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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Complete Noobs Guide to American Politics

Episode I

    In the Beginning... Between 1607 and 1733 Great Britain had been establishing colonies in North America. While the earliest British settlers in North America came from England in order to freely practice their strict conservative puritan religion, which was unpopular in England, the majority of early European Americans came to “the new world” for the financial opportunities the lands natural resources implied. The smaller religious villages were eventually consumed by the larger, more prosperous colonial communities and the inhabitants were assimilated into the colonial economy, society and government.
    The original 13 colonies were as follows:

  1. Delaware
  2. Pennsylvania
  3. New Jersey
  4. Georgia
  5. Connecticut
  6. Massachusetts
  7. Maryland
  8. South Carolina
  9. New Hampshire
  10. Virginia
  11. New York
  12. North Carolina
  13. Rhode Island

    Is There an ‘Old York’ and an ‘Old Jersey’? York is a town in the United Kingdom, northeast of Wales. Jersey is an island off the northwest coast of France. The great leaders of our past were notoriously uncreative when it came to naming new territories. The only empire which ever rivaled the British was the empire of Alexander of Macedonia, or ‘Alexander the Great’, who named a total of 6 cities Alexandria.

    The Grand Ole Tea Party.  The 13 original colonies each had their own independent government and held elections, as well as their own individual paper money. The British government kept a military presence in the colonies and collected taxes to pay for the colonies military protection. Because each of the colonies had their own forms of currency, if one held a job in Georgia, and was paid in Georgia, with Georgia's paper money and then went to Rhode Island they would not be able to spend their money as Rhode Island used a different form of currency. Each individual colonies government provided a local police force, created and enforced laws and imposed taxes for public services. The government officials were elected by citizens of the colony. Most white men were eligible to vote.
In addition to local taxes imposed by colonial government, citizens also paid a tax to Great Britain. Although the colonial citizens were able to vote for their own local representatives and had a say in local taxation, the colonists had no representative back in England, and therefore had no say in what taxes Britain imposed and/or raised. In 1765 Great Britain imposed a new tax called the Stamp Act. The stamp act required that printed materials such as legal documents, magazines, newspapers etc. be produced on a special embossed (or ‘stamped’) paper manufactured in London. All British taxes, including the fee for the ‘stamped’ paper,  were required to be paid in valid British currency, not colonial paper money.
American colonists began to protest their lack of representation back in England. The principle of “No Taxation Without Representation” spread through all of the 13 colonies. British Parliament responded to the protests by imposing even more taxes. In 1773, when Parliament passed a new tax on tea, the American colonists boycotted tea and in Massachusetts, a group of protesters dumped a large shipment of tea into the Boston harbor in an attempt to force Great Britain to allow them representation in Parliament. This act of protest would henceforth be known as ‘The Boston Tea Party’.

Viva la RevoluciĆ³n! After the ‘tea party’ incident, Britain put an end to Massachusetts independent government and instituted martial law in the colony. The colonies put together their own underground government system, each tied together by the creation of the Continental Congress. The colonists, who were mostly farmers, began forming local militia groups who trained to be ready in a minutes notice, and where therefore called ‘minutemen’.
    In April, 1775 General Thomas Gage, who was head of the British military force occupying Massachusetts, sent troops out of Boston to take the militias weapons. The rebel militias resisted and defeated the British troops Gage had sent, thus starting the Revolutionary War.

    The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere is Not Just a Beastie Boys Song. On the night of April 18th, 1775, just before the first battles of the Revolutionary war, the Battles at Lexington and Concord, a rebel silversmith named Paul Revere was preparing for his job as a messenger to warn the rebel army of the coming British attack. Paul Revere instructed a man at a church to use lanterns to warn the townspeople of where the British attack would be coming from. The warning system was simple: “One if by land, two if by sea”. 2 lanterns were hung in the church, indicating the attack would be coming from the sea. Paul Revere rode his horse at midnight from Boston to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the movements of the British army. This heroic action by Paul Revere and several other messengers was later made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his historically inaccurate poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”.

    The Revolution Continues. Great Britain had great military training and power, and even larger numbers on their side. The colonists effective exchange of print such as underground magazines, newspapers and pamphlets not only provided the rebels with a greater means of communication but also served as a powerful recruiting tool. The free exchange of information is an invaluable tool for any successful revolution.
    The British military skirmish fighting style should be a well known image in the minds of most modern Amercians who own television sets. Back in their European landscape with flat plains and low rolling hills the British army could march in uniform rows kneeling to pack their muskets with a ball and powder and then rising to fire one shot, then repeat. They would face their enemy on an open battlefield, who would fight in the same uniform and symmetrical manner until they would meet in the middle, attach bayonets to the end of their now useless projectile weapons and fight in bloody hand to hand combat, usually ending in a British victory.
    In the cities of the colonies the rebels took great losses. Many men and boys were killed and buildings and harbours were burned to the ground. The rebel military was forced back into the remote mountain communities which were mainly populated by Scottish immigrants who were looked down upon by the British colonial immigrants and had more experience working with difficult land. Learning that this fight was unavoidably being brought to them and fearing the loss of rights to their land, these immigrants and mountainmen took up arms with the rebel army and helped to defeat the British.    
In the unforgiving North American wilderness with its high rocky peaks and its dense forests and brush the bright red British formations fell like large booming sets of proper well dressed dominoes. Rather than employing the antiquated and irrelevant British military style, the mountainmen invoked the fighting style of the local native American tribes, donning camouflage such as animal skins, mud and leaves. Rather than lining up and presenting themselves to the British army the new rebel forces hide in trees and bushes, lure British soldiers to indefensible positions and ambush them. These rednecks and hillbillys were a sort of godfathers of guerrilla warfare.
It’s worth noting that although America declared its independence on July 4th 1776, the revolutionary war did not officially end until 1783.

What is a ‘State’ Anyway? You may have noticed that when they refer to leaders of other countries in the news, they refer to them as “heads of state”.

state [steyt] –noun 1. a sovereign political power or community.

Each of the 13 colonies had enjoyed their own independent government before the onset of the revolutionary war. Although having their own government had its advantages, the disadvantages definitely needed to be addressed. Having separate currencies became a serious problem as economies fluctuated and exchange rate formulas were virtually incomprehensible. Trading goods and services usually ended in arguments and fistfights over disputes about which forms of currency were acceptable as payment, and where. The small size and population of the colonies meant smaller, if any military, which proved to be a problem with the British military occupation of Massachusetts. After the colonists won their independence from Great Britain, they wanted to maintain their own independent governments. Each colony now wanted to be as its own country or ‘state’, but necessity dictated that they band together and unite under a central federal government, which would have less power than the states government but could organize a central military and a standard form of currency. Having learned a valuable lesson from the injustices that started the revolution, it was imperative that the federal government maintain representatives from every district in each state and conduct a regular census to ensure that every one of each states citizens was being represented. The federal government would also need to impose taxes to pay for the services which it provided, which was accepted as long as each state had representatives to evaluate the need for the tax and vote either for or against it. Now each separate state, each with its own separate government is united by a central federal government, hence: The United States of America.

The Founding Fathers. The founding fathers of the United States of America were a group of 7 men who advocated the revolution and helped formed the new American government.
  1. Benjamin Franklin was an author, a printer, a postman, a scientist, an inventor and a political activist. He was one of the first advocates for the 13 colonies forming a union, even before the onset of the Revolutionary war. If the 13 colonies were the first season of LOST then Benjamin Franklin would have been Dr. Jack Shephard loudly espousing the philosophy “We live together, or we die alone”. Although Benjamin Franklins parents were Puritans, Franklin himself belonged to no particular religion and rarely went to church. he believed that religion taught important moral lessons, but never felt inclined to partake in organized religion himself. He did, however, belong to the freemasons.
  2. George Washington was a general, and eventually the commander in chief, of the Continental Army and led the rebels in victory against the British in the Revolutionary war. George Washington, of course, went on to become the first President of the united states of America. Initially, Washington rejected the payment offered for the position as President, as he was already wealthy, but he reluctantly accepted payment eventually, fearing his actions would set a precedent of only independently wealthy people running for president. Many different titles were suggested for the leader of the newly formed United States, but Washington settled on “President” as it sounded most humble of all the choices. Washington did not belong to any political party, and was against the formation of political parties as he feared it would polarize the country and undermine the system of government. George Washington served a 4 year term as President and was re-elected for a second 4 year term. He declined to run for a third term, thus setting a tradition of American Presidents only serving 2 terms. George Washington was a Christian Anglican who fought for religious freedom. He had said publicly that he denounced "every species of religious persecution", while hoping that "bigotry and superstition" would be overcome by "truth and reason" in the United States. Washington was also a freemason. Incidentally, if Katie Couric ever wants to know, George Washington is my favourite founding father.
  3. John Adams was a lawyer and a politician and was a member of the Continental Congress. Adams was George Washingtons Vice President and was elected the second President of the United States. Adams was a Christian Unitarian and believed that religion must change and evolve toward perfection.
  4. Thomas Jefferson was a politician during the Revolutionary war and the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the first Secretary of State under President Washington and was the third President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson was openly hostile toward the Catholic church and rejected most Christian religions. Jefferson played a role in his local Episcopal church but considered himself a Unitarian.
  5. James Madison was a politician and the main author of the United States Constitution. Adams is called “The father of the Constitution”. He was the fourth President of the United States. Madison was an Episcopalian and the strongest proponent of the separation of church and state.
  6. Alexander Hamilton was the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. He was an economist and a political philosopher. Hamilton was raised as an evangelical Presbyterian as a child but was openly anti-christian from 1777-1792. Hamilton became religious again for political gain, to no avail and then became deeply religious after being shot in a duel in 1804 until his death the following evening. Hamilton spent his final day receiving communion and denouncing duels.
  7. John Jay was a president of the Continental Congress and the first Chief Justice of the United States. Jay was the Governor of New York and an opponent of slavery. His third attempt to pass laws for the emancipation of all slaves in New York succeeded in 1799. John Jay was an Anglican and later an Episcopalian but argued (unsuccessfully) against allowing Catholics to hold office in the U.S. John Jay was believed to have been a freemason.

    Declaration of Independence VS The Constitution. When the 13 American Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain during the Revolutionary war on July 4th 1776 the Continental Congress drafted a document to declare that independence in writing, published it and made it available to the public. The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 people, including founding fathers John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The first 2 paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence are as follows:

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,...

    The phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” is said to be the greatest sentence in the English language.
    The United States Constitution was adopted September 17, 1787. The Constitution is the defining document of the United States Government. It explains how the government shall work and why. The U.S. Constitution essentially IS the United States government. The preamble to the Constitution is as follows:
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.

    The Constitution defines 3 branches of federal government:
  1. The Executive Branch is headed by the elected President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the U.S. military. Presidential elections are held once every 4 years. A President may not serve more than 2 four year terms in office. The President may write bills, which can then be voted on by the House of Representatives and then the Senate. If the bill is passed by a majority vote it can then be signed by the President and becomes a law. The President can choose to veto any bill passed by the House and the Senate, preventing it from becoming a law if he chooses. To be eligible for the Presidency one must either be born in the United States or if born outside of the United States must be the child of a U.S. citizen. Also to be eligible one must be at least 35 years old and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years.
  2. The Legislative Branch is headed by Congress, which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
    • The Senate consists of 2 elected Senators from each state. Each Senators term is 6 years, which means that a current Senator must run again for re-election every 6 years. There are no term limits, so Senators may run for re-election as many times as they like. The Senate is split up into thirds, so ⅓ of the Senate has an election once every 2 years. I know, this is confusing. Basically every 2 years elections are held for Senators who will serve in the Senate for 6 years. We split it up into thirds and vote every 2 years so that we don’t have to vote for all 100 Senators at once.Senators may write bills which can be voted on by the House and then the Senate. If the bill passes by a majority vote it is then sent to the President who can either veto it and prevent it from becoming a law, or sign it and make it a law. To be eligible to run for the U.S. Senate one must be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least 9 years, and a resident of the state which they would like to represent.
    • The House of Representatives consists of a certain number of elected Representatives from each state based on the population of that state. The Constitution requires that a census be taken once every ten years, on a year ending in a zero. The census information is used to divide the state into equal districts based on population and then each district is allowed to elect one Representative per district. A Representative may write bills which can be voted on by the House and by the Senate. If the bill passes with a majority vote it is then sent to the President to either veto the bill or sign it into law.To be eligible to run for the House of Representatives one must be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years, and a resident of the state which they would like to represent.
  3. The Judicial Branch is headed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Congress decides the number of Justices to serve on the Supreme Court. The President appoints the Justices to the Supreme Court. There are no terms or limits for a Supreme Court Justice. Each Justice serves a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. the Supreme Court can decide whether a law is keeping with the spirit and the letter of the Constitution.

    What is an Amendment? The Constitution has 27 amendments, the first 10 are known as the Bill of Rights. Amendments are added to the Constitution as necessary to further define and clarify the spirit of Constitution as intended by our founding fathers.

a·mend·ment [uh-mend-muh nt] –noun 1. an alteration of or addition.

    The 1st amendment to the Constitution provides us with the freedom of [from] religion. No government official can dictate a citizens religious preference or force a citizen to participate in any religion at all or create laws intended to enforce religious doctrine. It provides the freedom of speech. The government cannot prevent any citizen from speaking out against the government. It provides freedom of the press. The government cannot prevent the media from speaking out against the government or from reporting any facts they deem newsworthy and can prove to be true. It provides the right to assemble. The government cannot prevent its citizens from holding peaceful protests. It also provides the right to petition the government, ensuring citizens have the right to participate in their government.
    The 2nd amendment to the Constitution provides the right to bear arms. given that the Revolutionary war was started by the British government attempting to take weapons from the colonial militia in order to prevent them from defending themselves, the newly formed constitution prevents the government from taken its citizens weapons away.
    The 5th amendment describes rules of indictment, including preventing citizens from being forced to testify against themselves in court and preventing anyone from being tried for the same crime twice. In crime dramas on television, one might hear a defendant in court “pleading the 5th” or “taking the 5th”, that refers to this amendment preventing them from being forced in incriminate themselves.
    The 6th amendment provides the right to a fair and speedy trial by jury. The police cannot hold you in prison indefinitely because they don't believe they could get a conviction in court. You can only be held for a limited amount of time by the police, or they must charge you with a crime or let you go. If the police decide to charge you with a crime they can only hold you for a limited amount of time and then they must allow you to have a trial in court with a jury of your peers. Once the jury has made their decision if you are found guilty the judge can sentence you, if you are found not guilty you must be released. No matter what the jury decides, the government may not charge you with that crime again because of the 5th amendment.
    The 13th amendment abolishes slavery and was adopted December 6th, 1865.
    The 14th amendment provides the clause that states "no state shall ... deny to any person the equal protection of the laws". This amendments clause provides equal rights to all Americans.
    The 19th amendment gives women the right to vote and was adopted August 18th, 1920.

Check back later for Episode II

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Do do that Voodoo that we do...not so well

No one will disagree that America is in the midst of an economic crisis but how we handle this crisis is the topic of much debate.

Crying "Socialist", it seems, has become the preferred soundbite of the conservative right, both in politics and in the media. Preying on the fears and insecurities of the ever dissolving middle class in America, the Republican party and its proponents have attempted to define President Obama's endeavor to drag our nation out of its current economic cesspool as a slow, steady march toward Socialism. As evidence of this administrations socialist agenda, R's point to the Health Care Reform Law, tax increases for the wealthiest 1%, big business bailouts, and various social welfare policies. But is this Socialism, or rather, a form of Protectionism? Capitalism and Protectionism are not mutually exclusive.

Protectionism has historically been defined as the policy of restraining trade between states, through methods such as tariffs on imported goods, restrictive quotas, and a variety of other government regulations designed to discourage imports. A country as innovative as the United States could certainly implement a retooled version of Protectionism where rather than placing tariffs or taxes on imported goods, we implement taxes on exported jobs. With a nearly 10% unemployment rate, discouraging companies from shipping jobs overseas could provide a significant boost to our economy by lowering the unemployment rate and putting cash in consumers pockets.

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was an advocate of Protectionism, which supports government intervention in favor of business. Hamilton was firmly opposed to the British policy of Free Trade, which America didn't entirely adopt until the 1980's when Ronald Reagan instituted Supply-Side economic policies.

Those who subscribe to the idea of Free Trade generally believe that any business should sink or swim on its own merit. They believe that supply and demand should be the ultimate determining factor in the price of goods and services, therefore, if a company is sick it is because it failed to create enough demand, subsequently becomes irrelevant and should be allowed to die.

Good parents may say it is important for children to learn to be independent. Encouraging a child to solve their own problems allows them to take credit for their own accomplishments while learning from their mistakes. The "sink or swim" philosophy may be good parenting, still, any good parent would not hesitate to interfere if their child were actually drowning in a body of water. So the question remains: Though "sink or swim" may build strong character, does it build a strong economy? We are all the parents, in a sense, to our country. We created it, we love it, we nurture and protect it. Now that it is drowning, is it un-American to interfere?

Supporters of Supply-Side economics (sometimes known as "trickle down" or "voodoo" economics) believe that relaxing government regulations and lowering taxes for wealthy business owners creates an environment where businesses can more easily produce goods and services at a lower cost, which in turn, allows them to sell their goods at a more reasonable rate to the public and should increase sales and boost the economy. Opponents of this idea believe the policy doesn't take in to account human greed. Though it may cost you less to produce goods, there is no incentive to reduce the end price. Lower taxes and less government regulation combined with high prices allows the rich to get richer; which is why many believe that a more logical solution would be to focus on protecting consumers rights and lowering taxes for the lower and middle classes which would create more disposable income for consumers, increasing sales and boosting the economy.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was famous for bringing the French economy back from the brink of bankruptcy by implementing Protectionism, encouraging the increased manufacture of goods, and creating consumer protection laws. Many economists have argued that a fatal flaw in the American economic system is that it failed to anticipate the current situation wherein our country, for the most part, no longer manufactures anything. We could kill two birds with one stone (those being our economic albatross and our fossil fuel dodo) by reducing our import of foreign oil with the creation of American made green energy. Getting America building, creating, and innovating once again would undoubtedly not only provide a boost to our economy, but a boost to our national self-esteem as well. New green energy jobs would put more Americans back to work and purchasing our energy locally rather than importing it from volatile foreign countries keeps American dollars in American pockets. With fossil fuels being an ever disappearing finite resource it makes sense to create alternatives now. And with the current situation in the middle east we can all agree that we would like to eliminate our dependency on relationships with oil producing countries.

It should be noted, however, that despite Jean-Baptiste Colbert's efforts, France ultimately became increasingly impoverished because of the King's excessive spending on wars. Unfortunately, our own war spending could be the determining nail in Americas economic coffin.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Show Us Your Papers

Once upon a time there was a state which suffered through a horrible economic recession. A major war had recently caused a large drain on the economy and, as with all wars many lives were lost. Those who had returned home from the war found themselves significantly under skilled and without a job. Employment was hard to find for anyone and a large percentage of the working poor were self employed small business owners without a social security net to rely on. Adding to the tension was a rise in crime, and a widely publicized immigrant population which was a perceived threat of competition in the job market as immigrants were willing to work longer hours for less pay. The citizens of this state were in an uproar, demanding that something be done! Then, one day, an elected official stepped up and signed into law a decree that police would require all people living within the state to show them papers proving that they were natural born, true citizens. The citizens were convinced that this law would bring about a new era of prosperity, as everyone knew it was these unlawful immigrants who were causing the rise in crime rates. And these immigrants too were to blame for the poor economy and lack of jobs. The only option was to identify and remove these immigrants from the state. The year was 1937. The state was Germany. And I think we all know this story did not have a happy ending.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana famously remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately, if Mr. Santayana were living in Arizona today, that remark would have been met with the response, “Show me your papers.” for apparently Governor Jan Brewer does not remember the holocaust.

Friday, Governor Brewer signed Arizona SB1070 into law, which states: “WHERE REASONABLE SUSPICION EXISTS THAT THE PERSON IS AN ALIEN WHO IS UNLAWFULLY PRESENT IN THE UNITED STATES, A REASONABLE ATTEMPT SHALL BE MADE, WHEN PRACTICABLE, TO DETERMINE THE IMMIGRATION STATUS OF THE PERSON.” Aside from the obvious implications that this law promotes racial profiling, another aspect is the dangerously vague language of the law, both of which have civil rights groups up in arms. As anyone who has ever been awarded “reasonable visitation” in a custody dispute knows, the term “reasonable” is virtually undefined and unenforceable by the law.

Arizona officials have stated that it was a lack of federal immigration reform that provoked this new controversial law into being. In response to that I would have to quote my 7 year old daughter in saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

525,600 Minutes...

How do you measure a year? January 20, 2010 marks President Barack Obamas first year in office. Some cable news shows have been rating Obamas performance using a letter grading system, some have been weighing his first year on a scale from 1-10, and others have simply been marking him as pass or fail. Although most polls show that Americans like the President as a person, there has been a significant decline in his approval rating.

During the 2008 presidential campaign we were swept away in a wave of idealism. Like any new relationship, Americas love affair with Barack Obama started off hot and heavy. We saw a young black man with strong convictions, touching our hearts with eloquent speeches that brought a tear to our eye. He said the most romantic things to us, like “all things are possible”, “this is our moment, this is our time”, and “we are ones we've been waiting for”. So, when Obama got down on bended knee and asked to be our President, we all walked in to that voting booth and said “I do”. With great pride and nervous excitement, we watched as he stood up with his right hand on the bible and made the most solemnest of vows. Now that the honeymoon is over, Americans seem to be having second thoughts. Like many relationships before, the idea of the man we loved failed to compare with the reality of the man we got. Though the Barack that was courting us brought us flowers and promises to fix the economy, the Barack we're living with farts in bed and leaves us with a 10% unemployment rate. Did the President really break all the promises we elected him for? Or did we just build him up so much, there was no place to go but down? shows President Obama has really only broken 15 of his campaign promises, but has in fact kept 91 of those promises, and has a whopping 275 of his campaign promises currently in the works. Though Obama may not have ended poverty or stopped world hunger as we might have fantasized, he has established a credit card bill of rights and expanded loan programs for small business as he promised. And although we may be disappointed that he broke his promise to allow 5 days of public comment before signing a bill, we can take comfort in the fact that he is working on extending tax cuts for lower incomes, creating a consumer friendly credit card rating system and is working with schools to create a more healthful environment for children.

When we met Barack Obama, we were coming out of a bad relationship with a man who spent all of our money, ruined our credit, and abused his power. In 2012 we will have to decide if Obama was just our rebound President, or if he is the one. Perhaps if we learned to communicate our needs better, instead of just standing outside his house screaming obscenities, then we could all get a lot more out of this relationship. In the meantime he has three more years to prove to us that he truly deserves us, and that he is going to work hard to keep the promises he made, and we have three more years to try to learn the difference between fantasy and reality.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

WANTED: Scott Brown, for the Death of Health Insurance Reform

Republican candidate Scott Brown wins Ted Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts on Tuesday. Browns previous claims to fame were his daughter reality TV's American Idol contestant Ayla Brown, his wife WCVB-TV news personality Gail Huff, his own nude photo spread in Cosmo, and....his truck. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Ma.) had said during his campaign that he will kill the health insurance reform bill.

As any cable news pundit will tell you, Dems losing the senate seat in Ma. means death for the health care bill. Is Scott Brown really the final nail in this bills coffin? Or is the Democratic party just grasping at excuses? It seems that all along Democrats have been dragging each other kicking and screaming all the way down reform road. It doesn't take James Roday to see that Dems inability to agree and work together is the true murderer of health insurance reform.

The truth is that there is no logical reason why Democrats would not be able to pass a bill with an 18 seat majority. The real problem is not with Massachusetts or Republican filibustering. The problem lies with politicians who see themselves not as public servants, but as elected television personalities. The recent Paris Hiltonesque antics of politicians such as Dancing Tom DeLay, Alan “Die Quickly” Grayson and Joe “You Lie” Wilson are tragic exhibits of the fact that politicians care more about how many hits they get on youtube than how many bills they pass in Washington. If these Polebrities can end up the subject of a Glenn Beck rant or find themselves in Keith Olbermanns countdown then they are more likely to rile up the base back home and get themselves re-elected, thus ensuring they don't end up in the unemployment line with the people they are supposed to be representing. I mean, really, who would want to give up those good government run health benefits our elected officials receive? I guess health care is something worth fighting for after all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Will Wall Street Executives be Forced to Give A Portion of Their Bonus Back to the Treasury, or Just Leave it on the Nightstand?

President Obama plans to announce measures to recover taxpayer money used to bail out banks on Thursday. The as of yet unspecified plan could possibly include a tax on bank bonuses. The fee would be designed to bring in as much as $120 billion. Billions of taxpayer dollars were given to banks in 2008 in an attempt to recover from the devastating financial crisis.

What caused the financial crisis? In the early 1990's banks began issuing loans to people with poor credit ratings or limited credit history. The majority of the individuals receiving these loans were lower income people who believed housing was a good investment. Many of these loans were stated income loans, where the borrower did not need to provide proof of the income they alleged on the paperwork. In some cases the borrower could even get around making a down payment using seller funded down payment assistance programs. This may seem like a risky practice for lending institutions. One would think that people with poor credit, who aren't providing proof of income and did not have to give any money up front may not be the most likely to keep current on their payments. As most people know, banks make money from lending money with interest payments. When one makes a payment on their home mortgage, a portion of the total goes toward paying down their loan, and a portion goes back to the bank as a fee for the service of issuing the loan. If a bank loans money to someone who is unable to make their payments then not only does the bank fail to make a profit but it also loses the money it lent. So why would a lending institution do this? Because they could have cared less if the borrowers paid the money back. In most cases, the moment the paperwork was signed, the bank took that loan, bundled it with other loans, and sold the bundle as an investment to another company. Individually, the risky loan may have been worth nothing, but when bundled with many other risky loans it became a money making opportunity. Of course the purchasers of these loan bundles bought in to this philosophy, because as everyone knows a sack of crap has far more value than a single turd.

Wanting to live the American dream, many borrows bit off more than they could chew, purchasing houses they couldn't afford to maintain with loans they couldn't afford to pay back. Struggling to make ends meet, people began making their mortgage payments later and later, often going several months without making any payments at all. Most loans have a per diem, or daily interest rate, which means that if paid on time every time, your loan will be paid off in a set number of years. If you make your payment even one day late, then the the way your payment is allocated may change. The later a payment is made, the more of your payment is given to interest, and the less is used to repay your loan. Even if you made the payment before you incurred a late fee, you could still be adding to the length of your loan. If one managed to keep their home until the loan was paid off, in this manner you would end up paying far more for your loan than you borrowed, even more than your property is worth. Eventually, most of these sub prime loans ended up in default, causing thousands of Americans to be displaced from their homes with major damage to their credit rating and deep in debt.

The banking system that handed out billions of dollars in loans without asking any questions was now billions of dollars in debt and on the brink of collapse. How did the U.S. Government respond to this disaster? By handing out billions of dollars to the banks, without asking any questions. The U.S. Government created the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which used tax payer money to rescue the banks. Why did American tax payers hand over $700 billion of their hard earned money to the failings banks that caused the second worst financial crisis in U.S. History? Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has said the bailout was necessary to protect the taxpayers. According to Paulson we needed the bailout to save us from the fragile market. Basically, we gave the money to the banks so that the banks could loan the money back to us. Only the banks didn't loan the money back to us. After all, we are in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and with no legal requirement to lend, the major banks have decided it might be best to hold on to their money for a change. In fact, rather than lending money to tax payers in order to boost the U.S. Economy, many of the banks who received tarp funds have begun raising interest rates on credit cards already issued to financially desperate Americans.

Bank of America, Citi Bank and Wells Fargo began raising interest rates up to as much as 30% for any card holder who misses a single payment. JP Morgan Chase imposed a $10 monthly fee for any card holder who has had a large balance for more than a couple of years. This is a smart way for banks to make money. Knowing so many of their customers have been struggling to pay back home loans the banks gave them that they couldn't afford, there is sure to be a lot of people behind on their credit card payments. It's behavior like this that spurred groups like the folks at to recommended that Americans move their money to smaller local banks in protest.

The U.S. Labor Dept. reports the unemployment rate is remaining at 10% and 58,000 jobs were lost in the month of December. Even more frightening is the fact that 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for 2 years or more. Despite the dire situation American tax payers are in, tarp fund recipient Goldman Sachs reported a $12 billion profit for 2009 and bonuses for Wall St. executives are ranging between 6-8 figures. When questioned, Bill George of Goldman Sachs said the outrageous bonuses were necessary to keep from losing their employees. With more than 10 million people unemployed in the U.S., one would think they could easily be replaced.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Federal Judge to Choose Between the Right and Doing What's Right

It's Civil Rights vs. the Conservative Right in the Federal Court in San Francisco, Ca. this week. Lawyers Theodore Olson and David Boies team up to challenge the unconstitutional nature of California's Proposition 8 against Charles Cooper, lawyer for Proposition 8 backers, who claim any marriage between gay couples could have an unknown effect on society. Judge Vaughn R. Walker will be presiding over the trial without a jury.

Olson and Boies are arguing that Proposition 8, which bans same sex marriage in California, is unconstitutional. This argument is not without merit. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". After Proposition 8 was passed the state of California denied to all gay persons within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the institution of marriage.

Judge Walker pointed out on Monday that gay couples do have the right to enter in to domestic partnerships in the state of California, which provides the same rights and benefits of marriage. The judge had asked "If California would simply get out of the marriage business and classify everyone as a domestic partnership, would that solve the problem?" Olson replied that would indeed solve the problem, but was not likely to be politically feasible.

Charles Cooper, who is representing Prop. 8 sponsors, mentioned in his opening statement the fact that only five states have opened the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, and three of them were required to do so by judges. It could seem that Cooper may have been inferring that states which legalized same sex marriages did so against the will of the people. In another instance it was said that the effect that legalizing same sex marriage will have on society cannot be determined because it is still a "social experiment".

There have been other instances in history when it was necessary for a judge to make controversial rulings to protect the civil liberties of a few, even when it was not popular. Jim Crow Laws, which were local and state laws, prohibited African American students from attending white schools in the state of Arkansas until 1957. African American children had all of the same rights and benefits of a white education, but they were only allowed to exercise those rights in a place that was separate but equal. In 1957 nine African American students challenged this ban on integrated schools in court. After the court ruled in their favor the state had to allow the children to attend an integrated school, because it was required to do so by a judge. One could wonder if the backers of Prop. 8 think that particular "social experiment" turned out well.

Opponents of same sex marriage often use the "family values" angle. Witnesses for the Proposition 8 sponsors are set to testify that governments have sanctioned [traditional] marriage as a way to promote responsible parenting. Prop. 8 lawyer Charles Cooper has already argued, "It is the purpose of marriage — the central purpose of marriage — to ensure, or at least encourage and to promote that when life is brought into being, it is by parents who are married and who take the responsibility of raising that child together". This has been a popular theme among Proposition 8 supporters. states on their website that “monogamous and loving marriages ... provide the optimal environment to ensure the well being of children”. It remains to be seen how this argument will help their case. Unless the Proposition 8 backers intend to seek limitations on reproductive rights of gay people, children will undoubtedly continue to be born to un-married gay couples. It may seem to many that if the supporters of Proposition 8 were truly concerned with the well being of children, they would allow the multitude of gay couples who currently have, or may have children in the future to enter in to monogamous and loving marriages. If "governments sanction marriage as a way to promote responsible parenting", it leaves one to marvel at why the government would impose restrictions on marriage. One of the gay couples who are challenging the proposition said they "would love to have a family" however, "The time line for us always has been marriage first before family," "For us, marriage is so important because it solidifies the relationship..”

At one point judge Walker did note that President Obama's own parents would not have been allowed to get married in some states before the Supreme Court overturned state bans on interracial marriage in 1967, which may give some people hope that he realizes there is precedent for change in what is commonly accepted in regard to marriage.