Monday, August 01, 2011

Who won the debt ceiling fight?

I can't figure out if Barack Obama is one of the slickest political operatives in the history of the White House or one of the worst poker players ever to inhabit that building. Let me explain why I am confused.

The evidence for Obama being an awful poker player is strong. He consistently negotiates from a position of weakness, moves toward the other side even before they ask him to, and voluntarily throws away an advantage in the interest of being 'bipartisan'. He has 'tells' that make it easy to figure out where is his real bottom line on any issue and how hard you have to push him before he throws in his cards. He doesn't seem to be able to 'read' the other side very well. It is clear that he had no idea how strong an influence the 'Tea Baggers' have on the Republican party because he wasted weeks negotiating with Boehner under the totally false assumption that Boehner, rather than the Tea Party freshmen, was in control of the House Republicans and had the power to negotiate a deal. As a result, he doesn't seem to be able to run a successful bluff or execute a strategy that forces a compromise.

Obama does not appear to know how to exercise power in a political environment. He has all the strengths and weaknesses of an academic. He is thoughtful, intelligent, knowledgeable, relatively objective, slow to take a position on complex issues, and open to listening to opposing ideas. Those are excellent personal characteristics - for a professor in an academic environment. They aren't quite so useful in a politician who must contend with fanatical ideologues who are willing to burn down the city to make a political point. I believe that because he is so reasonable, he does not understand people like the Tea Partyers. He would never go as far as they are willing to go to win a political fight.

On the other hand, I have been listening to many experienced political analysts who assert that he got as good a deal as was possible in the proposed debt ceiling legislation. After all, he has had the enormous handicap of attempting to negotiate a deal with people who are not willing to negotiate at all. Their strategy is to say 'my way or the highway'. It's like playing chicken with an idiot who is perfectly willing to crash into your car at 70 miles an hour in order to prove how 'manly' he is. When dealing with someone like that, you are always going to have to give in if you want to survive.

Here's what the administration achieved in the latest version of the bill. The Republicans wanted to fight this battle all over again in the middle of next year's election and insisted on a short term raising of the debt ceiling that would only last a few months. The current bill raises the debt ceiling enough to last into 2013. That's definitely a win for Obama. The Republicans wanted massive cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those programs are exempt from any cuts in the current bill. This is another win for Obama. The Republicans demanded that Congress pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution before they would be willing to raise the debt ceiling. The new law requires that both houses of Congress vote on a balanced budget amendment in the future, after the new law is in force. And there is no way a balanced budget amendment will pass in the Senate. This is another win for Obama.

On the negative side, the Republicans were able to require that the spending cuts had to be at least as many dollars as the debt ceiling was raised. On the face of it, this sounds like a win for the Republicans. Except for the fact that the vast majority of these cuts will take place several years down the road and the Republicans originally demanded that the cuts be front-loaded in 2011 and 2012. This seems to me to be at least a partial win for Obama. A more serious loss for Obama, however, was that he allowed the Republicans to frame the argument in the way they wanted. When we should have been talking about jobs and unemployment, we were wasting our time wrangling about deficit reduction. It's true that the deficit is a serious problem but unemployment is an even bigger and more immediate problem. It's like worrying about an overdue credit card bill rather than trying to put out the fire when your house is burning down. Reducing spending is a way to reduce jobs, not increase them.

So what is my conclusion? I've actually changed my mind a bit as I have been writing this entry. Originally, I was strongly in the 'lousy poker player' camp but as I analyzed the results in detail, it made me realize that Obama could have done a lot worse. Maybe he's a better poker player than I thought. I still believe that he is too academic and too conservative but it could be worse. We could be dealing with a President Palin.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Should the public build a stadium for the Vikings?

This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart but I suspect that the people who know me will be shocked at which side I support.

I am a life-long sports fan and have passionately followed the ups and downs of the Vikings ever since I moved to Minnesota in the 1960s. They have provided me with many hours of enjoyment and even more hours of anguish. I have supported building a new stadium in Minneapolis for the Vikings ever since it was first proposed about 10 years ago. I have closely followed the debate and have read and considered the arguments from both sides.

The stadium proponents argue that the Vikings are the most popular professional team in Minnesota, have been a major part of the fabric of Minnesota culture for 50 years, play in an outmoded stadium that does not provide the amenities expected from modern sports stadia, would provide well-paying construction jobs and thousands of service jobs in surrounding hotels and restaurants, and have waited patiently while the public built new stadiums for the Gophers and the Twins.

The stadium opponents basic argument is that we can't afford to waste public money building a new palace for the Vikings when they have a perfectly serviceable stadium in the Metrodome and the state of Minnesota probably has a $5 billion shortfall over the next biennium.

Part of the problem is that the just proposed stadium bill is vague on specifics like where the stadium should be built, how much public money would go into the stadium, and where would the public money come from - taxes and fees on sports fans or sales tax increases.

As an individual sports fan, I have no objection to paying a small increase in taxes for a limited number of years to insure that the Vikings stay in Minnesota but I also understand the anger of people who wonder why we are talking about cutting all kinds of services for average citizens and at the same time contemplating spending almost a billion dollars to increase the profitability of a private business. I would love to see the Vikings stay in Minnesota but have to admit that now is not a good time to spend that kind of public money on something as frivolous as professional sports. It's definitely not fair that the Twins and Gophers got new stadia while the Vikings did not and I do believe that the Vikings will probably end up in Los Angeles as a result of bumbling and inaction by the legislature but now is not the time to build another stadium.

By the way, I am beginning to believe that the Wilfs don't want to stay in Minnesota. When you look at the way this whole process has been mishandled by the Vikings organization, it sure appears suspicious. The new bill is a vague travesty and the Vikings show no interest in attempting to deal with the many legitimate questions raised by concerned voters and legislators. I think that the Wilfs believe, probably correctly, that they can make a lot more money in LA than they could in the Twin Cities. But they can't just pick up and move. They have to have the permission of the rest of the league. That is why they are pretending to want a new stadium in Minnesota. They need to be able to say to the rest of the league that they tried their best but that Minnesota just wasn't cooperating.

I'm very much afraid we will be waving goodbye to the Vikings in 2011. I guess I'll just have to start rooting for the Pack. And that's not all bad. They are a much more successful organization than the Vikings and are owned by average citizens rather than out of state millionaires.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Are Republican Politicians Un-Christian?

It's amazing to me how ultra-right Republicans swaddle themselves in the cloak of religiosity and Christianity while promoting policies that are the exact opposite of what Christ preached in the New Testament. Anyone who has read the New Testament can see clearly that Christ was on the side of the poor and downtrodden and had contempt for the rich and powerful. Verses like 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God' (Matthew 19:24) well illustrate what should be the 'Christian' attitude toward the accumulation of wealth. In the book of John, Christ drove the merchants and money changers (the Jewish version of our banksters) out of the temple. Christ was a true revolutionary who fought against the rich and powerful and paid for it with his life.

Here we are 20 centuries later and Christianity has become the religion of the upper classes. It is used to justify all kinds of unchristian, anti-poor policies. There are even famous Christian preachers who assert that God wants everyone to be wealthy and that riches are proof of your devotion. Hypocrisy has always been a major feature of organized religion but it has been raised to an art form by the current Republican party. The party that preaches family values fights to the death for tax breaks for the wealthy but has no problem proposing massive loss of benefits for middle class families. They see nothing wrong with cutting medical care for the indigent and slashing budgets for public schools while proposing tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of the population that would be just another step in their massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy.

It's too bad the average American is so brainwashed by Republican propaganda that they can't see how inhuman and unchristian are the policies supported by the current ultra-right Republican party. But I guess it's not surprising when you consider that almost all media in the country are controlled by only five huge media companies and all five of these corporations are owned or run by conservative Republicans. There has been a class war going on in the country for many decades and it seems that the wealthy have finally won. They control the media, the Supreme Court, and most of Congress. If the average American voter doesn't wake up from their political coma very soon, their freedom will be gone and they won't even realize it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I'm back to blogging - 5 years later

People who know me know that I am an opinionated person. I can state an opinion about any topic even if don't really know much about it. I like to believe that I don't take my own opinions too seriously and I recognize that my opinions are just my personal view of life, not revealed truth. One of the things I most enjoy is passionate discussion about important, and even not so important, issues. I have a friend who keeps asking me 'if you're so smart, why don't you write a book?' I think what he means is 'stop inflicting your opinions on me and go bother somebody else.' So I've decided to follow his advice, sort of. I'm not going to write a book (yet) but I am going to go back to writing my blog. I probably won't be writing every day but I plan to create a new entry at least a couple of times a week.

I think the title of my blog is a little misleading. Although I do consider myself to be a secular humanist, this blog is not just about religion and philosophy. I plan to comment on anything that strikes my fancy. I will be talking about politics, economics, sports, marriage, divorce, technology, movies, and the arts.

I am truly interested in your opinions and reactions to what I write so don't hold back. I do ask that you don't get too personal. Feel free to disagree with my opinions but keep it civil.

And enjoy!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What is a meme?

Wikipedia has an interesting article that explores the idea of memes as cultural analogs to viruses. In brief, a meme can be thought of as a sort of a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, resembling the physical gene, that is passed from one mind to another either verbally or by action. Examples of memes are thoughts, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances, moods, and concepts such as race and god. Wikepedia article on Memes.

Columnist George Claassen incorporates the idea of memes in his discussion of religion as a virus. Apparently he received some very negative feedback on his thoughts about this issue. I expect that I will get some of the same if anyone ever reads my blog. Religion as a virus.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Religion as a virus

I think it's useful to think of religion as a virus that has to be caught in childhood or else one is immune to the disease. I have noticed that very few people who were not indoctrinated in a religion as a child turn to religion as adults. On the other hand, many people who caught the 'religion disease' as children choose to free themselves from superstition as adults. Religion maintains a powerful hold on people, however, as evidenced by the number of formerly religious people who turn back to their childhood religion for comfort in times of extreme stress.

I would like to think of myself as immune to the siren call of religion but I suspect that it is more accurate to think about religion like a disease such as alcoholism. Although I have been 'dry' for several decades, there is always the danger that I will 'fall off the wagon' in difficult times. I have a cousin in his eighties who has been a missionary all his life and is very disturbed by my agnosticism. He prayed over me one day and essentially asked god to send me some kind of affliction that would drive me back to christianity. Needless to say, I was appalled and offended but it illustrated the extremes to which true believers will go to promote their religion. What he did makes a kind of twisted sense because he cares for me and truly believes that I will burn in hell for eternity if I don't return to christianity. Preventing that justifies anything - including insulting me, hurting my feelings, and creating bad blood between us.

As an interesting sidelight, I have developed a couple of physical problems since that prayer by my cousin and have had to fight the thought that he somehow 'cursed' me in his prayers. That is a perfect example of the power of religious superstition. Even after all these years it still has a hold on me. I suspect that I will never be free of the ill affects of my exposure to the religion virus as a child.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is America becoming a theocracy?

A friend of mine recently forwarded the following email to me.

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This is by a daughter of a murdered couple in Raytown who had a Bible and Bookstore on 63rd street.

When I had to testify at the murder trial of my parents a weekago, I was asked to raise my right hand. The bailiff started out "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" I stood there and waited but she said nothing. She said, "Do you?" I was so stunned, I blurted out "What happened to 'so help me God'?" She came back with, "Do you?" I replied yes, but I was perplexed. Then the judge said ... "You can say that if you want to." I stopped, raised my right hand, and finished with "So help me God!" I told my son and daughter that when it came time for them to testify, they should do the same.

It's no wonder we have so many problems in this country. If I'd had my wits about me I'd have told them that taking God out of the courtroom is only going to result in more criminals and murderers. I don't know what can be done about it, but it's time
for us to step up and DO something.

NBC this morning had a poll on this question. They had the highest number of responses that they have ever had for one of their polls, and the percentage was the same as this: 86% to keep the words, 14% against. That is a pretty 'commanding' public response.

I was asked to send this on if I agreed or delete if I didn't. Now it is your turn.. It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why is the world catering to this 14%?

If you agree, pass this on, if not, simply delete....

In God We Trust
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Needless to say, I deleted the email. This is typical of the disinformation campaign by radical Christians who are trying to turn the United States into a theocracy. Set up a straw man and then knock it down. A careful reading of the email shows that the woman already had the right to refer to god in her oath but was not required to do so. Why was she complaining? It is obvious that the author of the email prefers that the rest of us be forced to swear by a deity even if we don't believe.

The author wonders why the country should cater to the 14% who don't want to say 'so help me god'. Because the Constitution says we should, that's why. Apparently the author has no problem living in a country based on a 'tyranny of the majority'. There are reasons why the founding fathers created a political system that included the separation of church and state and protection for the rights of political and religious minorities. They had seen how a state religion undermines freedom and wanted to create a political system that insured that a state religion would not develop in the United States. I think the political system that has served us so well for over 200 years in under a coordinated attack by religious fundamentalists.

A third statement in the email illustrates another straw man. The author states that taking god out of the courtroom will result in more criminals and murderers. This is based on the patently false assumption that only religious people, particularly christians, are moral. In fact, many ethical guidelines and systems were developed independently of religion and then later adopted by religion. For example, the principle of 'treating others as you would like to be treated' is not unique to any one religion. It has been codified in many different religions and non-religious philosophical systems and can be derived from observation and logic. As a non-religious person, I resent the implication that I must not be a moral person because I do not believe in one of the superstitious mythical systems that we call religion.

I also sent the following reply to the friend who had forwarded the email to me. I will be very interested to receive his reaction.

Begin Email

I am very concerned about the campaign by Christian conservatives to force Christian symbols and rituals into the public sphere. It is obvious that they will not be happy until this country is a theocracy. There is a reason why the founders of this country made the separation of church and state an integral part of our political framework. They had seen what kind of damage a state religion can do to the freedom of citizens. And we can see the same kind of damage that religion does in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Northern Ireland. By the way, phrases like 'so help me god' in the courtroom and and 'under god' in the pledge of allegiance are relatively recent additions to our public rituals. They were not invented by the founding fatheres but were added to the public lexicon within the last century by religious fanatics. Also, this country was not founded on religion but on religious freedom - a very different thing. In fact, many of the signers of the constitution were not religious in the usual sense. Thomas Jefferson was an avowed Freethinker and Deist, not a Christian. Benjamin Franklin also was a Deist, not a Christian. Although both
admired many Christian principles, they both were strong believers in the separation of church and state. It's unfortunate, but typical, that the Christian right is trying to rewrite our history to satisfy their narrow ideological agenda. And it's also unfortunate that so many intelligent people fall in line with their subversive goals.

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