Saturday, February 28, 2015

Truth and Meaning: American Feudalism

Every day, we hear the mantra of the conservative extremists crying for less government, a plea that I share. We should have less government spending on the military industrial complex. We should have less government intrusion into our individual reproductive choices. Government should not be discriminating against people based on who they love. And our government should decriminalize nonviolent, victimless crimes and reduce our ridiculously high prison population.

Of course, these are not the freedoms that neo-conservatives want. They want illusory freedoms — impossible dreams born out of misguided delusion and just enough privilege to support the status quo. They want the freedom to buy any weapon unimpeded under the delusion that more guns means more security. They want so-called economic freedom under the delusion that every American has a equal and realistic shot at success. They want religious freedom, not out of any sense of loving one's neighbor, but so they can sit in judgment of their neighbor.

Neo-conservatives want to return to the "good old days" — not the good old 1950's, but the 1350's. They advocate for a return of a monarchy of the wealthy elite, imagining that the entities like the Heritage Foundation, the NRA and the American Family Association actually care about them. By voting for intellectual midgets who mouth the right platitudes, they imagine that their precious little freedoms will be protected. By electing bigots and scientific illiterates, they imagine that the government will protect them from terrorists, Muslims, atheists and gay people.

But what we really get is government by those who can afford to buy it. We get endless war because Halliburton needs higher quarterly returns. We get exploding oil trains and leaking pipes because Exxon has no interest in pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels. We get genetically-modified foods because Monsanto wants every private farmer driven out of business. We get epidemics of addiction because Budweiser shows us how horses and dogs can love each other. We get colossal rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse because pharmaceutical companies make more money by telling women they are not beautiful and pumping men full of sexual enhancement drugs.

So while you work your entire life and enjoy your rare time away from work, American nobility profits from your fears and your endless quest to be better off than your neighbor. Even more ironic, the feudal lords of corporate America convince you that by helping them stay wealthy, you are helping yourself. They feed you the delusion that you work and consume products in a "free" market while shipping your job to China, busting your union and fixing prices on many commodities.

Your enemy is not your Middle Eastern neighbors, or your gay neighbors, neighbors who use food stamps or your neighbors that don't go to your church. Your enemy is a small group of ultra wealthy people who did little or nothing to earn their riches and who have no intention of ever letting any of it trickle down to you. Your enemy is not the flesh and blood people who live where you live, but the corporate "persons" who are buying your government and shipping profits overseas. Your enemy is not the person who supports a woman's right to determine when she will have a child, the man who loves another man or the person who uses a different name for god. Your real enemy is America's feudal lords who swear allegiance to nothing but money, who love nothing but money and who worship nothing but money.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Truth and Meaning: An Open Letter to Lansing

Once again, our Michigan Legislature is spending its valuable time seeking to punish gay and transgender people for who they are. Bigots have resurrected a bill to allow agencies to turn away gay couples seeking to adopt one of the tens thousands of children in need of a home in our state. Perhaps you think bigot is too strong a word. But what else would you call it?

There is absolutely zero evidence that straight couples parent any better than gay couples. Medical authorities affirm that being gay or transgender is not a choice. So why would Michigan lawmakers seek to deny a child a loving home?

Since there is no factual basis for such discrimination, the only answer remaining is irrational bigotry. Then, let's make two things abundantly clear. First, if you consider yourself a Christian, you have no scriptural basis for approving of such a law. There is nothing in the Bible condemning the union of a loving couple who happen to be of the same sex. Nothing. The verses that you are being told condemn homosexuality in fact prohibit deviant sexual practices, such as rape, prostitution and sex without a loving commitment. And unless you are willing to pass similar laws against people who are divorced or adulterers, what right do you have to support discrimination against gays?

Second, judgment is not up to you. Those who support this splinter legislation are blinded by the logs of hate in their own eyes. Since when have you so little faith in your god that you feel you must be his agent of punishment? Who says that you get to pick and choose who is worthy? If you feel so righteous, where is your judgment for domestic abusers, for racists, for polluters, and for usurers?

So, I request — in fact, I demand — that our legislators offer the proof that any organization acting as an agent of public service should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of their religious beliefs. Religious freedom does not equate to religious discrimination. Those who make this argument have allowed the seed of enmity to take root and blossom in their hearts.

Our state is becoming a national embarrassment. We used to make fun of "backwards," "unenlightened" states. Now, we lie in the mud among them. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Michigan's war on sexual orientation and gender identity is morally abhorrent and will not stop until compassionate and loving people stand up for equal rights.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Real Love

So, another Valentine's Day is upon us. My message today is simple. You are loved.

Even if you get no cards in the mail, you are loved. If no one buys you chocolates or flowers, you are loved.

Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Atheist or Jew, you are loved. Whether you are conservative or liberal, rich or poor, you are loved. Whether you are gay or straight, you are loved.

I know this because I love you. As a Unitarian Universalist, I affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and compassion in human relations. Because I love you, I fight for your civil rights and for your freedom from discrimination. Because I love all of you, I advocate for a living wage, better public school funding, and clean air and water. Because I love every person, I dedicate my life to being my brother's and my sister's keeper, to justice for all, and for an end to violence and war.

And because you are loved, you do not need the roses or the heart-shaped boxes of sweets. You do not need to buy love at the store. And you do not need to buy the lies sold by the hate mongers and fear peddlers.

Despite the awful tragedies happening every day, the world is a pretty terrific place. In spite of our failures and heartaches, there is much to be said for living. But our lives are only as good as we make them, and we can all try harder to help those who are less fortunate to have a voice and a vote about things that affect them.

The best way to do this is to express your unconditional love proudly and publicly, without any expectation of any benefit in return. Love without judgment. Love with no strings attached. Love simply for the sake of loving.

Do I believe human nature causes us to be hurtful, distrustful and prejudiced? Not for a second. Am I a doe-eyed, naive Utopian? You bet. Love will do that for you. Love helps you see the innocent child in every person before life teaches them to be afraid and angry.

I am blessed to be married to a woman who reminds me every day of the power of love. And I am fortunate to be part of a religious community whose cornerstone is human beings caring for each other and welcoming all spiritual seekers regardless of their identities. May you feel that power within you on this Valentine's Day, and every other day of the year.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Are You Economically Free?

According to the Heritage Foundation, economic freedom is “the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.” In an economically free society, they argue, “individuals are free to work, produce, consume and invest in any way they please” and “governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely.” As you read this column, you might imagine that they are talking about you. You might logically think that they are concerned with your well being.

But are you truly free economically? If you lost your job tomorrow, how long would it take you to find a comparable job? Do you make enough money to plan for the future meaningfully? Are you really free to produce and consume as you please, or are you having trouble just keeping up with credit card payments, rising consumer costs, house and car repairs, medical bills, student loans and countless other expenses?

The problem is not with your understanding of work and money, but rather the hypocrisy of proponents of this skewed view of economics. Because, in reality, the Heritage Foundation could not care less about you, your home, your children or your future. All they care about are the handful of multi-millionaires who can invest more in one transaction than you will earn in a lifetime without any concern about losing it all. To the Heritage Foundation, you are not a person, you are a unit of labor, a commodity to be purchased, used and discarded.

Last Sunday, Northwood’s Timothy Nash explained in this editorial how America’s economy will suffer if we do not pass more pro-business tax reform and make it easier for the wealthy to trickle down their riches unimpeded. He based his recommendation on his concern that the ranking of the United States in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom dropped from 6th to 12th place in the past five years. Let’s examine this hypothesis.

Nash’s use of this index provides a classic example of misusing statistics to make a dramatic point. First, the Index of Economic Freedom ranks nearly 200 countries, so a drop in rankings from 6 to 12 perhaps should not unduly concern us. But, who surpassed us in those rankings? Ireland, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Estonia and Mauritius. Do you even know where Mauritius is?

To benchmark the American economy against world peers, wouldn’t you limit the comparison to countries with a comparable economy? In 2013, there were only 15 countries in the world with Gross Domestic Products in excess of $1 trillion. Only two of the 14 countries other than the U.S. rank higher in the Index of Economic Freedom — Canada and Australia. Among the lowest ranking peer countries are Brazil (118th), India (128th), China (139th) and Russia (143rd). Other peers include Japan, Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Mexico. Perhaps before we predict doom and gloom for the American economy, we should first benchmark ourselves only against appropriate peers.

Second, the Index of Economic Freedom includes an impressive array of data elements, all of which have some relevance to examining global economies. However, a longitudinal analysis of a manufactured index such as this must also take account of external events that might skew the numbers radically. This chart shows the Index of Economic Freedom for the United States as well as the average of the other 14 countries with GDP’s in excess of $1 trillion. Note that the U.S. consistently scores significantly higher than our peer group. Also, notice that the index for the U.S. was increasing noticeably until 2008 — the year of the biggest recession to hit this country since 1929. As one should expect, that colossal calamity of criminal fraud and greed took its toll on our ranking — a toll from which we are only now beginning to recover. Lastly, note that the index for the U.S. is now almost exactly at the same level as 15 years ago.

A key problem when using statistics is picking and choosing the numbers that support your assertion and then overemphasizing their importance. In this case, to cry wolf over a drop in economic ranking caused largely by the malfeasance of bankers, venture capitalists and high risk investors is unwarranted especially when we still outrank most of our true peers. And to recommend that America reward the very institutions that facilitated our financial collapse is utterly uncalled for.

Now, let’s get to the real point. The Index of Economic Freedom is not an objective analytic tool — it is a propaganda device to support radical economic views that support a few billionaires off the sweat and sacrifice of the majority of Americans. One hundred economists could create 100 different models using the exact same variables and produce wildly different results. A real Index of Economic Freedom would measure the freedom that workers truly have to change jobs, to learn new skills, to negotiate for better and fairer wages and benefits, and to provide opportunities for their children. A real Index of Economic Freedom would place people over investments, and healthy neighborhoods over quarterly profit statements. A real Index of Economic Freedom would measure the quality of an economy as much as the quantity of its output, the standard of living for the average citizen as much as the return on investment of a corporate “person.”

So, I challenge economists to craft a real Index of Economic Freedom. Included in such an index might be percentages of:
  • minimum wage earners living in poverty;
  • unemployed as well as those underemployed;
  • college graduates unable to find work in their fields;
  • the availability of public transportation and the average commuting distance to work;
  • vacation time, sick leave and paid family leave;
  • workers without medical insurance and other benefits;
  • employers restricting benefits on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • failed privatization efforts and the costs of corruption from privatizing schools, prisons, etc.;
  • income inequality for women and minorities;
  • incarceration of white collar criminals versus other offenders;
  • occupational safety violations and environmental “accidents;”
  • governmental spending on military versus human needs; and
  • individual taxes paid as a percent of actual gross income.
We don’t need to give Wall Street and the ultra-wealthy more freedom to wreak havoc on our economy. We need to give secretaries and teachers, managers and technicians, restaurant workers and occupational therapists more true economic freedom. We need to give women and minorities, and workers in our depressed cities more economic freedom. And we need to give our children the hope of economic freedom to attend college without crippling debt, to raise families without sacrificing leisure time and to plan for retirement secure in the belief that those funds will not disappear into an off-shore bank account.
Reject the statistical machinations of the Heritage Foundation and call for an American economy that truly cares about all human beings. Advocate for workplaces where workers are free to organize for their mutual benefit, and a marketplace free from gouging fees and interest rates. Tell our economists that every human person should be compensated fairly based on their labor, not on accidents of their birth and the privilege derived from inherited wealth or physical attributes. And remind our pundits, as people of faith, that human beings matter more than money, and that true freedom is measured by the way a society treats its most unfortunate, not its wealthiest.
With nearly one-quarter of the world’s GDP, no one should be jobless, homeless or hopeless in the United States. Parents should not have to worry about whether to pay the gas bill or feed their children. No one should have to worry about being fired because they are gay or transgender. Everyone should be paid fairly regardless of their gender. And no one working a 40-hour work week should be living in poverty. A fair and just society is not about wealth. Feed the hungry, quench the thirst of the parched, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. When we do these things, we will have all the freedom we need.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Not Only Once a Year

Let's be honest — America has a problem with sex. On one hand, we prudishly dance around the subject and never really share our innermost feelings and desires with our partners. We freak out over public breast feeding. We blame rape victims for provoking their attackers because of what they wore or how much they drank. Bold men are considered forceful and strong. Bold women are seen as pushy and brash.

On the other hand, we surround ourselves with objectified images of women. The media defines feminine beauty as being young and thin, submissive yet sexy, revealing just enough to titillate, but hiding reality under make-up, hair products, tight clothes and high heels. From winged Victoria Secret models to breast-enhanced pseudo celebrities on so-called reality shows, women get identified as angel or whore and not as human beings.

The common thread among all of these attributes is a fundamental disrespect of women. Our society routinely discriminates against women by paying them less than men, constantly attacking their rights and access to medical care, and minimizing their personhood. Almost a century after earning the right to vote, women still struggle for equal treatment in the workplace, the halls of government, the media and our schools.

In a few days, we celebrate the national holiday of women's oppression in this country — Valentine's Day. For too many people, this becomes the day that reveals our worth as a partner, as a spouse, as a lover. We reduce our emotions to the amount of cash spent on commodities — products conveniently highlighted in our stores just for the occasion. Candy and card makers give us a wide variety of inexpensive ways to display our affection. Florists tell us that only roses will show her that we really love her. Jewelers tell us that only diamonds demonstrate a true sense of commitment. Girls are conditioned to believe that buying such gifts is how boys should show affection. Boys are conditioned to believe that girls want these things as proof of their devotion.

How did we allow ourselves to become so manipulated? History reveals millennia of repression of women. From Eve to Mary Magdalene, women have been reduced to weaker versions of men incapable of anything but betrayal, fickleness and irrationality. History writers routinely ignore the accomplishments of women, often writing women's names from the narrative entirely.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our religious history. Women still cannot be priests despite the fact that the Christian church in Rome was founded by a woman. Unless you are a midwife, prostitute or property of a man, women are hard pressed to find their way into our sacred texts. Even in the essential unique role as child bearer and nurturer, women have been methodically reduced from the Goddess from whom all life derives to something to be feared and controlled by men. Over the years, men have converted the deities of fertility, peace and love to the supporting cast of male dominance and violence.

We have made much progress in recent centuries, but we still have a long way to go. Going further will require than men take up the responsibility of being strong allies for women's equality. A simple first opportunity is Valentine's Day.

Don't measure your love for someone by how much money you spend. Don't try to purchase affection or sexual gratification through chocolate, flowers or bracelets. Ask the women in your lives what they want. Many women don't want sparkly trinkets — they want real commitment to their dreams and well being. They want to be heard. They want their accomplishments acknowledged. They want to know that you consider them special and important in your life.

You won't find love at the mall. Give the person you love a long message. Cook their favorite meal and watch their favorite movie. Write them a letter and bare your soul. Look deep into their eyes and say "I love you."

That simple "I love you" means more than any store-bought present. And you don't need the excuse of a manufactured holiday to share that gift. You can give that gift every single day of the year.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Truth and Meaning: To the Moon

I was 13 when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. I remember sitting around the television with my family, all of us in rapt attention. Successfully landing on the moon was a monumental achievement of strategic planning — one perhaps unrivaled since the building of the Pyramids, Macchu Picchu or the Great Wall. Modern governments rarely plan for the distant future. We are lucky if they plan for the next quarter, let alone the next year or the next 10 years.

So now we are engaged in the seemingly endless debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Will it create jobs? Will it make America less dependent on foreign oil? Will it endanger our environment beyond repair? My answer to all of these questions is this: I couldn't care less.

I don't care about the Keystone XL Pipeline because building more pipes to pump more oil makes about as much sense for this nation as reintroducing the Edsel. Oil dependency has been a bad idea from its inception and throwing more time, money and human resources into that black hole is a colossal waste.

You may be asking yourself these questions. Why are we building this pipeline? Why shouldn't we build this pipeline? We are building this pipeline for one very simple reason — because our economy is intimately and integrally connected to the production of energy through the use of fossil fuels. Moving away from oil and natural gas will cause many very large and very important corporations a world of grief. Exxon, Chevron, Texaco, BP and a host of others have no interest in America moving away from a society based upon the internal combustion engine. And they represent a lot of jobs, as well as a lot of rich people who own stock in those companies.

But, our ongoing support of these corporations also reveals other societal commitments — commitments that are incredibly short-sighted. Our dependence on petrochemicals commits us to poisoning our environment on a daily basis. Oil spills, carbon monoxide, fracking chemicals and coal mining are all contributing to the gradual destruction of an environment conducive to human life. Our commitment to these energy sources also drains each and every citizen of valuable financial resources in the form of gas and electric bills, and gasoline. There are roughly 125 million households in the United States. Conservatively, each household spends $2,000 per year on gas and electric usage. That is $250 billion that could be used for other purposes if energy cost nothing. There are 250 million cars and trucks on our roads. Conservatively, each uses 500 gallons of gas each year. That is another $125 billion if running a car cost nothing. And, in time, all of this oil and gas is going to run out or become prohibitively expensive to extract from our depleted earth.

Is it fair to assume that we could heat our homes and run our cars for no cost? Yes, because we can. And that is why we shouldn't build one more pipeline. If we committed to solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative energy sources over the next few decades with the zeal we have used to pursue oil, then these limitless sources would in time cost little more than equipment maintenance to collect and use. And that does not count, of course, the trillions invested in military incursions in search of more oil.

Imagine our government setting a strategic goal of full energy independence from fossil fuels by 2025. Each home would be supplied with a solar panel and storage battery for little more than the cost of installing a satellite dish. Every car would be battery powered and gas stations replaced with charging stations. All of the oil companies could divert their valuable resources to creating 21st century jobs rather than perpetuating 19th century ones. Oil spills would become a distant memory because a sunlight spill is just a beautiful day.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Community College Realities

Last Sunday, the Midland Daily News published an editorial titled "Our View: Aid, scholarships already available for community college." An adequate response mandates that the falsehoods in each sentence be addressed.
"Community college should be affordable and doable for everyone who wants to take advantage of it. We agree, without a doubt."
Obviously, the Midland Daily News does not agree with this statement because there are many people who cannot afford community college and this opinion piece opposes a proposal to eliminate those costs. The average student at Delta College taking two classes in one term pays $707 in tuition and fees. Add on the cost of books, gas, childcare and all of the other related expenses, and the total easily exceeds $1,000 per term. If the student is working 40 hours per week at minimum wage jobs, that is 3 1/2 week's worth of salary.
"However, we believe in most cases there are many opportunities for people to attend community college at no expense or nearly no expense to them."
No data support this claim. Last year, Delta College awarded $1,077,142 in scholarships to 15,000 students. That equates to a whopping $72 per student — not even the cost of one credit hour.
"Community college has always been an affordable and potentially debt-free way for people to start their path toward a four-year degree and beyond."
Virtually no one attends college today without incurring massive loan debt. According to the Wall Street Journal, the class of 2014 was the most indebted ever. The average 2014 graduate is burdened with student-loan debt of $33,000, nearly double the amount for students 20 years ago after adjusting for inflation.
"Tuition is lower than four-year universities and most traditional students are able to continue living at home, forgoing the expense of living on campus or off-campus."
One-third of the students at Delta College are 25 years old or older. One can hardly imagine that many of them are still living in their parent's home. Another third are 20 to 24 years old, making this a grossly classist point. Just because people with financial resources can afford to pay for their kids to live on campus is no excuse for expecting poorer kids to continue living at home.
"Making these educations more affordable — and in a lot of cases at no cost to students — are federal financial aid packages based on income as well as scholarships, which often go unclaimed at some community colleges because they’re not sought after by students."
According to Peterson's, the definitive expert publisher of college guides, this claim is an utter myth. "This one has been around since the word 'scholarship' was invented... (colleges) seldom have university scholarships that aren't awarded, and if they do, it's usually because of timing or highly restrictive eligibility requirements."
"Presumably, President Obama’s proposal for a free community college education for everyone is targeted at those who can’t afford the cost. “A quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” he said in a recent speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville. However, we believe the costs associated with a community college education, because of federal aid and scholarships already available as well as the earnings from jobs most full-time students have, are affordable. Even older adults seeking to change careers or get back into the workforce can take advantage of federal financial aid and scholarships."
This is an offensive and elitist statement that exhibits an intentional blindness to the state of the underclass in America today. In FY 2012, the average federal student aid awarded per student totaled $11,073, of which $6,654 (60 percent) consisted of loans. Students then typically make up the difference with additional loans from private sources. To claim that federal grants and scholarships are even remotely sufficient to meet the current need is absurd.

In addition, bringing the earnings of the average community college student into the equation is laughable. Two-thirds of the students at Delta College are 24 years old or younger. It is safe to say, therefore, that many are working at minimum wage jobs and and likely earning less than $10/hour. And since few of these students can find actual "full-time" jobs (where the employer provides benefits), many are forced to work two or more jobs to attain "full-time" employment status. And, by the way, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, only 41 percent of part-time students are employed full-time and only 22 percent of full-time students have full-time employment.

So, let's calculate "affordable." A student works 40 hours per week making $10/hour — just enough to be above the poverty level and not qualify for any government assistance. So, they make roughly $20,800 before taxes. If they take two courses per term for three terms at Delta College, the total cost will amount to roughly $2,500, or 12 percent of their total gross income. After rent, food, gas, car insurance, utilities, childcare, medical and dental expenses, and other necessities, what is left?
"The money is there for those who need help paying for community college, but the financial aid and scholarships need to be applied for first in order to be awarded. Really, what needs to become more affordable are the college costs that come after the community college degree. Those are the costs that are crippling people."
No. What really needs to happen is for arrogant people of means to stop erecting even more roadblocks to honest, hard-working people trying to get out of the grip of institutionalized poverty in this nation. What we really need are fewer political hacks so intent on disagreeing with anything this president might suggest, that they are willing to throw the more than seven million community college students under the bus. What we really need are editorial writers who make at least a cursory effort to look into facts before parroting outworn prejudices and unsubstantiated myths.

Every struggling student attending Delta College deserves an apology for this opinion piece and I encourage readers to share your experiences in the comments if you have been a community college student.