Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: A Good Year for Progressives

There always seems to be plenty of bad news burdening people's spirits, so I thought it might be a good idea to counteract that and help put Democrats and progressives in a positive frame of mind for the new year by highlighting some of the many electoral successes achieved in 2012.

First and biggest of all, of course, was President Barack Obama's decisive re-election victory on November 6.  The final outcome wasn't as close as many expected, with the President running up margins of 332-206 in the Electoral College, nearly 4 million in the popular vote, and 4% in the popular vote percentage.  The Obama-Biden ticket pulled in over 51% of the total vote, while, in delicious irony, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan guessed it...47%!  See all the final results here

Congress will be more friendly this session too.  Democrats had to defend 23 Senate seats to only 10 for the GOP.  Democrats annihilated the opposition, winning 25 seats to only 8 for the GOP.  Consequently, the Democratic majority in the Senate will expand by two, to 55-45.  In the House, Democrats prevailed too, taking 1% more of the people's votes nationally than the Republicans.  GOP monkey business with District "gerrymandering" kept Democrats from taking control of the House, but they still picked up 8 seats, 4 of them here in California.

Here in California, Democrats set the table in 2010 by winning every statewide office from Governor down to Secretary of State.  Thanks to the people's nonpartisan reapportionment commission and the Republicans' increasingly out of touch stands on the issues, Democrats finished the job in 2012 by rolling to 2/3 majorities in both the State Assembly (55-25) and State Senate (30-10).  These super majorities mean the Republicans will no longer be able to block the budget as they have been doing for years now, returning state government to functionality for the first time in years.

Progressivism also prevailed in the balloting for state initiatives.  The schools were saved from additional devastating cuts courtesy of the voters' solid approval of Proposition 30.  The public also saw through and turned down repugnant special interest efforts to silence the political voice of workers while leaving those of corporations and the wealthy untouched (Prop 32, the Koch brothers) and to fleece auto insurance customers (Prop 33, Mercury Insurance).   

What's more, around the country there were other important progressive victories in direct democracy.  For the first time, same-sex marriage was approved by the voters.  The first states to share the distinction of voting for marriage equality are Maine, Maryland and Wisconsin.  In addition, Minnesota turned down an initiative that would have prohibited gay marriage. 

There were also successful ballot measures in Montana, Colorado and the city of Chicago to declare that corporations do not have the rights of people and to direct their states to draft a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. 

All in all, it was a satisfying year at the ballot box for progressives in 2012, making it all the easier to keep a positive and optimistic attitude for the coming year.  A Happy New Year to one and all!     

Thursday, December 27, 2012

News Article Misleads

I saw a news story about this year's national retail Christmas sales today, and it really bothered me.  It seems like it's getting harder and harder to find news stories that are just that--news stories--rather than opinion pieces in the guise of news, or perhaps news stories, but, as in this case, presented in a slanted way that skews the meaning in a misleading direction.

The story that got my goat this morning was by Mae Anderson and Candice Choi of the Associated Press.  It paints a bleak picture of anemic holiday sales and a commercial disaster for retailers this Christmas season.  It starts, "Bargain-hungry Americans will need to go on a post-Christmas spending binge to salvage this holiday shopping season."  My goodness, that's terrible.  And I had been hearing before Christmas that things were looking good!  The article goes on, "...U.S. holiday sales so far this year have been the weakest since 2008, when the nation was in deep recession."  

After reading this I was wondering how much sales had dropped compared to last year.  So, after the distressing opening about merchants needing salvation and sales being weak, then slogging through several individual examples of shoppers in the stores after Christmas looking for deep discounts, I finally got to paragraph fourteen.  It states, "So far, holiday sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent compared with last year, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report." 

What, sales increased?  As in, they sold more this year than last?  Objectively, that is not weak or worse.  It is better.  And what is more, the report is incomplete, with more data apparently still to come in.  In paragraph eighteen we read, "The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, said Wednesday that it's sticking to its forecast for total sales for November and December to be up 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year."  So, despite the gloom and doom opening, we find out that sales are up, not down, and that the industry itself remains optimistic that when the final figures come in they will be much better yet.

So what on earth were the authors talking about?  Farther into paragraph eighteen they shed some light on this by writing, "That's more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009 when sales were up just 0.3 percent." 

Now we see.  Instead of writing that Christmas sales in 2012 continued the upward trend of the past three years, though at a slower rate than the past two, which would have been accurate, we are told that business is dire and can only be "salvaged" by a last-minute "binge."  Terms like "salvaged" and "binge" conjure up images of disaster and manic behavior, a perfect picture of desperation before an impending calamity, rather than ongoing growth at a marginally lower level than the last couple of holiday seasons.

As an AP story, the item was picked up by ABC News and major papers across the country such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post and Houston Chronicle.  When consumers turn to news sources they need to be able to depend on unbiased information.  When they get slant in the guise of information, they are savvy enough to recognize that for what it is.  The more this happens the more it breeds cynicism among the public about the news in general.  Without accepted facts rational civic debate is impossible.  Opinion and analysis pieces have their places.  This blog is certainly one, for instance.  And like it, they need to be clearly labelled as such.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mass Murder: No More Excuses, It's Time to Act

It already seems like more than three days since Sandy Hook Elementary School and the hamlet of Newtown, Connecticut first entered our consciousness.  This most recent in our nightmare series of massacres, the thirtieth since Colorado's Columbine High School (see list here) in 1999, is just one more, just the latest. And yet it isn't.  This time it's different.  We have watched the growing frequency of these rampages, but now a line has been crossed with the slaughter of twenty little children.  Now, finally, the ground seems to have shifted.  Now, at last, there is a sense that action will be taken.  The question is, what?

The problem is complex.  There isn't just one reason the United States has fifteen times the per capita gun deaths of the other industrialized countries.  No one solution will solve the carnage on its own.  And make no mistake, no matter what we do, there will be more of these mass murders in the future.  But the fact that we cannot eliminate the problem completely no longer means that we should do nothing and put up with the evil as it gets steadily worse.  We haven't eliminated road fatalities either, and yet actions we have taken--seat belts, air bags, reinforcement bars, cars designed with crumple zones, better road engineering, lighting, signage, and a societal sea change against drunk driving to name some--have resulted in cutting the number of fatalities significantly over the years.

Major voices are speaking out again.  It started in the New York times with Nicholas Kristof.  Mayor Bloomberg added his voice.  President Obama's remarks yesterday at Newtown's interfaith memorial service, that "We can't tolerate this anymore.  We aren't doing enough and we will have to change," made it clear that business as usual is not acceptable, and that the weight of the presidency will soon be engaged.  The consensus for action is spreading.  This morning conservative Republican Joe Scarborough repudiated his previous thinking and spoke at length about the imperative need to take action.

Here's what need to be done.  First, we have to reimpose the assault weapons ban, that is, we must get rid of automatic and semiautomatic rapid fire weapons.  That includes a program to buy back as many as we can that are already out there.  We have to restrict rounds in magazines and clips to some reasonable number such as 9 or 10.  A massacre is only possible when the killer has a weapon capable of perpetrating one.  Along with that, we have to make sure everyone who buys a gun has a background check.  Forty percent of gun sales (at gun shows) need not be screened.  That has to stop.  We don't excuse 40% of drivers from having to take the tests necessary to get a driver's license.  We don't neglect to screen 40% of the passengers getting on a plane.  Next, all the security lists have to be coordinated, brought up to date and put online for all dealers and law enforcement agencies to see.  A person on a terrorist watch list who is not allowed to get on a plane should not be allowed to buy explosives or a gun, either.  As these things are done, gun owners have to be included and have a say in the conversation at the table.  They must be reassured that no one's hunting rifle or target or personal protection pistol is being taken away.  The vast majority of gun owners are decent and law-abiding citizens.  They don't want criminals with military assault weapons either.  They don't go dove, quail or deer hunting with AK-47s and AR-15s.

We also have to do a much better job of identifying and treating people with dangerous psychological conditions.  Read this piece for one woman's chilling account of trying to control her violently delusional son.  Mental health services have been cut too much.  Too many people are not getting the help they need.  Too many families are overwhelmed and have nowhere to turn until crimes are committed and the justice system is left to deal with the wreckage.  Yes, people have rights.  But society has a right to be protected, too.  Where is the line?  There needs to be one.

Finally, what in society is fostering a climate of death and mayhem?  Is there an eroticism of the power of violence?  Are violent video games, movies and music contributing?  If so, to what extent?  Who is vulnerable?  Are we making things worse by publicizing the names and pictures of the authors of these heinous atrocities?  Can the social climate itself be changed?  Look at what has happened over the years to the former acceptability of such practices as drunk driving, smoking and racial and gender discrimination.  When society decides that something is not cool, but contemptuous, real changes in behavior, changes for the good, can take place.  It's time to engage the  findings of the behavioral sciences to sort these things out.  Let's get to work.     



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why the Closed Union Shop is Fair

Last week the Republican-controlled Michigan House and Senate passed legislation banning the closed union shop.  What it basically does is make it illegal to require someone to belong to the union in order to work at a unionized employer.  I'd like to touch on the reasons why the closed shop is reasonable and justifiable. 

The most often-cited justification is to stop the unfair practice of "free riders."  Since negotiated wages, benefits and safe and healthy working conditions are enjoyed by all the workers, it is unfair for some to reap the rewards without contributing through their membership and dues to the cost and support of bargaining for them.

A second reason comes from the idea of the corporation as a cooperative endeavor in which management and labor each have roles and responsibilities to the organization.  The company cannot operate without both.  Opponents of union shop often say they stand for the freedom of workers to choose.  They like to call such laws as recently passed in Michigan "right to work laws."  A better frame of reference might be "corporate servitude laws."  When a person hires into a firm there are always a number of requirements involved.  The prospective employee doesn't get the freedom to tailor everything to his or her own personal wishes.  A host of such issues as hours, pay, breaks, vacation policies, sick leave, retirement benefits, discipline procedures, scheduling and the work to be performed are all part of the package.  When you hire in you are accepting all of the above.  To say that the worker has no freedom with regards to what management wants but freedom only in what their fellow workers want smacks of the authoritarian mindset toward which that view is slanted.

Finally, the union shop can only exist where it is democratic and contractual.  Unlike the corporation, the union is a democratic organization.  It must be voted in by the workers and the contracts it negotiates for them must be democratically approved by their votes.  When union shop arrangements are in place they exist because they have been negotiated and accepted by both sides and ratified by a vote of the workers.  The result is a contract, a binding agreement on both sides with the force of law.  Consequently, to pass laws like Michigan's is to restrict the freedom of labor and management to negotiate conditions of employment, to subvert the force of a contract and to obviate the democratically expressed voice of the workers.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Spielberg's "Lincoln" a Masterpiece

I saw Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln" and was tremendously impressed.  This History Professor scores it an A+.  Whether your interest is historical accuracy, a compelling story or fine cinema, you will not leave the theater disappointed.  Spielberg's dramatic portrayal of the successful passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forever ended American slavery, is a masterwork.

I was most gratified to see the care with which the film scrupulously remained faithful to the historical record and the sense of the era it portrayed.  Spielberg retained the consulting services of eminent presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and it showed.  I've read Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. She knows the history and how to spin it into a good yarn.  The movie apparently consciously included scenes recreated in intricate detail from Civil War era photographs and lithographs, such as the conflagration that consumed Richmond, Virginia.  The public events and words were spot on, as were the attention to period fashion, attitudes, technology and patterns of speech.  Private conversations, as between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln or between Secretary of State William Seward and the political operatives charged with securing votes in the House of Representatives, are not part of the historical record but were faithful to the sense of what we know and highly plausible renditions.  And yes, President Lincoln did actually meet with Confederate peace envoys scant weeks before the end of the dreadful conflict.

The story has an edge of your seat quality, both because of the great stakes involved within the setting of the nation's most terrible ordeal, but also as a result of the fine script.  I was reminded of the film Apollo 13, in that as a viewer you already know the outcome but get so wrapped up in the story that it is gripping anyway.  Lincoln is a political story of strategy and maneuvering, but it also transcends that due to the timeless nature of the human rights it's concerned with, the interpersonal electricity between the people involved, and the fierce urgency with which the president pursued the fight over the Thirteenth.  His political and historical sense told him it was a moment that might pass, given the sweeping changes about to envelop the nation with its terrible war coming to an end.  The story is an object lesson in the scope of an individual with a firm moral compass to drive events and of the individual struggles many faced in making their fateful choices pro and con.

As a piece of movie making I feel only Schindler's List can compare with this film in all of Spielberg's lengthy repertoire.  It will be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and I'd say will be odds on to win, as may well the script by Tony Kushner.  Although portraying an issue and a time fraught with high emotion, he strongly depicts those emotions clearly without shading off into the oversentimentalism that has sometimes infected Spielberg movies.  The characters are vibrant and vivid.  Expect to see nominations for Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, Best Actress for Sally Field as Mrs. Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant portrayal of fire-breathing abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.  Some, accustomed to the stentorian and somber voice Abraham Lincoln has often been given in previous theatrical depictions, will be surprised at the high pitch and storytelling felicity Day-Lewis gives the Sixteenth President.  There were no recordings of Lincoln's voice, but make no mistake, those are precisely the qualities ascribed to Abe by the contemporary sources. 

On all levels then, I loved Spielberg's Lincoln.  It was true to the history and presented it in such a way as to bring it alive for a general audience.  The cinematic values were high, the cast superb, the script outstanding and the concept and direction magnificent.  Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to Lincoln while it's still in theaters.  You'll be glad you did.