when rates decline, people who are paying higher interest rates on their old mortgages refinance at the lower rates. The result is that the people who refinance spend less money each month on their new mortgage payments, and when they get through paying off their loans, they find they have spent less for their homes overall, giving them greater gains when they sell the homes. In the short and long term, homeowners have more money in their pockets. Whether they save or spend this money, the economy is healthier. The benefits of low rates are also enjoyed by people who are buying homes for the first time, although there are a lot fewer of them than there are people who already have homes and could benefit from refinancing.

For the past several years, people have not been refinancing, mostly because they can't get loans. Why? 1) Because their homes are not worth as much as they used to be, so the homes don't qualify for mortgages that are large enough to pay off the original loans. 2) Because homeowners don't have the closing costs. 3) Because people are not employed, so they don't meet lenders' criteria for good risks. 4) Because banks are toughening their standards for lending money, so they don't get burned again.

Unable to refinance, some people lose their homes to foreclosure. What happens? The foreclosed homes are sold for low prices so lenders can get some of their money back. This depresses the value of nearby homes, because the pricing of homes is based on the sale price of similar homes. People feel poorer, so they cut their spending, slowing the economy. New homes aren't constructed. Lower property values cause local governments to increase their tax rates just to collect same amount of revenue they collected before.

What has to happen in order make refinancing easier? The banker I spoke with is arguing for technical adjustments to the way the mortgage lending market operates. But in order for these adjustments to be made, the investors who hold the mortgages (largely in the form of mortgage-backed securities) will either have to decide that it is in their best interest to change, or the government will have to force the change. So far, the investors are not convinced. They figure that even though refinancing would make it possible for more people to pay their mortgages, they make more money off the majority of people who continue to pay their existing high-interest mortgages than they would if mortgages were refinanced.

To date, the government has not forced any significant change, and I think things will have to get a lot worse before it does. The public still subscribes to the idea that people who made bad decisions and can't make their mortgage payments should suffer the consequences, and, having seen the banks get bailed out, people who are still able to make their mortgage payments are against seeing anyone else get a break. Most people are still focused on themselves and not on how their well-being depends upon the well-being of others. This gives politicians, who are still more responsive to the investors who financed their campaigns than to the masses of people who voted for them, very little reason to push for change.

During the first Great Depression, the government initially did nothing to fix the economy. Later it tried to make things better by making technical adjustments. It took years before the government instituted more radical changes. It will probably take even longer this time for the government to get serious. First, the regressives are going to have to finish their work of repealing the New Deal reforms. Then there will be a time of great suffering. Then, maybe, we will get to the point where we once again start thinking in terms that are big and bold enough to allow us to rebuild a society that provides for the general welfare.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jobs News

The same day that the Senate defeated Obama's jobs bill, they passed his free trade agreement with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Like other recent free trade agreements, this one will probably cause a decline in the number of American manufacturing jobs. In fact, the bill anticipates this job loss. It provides for benefits for workers who lose their jobs. The supposedly good news is that the agreement may cause an increase in some farm employment here. Oh boy. Wasn't the shift from agricultural work to industrial work what created an economic expansion and improvement of living conditions – what is called the industrial revolution? How are we benefiting as a country by moving backward on the path of development?

The news the next day was that UAW members rejected a proposed contract, in large part because it continued the practice of paying newly hired workers about half as much as workers who have been on the job longer. The two-tier wage practice was not designed to compensate more skilled workers. It is just there because the automakers realized they can now hire people for less money than they used to pay them. If it seems to you that people in America are making less money these days, this explains why: they are making less money! Anyone who has ever worked in a factory or almost any other workplace knows that there is nothing more dispiriting than finding out you are being paid less than someone else to do the same work.

In a related story the same day, Gap announced it is closing retail stores in the U.S. and opening stores in China. With the U.S. economy hurting, U.S. consumers are buying cheaper jeans at discount stores, not higher quality jeans at Gap.

While campaigning over the years, Obama has frequently said that if you are stuck in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. He also said that if your bus driver runs the bus into a ditch, fire the driver. Any day now we can expect him to issue retractions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No Place for a Revolution

Having spent some time with the Occupy Chicago folks on three days, I have concluded that it is not the social revolution that they would like it to be. It is not a popular uprising. It is not any threat to the government or to business. It is just a bunch of well-meaning people peacefully and creatively demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the way things are. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is probably a good thing that they are there. They have pushed some of their opinions onto the news. They have reinvigorated their base. They have shown the average person who is suffering in this economy that there is an alternative to the hate-based Tea Party. But they haven't mobilized a lot of people yet, and they aren't likely to, standing on the corner of LaSalle and Jackson in front of the Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve.

The problem isn't the message that the protesters are voicing. A lot of the people on the street expressed agreement with the protesters. But people who are at LaSalle and Jackson are there because they are going somewhere, mostly in a great hurry. They aren't there to stroll, like they might be on Michigan Avenue. There are no sidewalk cafes or open-air markets, such as those that are found in other countries where we have seen mass protests. There is no plaza where people relax and discuss the issues of the day. The train stations are underground or indoors, several blocks away. People don't wait around a public square as they do elsewhere for day labor jobs. Millennium and Grant Parks are not even in sight. This is not Madison, Wisconsin, where the state capital grounds are right in the middle of town.

Like most of downtown Chicago, all that there is at the corner the protesters are occupying is a sidewalk which is just wide enough to accommodate the pedestrians and a few smokers who have been banished from their workplaces. Hardly anyone lives downtown, and it costs money to take a bus or train or taxi there, so there are no mobs of restless unemployed people just waiting for some rally to gather around. Other than a few tourists who seemed amused by the protest, the only people who are there are the ones with jobs. They might be sympathetic to the protesters, but they aren't about to give up those jobs in order to join a movement of people who are protesting that there aren't enough jobs.

If people get upset enough, they might go to the trouble of joining the occupation. Tens of thousands assembled in Chicago a couple of years ago to protest the wars and to rally for immigration reform. But either people aren't that upset about the economy yet, or else they just don't see this occupation as the event they want to bother going all the way downtown for. So for now, the occupation isn't bringing the system to its knees. It is barely bringing people out on a beautiful autumn day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Letting Go of Money

I am normally a cautious person. I wait for the outline of the little man to turn from red to white before I cross the street at a crosswalk. I have never tried to open a beer bottle with my teeth. I wear a helmet when I ride my bicycle. But today I decided to take a risk. I decided to let go of some money.

The Republicans in Congress have been telling us how dangerous it is to let go of even a little bit of one's money. Their opposition to even modest tax increases on wealthy people is based on the idea that calamity could strike if people had to part with money. The entire economy could be destroyed. The national security could be devastated. Not only would jobs not be created, but vast numbers of people would be thrown out of work, as the capitalist system crumbled under the burden of fair distribution of wealth.

I don't generally subscribe to Republican economic theory, but their warnings about letting go of money have become so pervasive that, as I prepared for my experiment in letting go, I was scared. I didn't want to be responsible for the destruction of our American way of life.

And what of the personal consequences? We have all been warned that if we let go of any of our money, we might live out our lives in poverty, and people may stop caring about us. There is, sadly, ample evidence supporting that Republican warning.

With trepidation, I prepared for the experiment. I took all the precautions I could think of. I made sure my will was up-to-date. I paid the bills that were on my desk, so as not to be any more of a burden on my survivors than necessary. I told my wife I loved her.

Not wanting to take any unnecessary risks, I removed just a single dollar bill from my wallet. I held it over my head. I took a deep breath, and I let go. Time seemed to stand still as the dollar drifted down to the ground. I stood staring at it where it landed. The Earth did not open up. I look skyward. No dark clouds formed. Lightning did not strike me down. The birds continued to sing. I had survived, and the world was intact!

In the interests of scientific rigor, I acknowledge that one experiment is not sufficient. The experiment must be repeated by others, under other conditions. Most importantly, it must be performed by some rich people, even some millionaires and billionaires. But I feel I have done my part. I took the risk. And now I turn my findings over to others to see if they will get the same result

Thursday, October 6, 2011


For several years, I have been puzzled about why some Jewish Americans were voting for certain conservative Republican candidates. They would say the candidates were “good for Israel.” It didn't make much sense to me, because the opposing candidates also seemed to be good for Israel, in that they supported Israel's right to exist, to have secure borders, to defend itself, and to conduct its affairs as it deemed best. Finally, today, I met a Jewish American who explained what he and his Republican friends considered to be “good for Israel.”

He said that George Bush was good for Israel because Bush thought that if he invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, at some time in the future a democracy might be established in Iraq and this man figured that would be good for Israel. He explained that Bush's plan had only a one-percent chance of succeeding, but even that slight chance justified our invasion. He supports other candidates if they also are willing to take actions, such as going to war, if there is even the remotest chance that somehow Israel might benefit. In other words, he and his friends are concerned about one thing and one thing only: Israel. They are willing to have our government kill, torture,violate international law, displace people, and destroy property and the environment without limits, even if these efforts are almost certain to fail, all in the name of helping Israel.

Some people who are not familiar with Judaism might not be surprised at this man's views but most American Jews would be shocked. Judaism teaches peace and respect for all peoples. Over the centuries, a body of Jewish law has been developed which carefully protects and demands respect for enemies in war, competitors in business, and non-Jews in all circumstances. So I was puzzled to hear that this man, who is affiliated with an Orthodox community, seemed to have somehow jettisoned huge parts of the established Jewish religion which would be contrary to his extreme views that allegiance to the state of Israel justified violations of fundamental secular and religious laws. Fortunately, he explained that also.

He said that, in his and his friends' views, the more liberal branches of Judaism are no longer really Judaism, they are just secular liberalism. As examples, he pointed to reform Jews' acceptance of abortion and concern about the environment and social justice as beliefs that are just political and not really consistent with Judaism. I didn't argue with him. It was clear that he had selectively re-defined Judaism as supporting and justifying his personal fanaticism. As disturbing as it was for me to hear this, even more troubling was the thought that he was part of a community which seems to share his beliefs. But at least I now know why all the logical arguments and all the facts and evidence with which we have been trying to persuade the “good for Israel” voters has had so little effect. Now I know that these voters don't just mean “good for Israel,” they also mean “and to hell with everyone else.”

Certainly not all Jews agree with this man. But just as certainly, he is not alone in his views, and he and his friends have influence even in the broader Jewish community because of their relationships with rabbis and Jewish community organizations. When this man and his friends declare which candidates are good or bad for Israel, it can be nearly impossible to get a different viewpoint heard, let alone accepted. In fact, promoters of contrary viewpoints are frequently labeled as “anti-Semitic,” or if they are Jews themselves, as “self-hating Jews.”

My acquaintance and I had a very civil conversation, and I am grateful that he was honest about his beliefs. I have learned from him. But I am very much saddened by what I have learned. It portends possibly irreconcilable rifts within Judaism and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of Judaism from those of other faiths. Islam has suffered grievously from such divisions and distortions. Judaism may be headed down the same path.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Class Warfare

Progressives and regressives have been accusing each other of engaging in class warfare. It is not clear whether they are talking about the same thing. Apparently, some progressives think that by promoting tax policies which favor rich people and corporations over people with more average incomes, regressives are trying to establish and maintain domination and control by the rich over those who have less wealth. And some regressives seem to think that by advocating that rich people and corporations pay a larger share of taxes, the progressives are trying to dethrone the rich from their positions of power and privilege. If this is how the two sides perceive each other, I think they are both right.

But I don't think it is class warfare, because there is no war. War denotes violence, and to date, there is no violence in the so-called class war in America. There is, however, a question about what the division in this country is. Some say it is between classes. Some say it is between people in different economic situations. Some think there is a racial component. From what I see, the division is one of outlook.

There are wealthy people, such as Warren Buffett, who, surprising many, line up on the side of higher taxes on the wealthy. And there are a lot of people who are of much more modest means who would like to see their taxes reduced, but who are, again surprisingly, willing to be taxed more if the money will be spent for the good of the country. So, the division is not clearly demarcated by how much money one has or makes.

The division is similarly not clearly drawn between whether people work or are retired, whether they are black or white, whether they are professionals or non-professional workers, or whether they made their money or inherited it. The division seems to be most clearly drawn on the basis of one's personal philosophy. Right now, people who are concerned about other people are more likely to be willing to share the burden of funding an organized society than people who are concerned only or mostly with themselves.

This isn't to suggest that the people who are against taxes are inherently selfish. In better times, many of them would probably be more generous and socially responsible. But in these difficult economic times, they have let themselves be frightened into turning away from others. So, some doctors, for example, who might otherwise be showing compassion and acting charitably towards their patients, are grumbling that uninsured people are costing them money and protesting that they should not have to compensate people who are injured by incompetent doctors. And some parents, who would normally be praising their kids' teachers, are shouting that teachers' pay and benefits should be cut.

But these tough times are not evoking the same response from everyone. There are still some doctors who put their patients' interests first, some parents who support their schools, some rich people who are willing to pay their taxes, and some heirs who are willing to let go of a few of their pennies.

The struggle we are experiencing isn't between classes. It isn't between the haves and have nots. It is between the people who see themselves as part of society, and people who see only themselves.