The day after

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

It's a crisp but still 25 degrees out this morning, with a fuzzy crescent moon visible as the sky is lightening. The day after election day this year doesn't feel like a new era to me; in fact, it feels like a good time for leaders to sit down, light a fire, open a bottle of Scotch, and spend a couple of months reflecting on where our country is really going.

» Blog Archives: Day 1

The nation is 236 years old; about halfway through the expected lifespan of a strong empire, historically speaking (Rome and Greece each lasted about 500 years). Our economy has evolved in such a way that we don't really know how to pull out of a slide. We make less stuff; we're primarily service-based. And for the people who do make stuff – domestically that's fewer and fewer people – we have a burgeoning movement of people who want to get rid of their stuff.

In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a platform of change. It feels like something has changed, but as a whole, it's not tangible. He won the Nobel Peace Prize on the promise of what he could do for the world, and I don't think we've seen that promise come through yet. Obama is certainly a divisive figure, but I don't think he's any more divisive than George W. Bush before him or Bill Clinton before Bush. They've been divisive in different ways (read: people hate them differently), but I think, given the way communications is evolving, we're going to keep seeing bigger and bigger divides for the next couple of election cycles, before it comes to a head.

I don't know what that head will be.

This year, Obama has run on a platform of forward. Here are some things I think we need to do to make forward happen.

Civil equality. So much of our division has to do with social issues. We've stopped competing with each other for food resources and the physical ability to procreate, and so the way to feed our evolutionary need to keep ahead of our neighbors is to legislate that hunter-gatherer competition. It's the reason we fought the Revolutionary War. It's the reason we fought the Civil War. It's the reason we had to push through abolition and women's suffrage and to allow everybody to drink from the same water fountain and it's the reason – wait for it – we need to do the marriage equality thing tomorrow, and it's the reason we need to do something for immigrants who have been here illegally for a long time.

We're not going to get any real work done until we're all full citizens. Let me repeat that. We are not going to get any real work done. Not until we take away the need for my friends and our neighbors to worry about what happens if the person they love gets sick, or if their 17-year-old son gets into college.

Seriously, let's just get this done. Let's do the equivalent of a wet-foot-dry-foot policy for immigrants who have been here five years. If you've been here less than five years, let's fast-track your residency application so that, even if you have to leave, at least you won't be looking over your shoulder anymore. And let's just pass a national marriage equality act.

The day after those things happen, the people we're bringing into full American-hood will be able to fight other battles. And so will the people who oppose them. They'll be able to help look at the economy and the environment and figure out how we end the wars we're in.

Environmental destruction. I don't care what you think about global warming or climate change or whatever we want to call it. It's pretty clear that something's up. We're still cleaning up from Katrina in some parts of the Gulf. We're going to be cleaning up from Sandy for a long time. We keep moving people inland as mudslides hit the California coast. It seems like every summer there's a wildfire it takes longer and longer to contain.

I can't tell you the causes. Humans might have nothing to do with the creation of these events. (I think we do, but I can't prove the science myself, so I'm not going to push that on you.) We might not be able to do anything to stop these storms, fires and slides.

But we can change the lifestyles that keep getting disrupted by these natural disasters. I don't think we can legislate those changes, but enough people have been affected by weather events over the past decade that if wind up having some good ideas, people might actually listen.

Fund all mandates. If you want to "fix" the economy, one of the things that we need to do is start funding all mandates. We have a healthcare mandate that will cost some people upwards of 10% of their income when it's enacted. We have federal education mandates and Medicare/Medicaid mandates that states and municipalities are picking up the cost for, at the cost of things like public safety departments and public works items like, say, enough road salt to last the winter.

I think we've shown that things like tax breaks for small businesses and higher taxes for the wealthy are only going to get us so far. They are policies that will help tweak statistics in the directions we want them, but they're never going to actually solve anything.

Diversity of viewpoints in government. Our focus on diversity in positions like judicial and cabinet appointments through the past two administrations has revolved primarily around gender and ethnic background. But for the most part, everyone appointed tends to fall into line, at least on the surface, with the political views of the person who appointed them. That leads to an us vs. them attitude in elections every four years, and it specifically excludes the viability of a third party coming into play.

We're never going to bridge divides if we don't have to build coalitions. In a two-party system, we either pass all legislation in one direction (if the presidency and the majority in both houses of Congress are of the same party), or we pass only moderate legislation (because the Democractic president and Senate need to concede some stuff to House Republicans).

We move in small increments, and every four years we have the option to push those small increments in a different direction. Let's sprinkle some Libertarians, Green Party candidates and other minor-party representatives into the cabinet and into our courts. It will be a slow change, but eventually, those parties will start to really put some seats in Congress, and leaders will have to create coalitions across a variety of viewpoints. Instead of Blue vs. Red on every issue, there will be a gradient of purples in the mix.

***

I recognize that I've left foreign policy entirely out of this post. But I think we need to take care of things at home before we're going to effect much change abroad. And if we take care of stuff at home, we'll be able to put more people to work on what's going on in the world.

Onward.

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The issues important to me: Why I’m voting Green this year

Thursday, November 1st, 2012


Wherein a politician tells his 8-year-old son he plays piano in an opium den because he doesn't want the kid to know he's really in politics.

Tuesday is election day here in the U.S. It's a day when a bunch of people puff up their chest and smile proudly about civic duty (though most of us only vote in presidential elections and then only when it looks close going in – and even then our voter turnout is embarrassingly low). The reason we're doing this on Tuesday is that people are more likely to stop at the polls on their way to or from work – or take an hour out of the office – than to give up some time out of their weekend to vote.

For me, the most important races in my neck of the woods are on the federal level: president and Congress.

Here are my pet issues right now.

Civil rights. Marriage equality is at the top of my list. I have a bunch of friends who, unless they live in a handful of states, won't be able to visit their partners in the hospital – even after 40 years of monogamous couplehood. Seriously, it's ridiculous. We don't even need to talk about children, but let's do. If one of the couple has a child, the partner has no parental rights and has a terrible uphill battle to get some. Sure, raise the kids together for 12 years while the birth mother is healthy, but the second she gets hit by a bus, we'd rather make that 12-year-old a ward of the state than let him live with the other woman who helped raise him. Makes sense, right? Nope, didn't think so.

Also, I'm going to put abortion here, as a civil right, not under health care, though health care's an important piece. Abortion should be safe and legal. Why? Because laws limiting (or outright outlawing abortion) don't actually decrease the number of abortions performed. They just limit the safety. You want to pretend you're "pro-life"? How about saving the lives of moms in need, and how about making every child a wanted one, instead of one that's born into malnutrition and raised as a burden?

Health care. At this point, it looks like a single-payer system is the only way to go, unless we're willing to regulate the hell out of the system and make it a la carte. Health care is so expensive that even those of us you might consider to be middle class can't afford it, because it represents upward of 14% of our pre-tax income for a lot of us. And unfunded mandates coming up in 2014 are going to cripple some people, especially young families.

Jobs and income. OK, I really don't know how to create more jobs. But nobody can live on minimum wage. $7.25 an hour gives you $15,225 a year for a full-time job. Let's assume that gets you 50% off your health care cost and 50% off your housing cost and a 0% tax rate because your state is really helpful. You're still paying well over a third of your income into a bare-bones health plan and a small apartment ($150 and $300, respectively, out-of-pocket). There aren't any good-paying jobs out there, so I hope you didn't bother going to college, because another $300 a month in students loans would really put a dent in there. Also, I'm pretty sure you're taking the bus to work, since even if you managed a small car payment, you couldn't pay insurance. It just seems our elected politicians are entirely out of touch with reality.

Higher education. I have someone on my staff I was going to give more hours and perhaps start developing toward a management position. But I wound up having to cut his hours because he went back to school. He went back to school because his student loans were called in and, though we're paying him more than minimum wage, he can't come close to making payments, and going back to school – and getting deeper in debt in the process – was the only way to put off paying those loans. Yeah, what a crappy system.

The environment. Go ahead, tell me climate change doesn't exist. These freak storms that we're getting every couple of years are just that – freak occurrences. Except that they're happening regularly. We just had this storm come up the east coast that was 1,000 miles across. A thousand miles! And it was colliding with this giant snowstorm that came in from across the country. Have you had a headache or vertigo the past couple of days that seemed unusually strong? Yeah, that's the lowest barometric pressure that's ever been recorded getting to you. I'm sure our consumption has nothing to do with this.</sarcasm>

I left the Commonwealth during Mitt Romney's years as governor of Massachusetts. He didn't do anything for the Bay State. In fact, the most notable thing he did accomplish was to pass an unfunded mandatory health care law like the one President Obama passed that Romney is fond of claiming he'll repeal (you know, because presidents can repeal stuff – has he even read the Constitution?).

And I've had high hopes since Obama took office. I loved his speech at the 2004 Convention, and I was surprised to see him running in 2008 (I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the obvious choice for a couple of election cycles and Obama would be the Democratic candidate of choice in 2016). Still, I was optimistic, and, in general, I've been unimpressed. Yes, Obama's done some important things, but every president does.

I don't like my relationship with my government more than I did four years ago, and really, that's what we're asking. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" is always the wrong question, because over the course of four years, most of what happens to us is our own doing, for the most part.

I'll be casting my vote for Jill Stein. It's an easy decision for me; if I accept that we're a de facto two-party system and either Romney or Obama will be sworn in January 20, 2013, and I accept that, for me, Obama is the lesser of the two evils, New York is safely an Obama state. Look at Stein's issues page. It speaks to me. It's by and large stuff I agree with. As I said, voting for Stein is an easy decision for me.

» JFM @ TheMins: Sometimes you have to follow your heart even when you know you’re going to lose.

Not such an easy decision for me is the one to vote for Ursula Rozum. I definitely align with her on the issues, and I've seen Rozum out in the community – my community – talking to groups I'm part of, engaging young voters and organizing for some important issues. And she's aggressively outspoken, which I think is important.

It's a difficult decision for me because I know the major-party race is going to be close. Ann Marie Buerkle, the incumbent Republican, has not spoken for me over the past two years. Not by a long shot. Her website doesn't allow donations under $15, and says so up front. Civil liberties and education aren't on her issues list. On the other hand, the Democratic challenger, Dan Maffei, surprised me by aggressively pursuing legislation and generally sounding smart during his term in Congress.

I say Maffei surprised me because I'd met him a few times before his run. I used to work for syracuse.com, a news website. Each time I met him at a party or other function and he discovered who my employer was, he'd immediately ask the host for a non-alcoholic beverage (seriously? The current president brews beer in the White House) and would go find someone else to talk to. Meanwhile, I'd bump into his then-fiance, Abby, at all kinds of volunteer events. She'd be real easy to vote for, but I just can't bring myself to vote for him. I mean, look at what he says about education. It says, "someone should make this better," not "I'm going to make this better, and here's how."

In a close race, that might mean two more years of Buerkle, but I'm getting tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils. America was built by idealists, and I'm an idealist, so I'm voting my heart.

I support gay marriage, and I am not a lustful cockmonster

Monday, September 10th, 2012

I'm breaking from my publishing schedule to make sure you read this. Because it's fucking great.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has come out in favor of a Maryland bill that would allow marriage equality in the state. Fair enough. Maryland legislator Emmett Burns sent a letter to Ayanbadejo's boss – the owner of the team – saying that maybe he should tell his employee to shut his mouth and just play football.

In defense of cussing »

That prompted a response from Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe that begins by reminding Burns that freedom of speech exists and as such Ayanbadejo can support whatever bill he wants to support, and then goes on to light into the legislator:

why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis? "Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!" Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

Kluwe went on to explain why he wrote the letter and used the language he did.

A tip of the hat to Matt over at Life Without Pants for sharing this story with me. I love getting my blood boiling to start the week.

If you support marriage equality, share the crap out of this story. It's important.

Guest Post: Could mixed martial arts save the New York State budget?

Monday, June 28th, 2010

This is a guest post from Alexia Krause at MMA Industries. Obviously, she's got an angle on this, so take it at face value. Personally, I'm open to any reasonable suggestion to help this state dig out of its budget crisis.

With the New York state deficit hitting $8 billion, steps need to be taken in order to right the ship that is the state's budget. Recently New York Gov. David Paterson stated that the projected deficit for the upcoming fiscal year has grown an additional $750 million. There's no doubting that the Empire State is in dire straits trying to fix their deficit. It is extremely difficult trying to balance a state budget at a time when the country as a whole is going through some of its most difficult economic hurdles in recent history. This forces us to take a fresh look at which programs will continue to receive funding. As a result, the state has been forced to cut, reject, and outright shut down many state programs and projects in order to make some type of movement out of the red and back into the black. Many of these budget cuts (like closing down state parks and cutting funding to public schools) were rampant and have cast an unfavorable light on politicians in Albany in the eyes of many New Yorkers. However, something must be done in order to fight the ailing state economy. As coincidence has it, a good fight might just be the answer to the budget problems.

On June 16th, the New York State Senate passed a bill to legalize MMA in the state in an effort to help amend the state's financial problems. Opening the floodgates for MMA in New York would be more of a benefit to the state than it would to the MMA Industry. For years, promoters have happily held venues in nearby New Jersey. Mixed martial arts competitions like UFC among others have been banned in the state because many lawmakers felt it was too brutal of a sport (even though other legal sports like football and hockey can be just as- if not more- brutal). With the passing of this new bill, fans will finally be able to support their home state and local venues. MMA events would potentially have access to one of the most active metropolises in the world- New York City. There are dozens of great venues surrounding the state who have been capitalizing on this opportunity for years. At the UFC's most recent event held in New Jersey, there were more New York residents in attendance than NJ natives. Fortunately state legislators have finally come to the realization that legalizing MMA will open access to a new revenue stream that it gravely needs.

By welcoming MMA in the state, as much as $11 million in economic activity could be generated for each event held. This activity ranges from salaries paid to venue workers, to an increased interest in martial arts training academies and dojos, to tourism dollars spent in the surrounding area. At every step of the way, tax revenue is generated. The MMA organization UFC (who would play a large role in scheduling events in the state) is broadcasted in over 170 countries, made 5.1 million in Pay-Per-View sales in 2007 alone, and averaged 30.6 million viewers in that same year. This type of outreach is bound to benefit the state and bring thousands to events, thus helping the economies of struggling New York state cities.

Holding events isn't the only way that this bill will help bring money to the state of New York. In fact, the broad reach of allowing MMA to be legalized is something that will affect participants in the sport from top to bottom. For example, people who run mixed martial training gyms and programs will see a huge revenue generating boost in enrollment that will give many the chance to train and compete in their home state. This bill may even have the effect of preventing violence instead of causing it (which opponents of the bill argue) because it will allow many kids to go someplace safe after school. Studies have shown that when at-risk children are trained by mentors in a disciplined sport such as MMA, they are less likely to become involved in criminal activities. This is one of the most important aspects of the bill from a human perspective, and one of the greatest reasons why this bill needs to be passed.

Every once in a while, a sport can transcend its origins and become a true cultural phenomenon. This is what MMA could be for the state of New York and that is precisely why this bill needs to be passed. The New York budget is going through one of its worst economic times ever, but by legalizing MMA, it can help to fight back against the deficit and make a difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers.

Alexia is a lifelong fan of sports and fitness. Recently, she's been obsessed with MMA. As a result, she has joined forces with MMA Industries, purveyors of widely popular MMA shirts and gloves. Alexia has been writing about the latest developments in MMA training equipment for the past few years, and continues to bring you the latest news in the mixed martial arts world.

The case for reform

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


Don't worry about the fact that the audio stinks here. But if you're prone to audible gasps, you may want to check your surroundings.

You're forgiven if you missed this video of New Mexico University's Elizabeth Lambert being perhaps a bit too rough in a 1-0 loss to Brigham Young. Her play earned her an indefinite suspension, as you might have imagined.

You can take her "OMG I can't believe that was me!" for what it's worth, but did she deserve the

[You] should be taken to a state prison, raped and left for dead in a ditch

Email that she says she got? Emm, no.

She's doing what she needs to do to get back in the good graces of the NMU powers, including seeing a psychiatrist and talking to youth soccer players about sportsmanship (it occurs to me that might be a little like Jayson Blair giving a journalism ethics talk or Eliot Spitzer talking on ethics, but at least she's still a college student and learning her way through life).

At least NMU is giving her a shot. One thing that's coming up a lot these days in minimum sentencing laws – particularly as regards sentencing juveniles to life in prison (this is often the result of three-strike laws and that sort of thing).

Tell a 16-year-old he's going to prison for the rest of his life, not only have you removed just about all hope of him bothering to be a decent human being ever (he's not likely to see a need for reform if he's not getting out of jail), but you've also told him you're not interested in helping him out.

The Atlantic Monthly has a good roundup of news and commentary about the topic, and they got a good response on Facebook to the piece.

THe way I figure it, you've got two strong arguments you can make. One, this kid has either done something so bad he should be in prison for life, or he's shown after two prior crimes he's not going to shape up Or, two, you might say that the line between a juvenile and not a juvenile is arbitrary.

Let's look at the second one first. Yes, that line is arbitrary, but it's already been drawn. And we draw other arbitrary lines all the time. In most states you can start driving legally sometime around 16 years and six months. You can begin voting at 18. Drinking alcoholic beverages at 21. Run for president at 35.

The reason for these otherwise arbitrary lines is somewhere along the line, someone decided these were the ages we were mature enough to take on the responsibility. To understand the consequences of our actions. So if we're old enough to understand something is wrong at 18, why, if you do it when you're 16, are you treated as if you were 18? The idea of juvenile sentencing laws is we don't think you're mature enough to recognize the consequences of your actions – and then if you carry out an action, we decide that particular action, well, you really should have known better? Weird. If a 16-year-old tried to vote, would we count it, because she displays the initiative to want to vote? Of course not. Also weird.

And, as for three-strike laws, give me a break. You get caught shoplifting three times, you should be in prison for life? You can't be serious.

And they’re not married, because? Oh yeah, right…

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

If you're in the Central New York area, you may have caught the piece back in August about Jeff Kramer donning a Winnie-the-Pooh costume to marry couples at the New York State Fair.

I like Jeff a lot. It's not about his columns – sure, he's funny, and he knows how to stir up trouble (oh the things I'm not allowed to tell you about) – I know him personally. He's a nice guy. Calls me Justin all the time, but I've been called worse. And I'd be saying that even if his hands weren't 18 inches across and he couldn't crush my head like it was a potato chip.

But a letter-writer hit it smack on the nose. Go on, she said, look me in the eye and tell me about the sanctity of marriage.

I was at a wedding this weekend. The officiant was the first one in tears. It was under a minute, by the way. The woman who accompanied me to the wedding had never met either of the couple, and she was crying. During the 10-minute ceremony, there were two rousing ovations, plus a third, standing one.

Of course, they're not married, because this is one of over 40 states and they're both women.

Sure, they own property together, have pets, are talking kids next year, maybe livestock, too. But nope, sorry, while you (quite clearly) love each other, your families and friends are totally gaga over your relationship, and you're even planning on that stuff that's supposed to make marriage sacred, you both have the same equipment, so it doesn't count.

Horseshit.

So, on the way to their honeymoon, they're going to make a stopover and make it legal, and hopefully that will stick – and they'll both be able to do things like, say, visit each other in the hospital and do the parent-teacher conference thing.

Thoughts on Michael Vick

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Michael Vick, the quarterback you want on your team if you can't figure out how to get rid of your coach, has finished serving his 23-month federal sentence for running a dog-fighting ring. And now he gets his NFL sentence.

It's not as though he's been out on the field these past two years, but commissioner Roger Goodell has decided that, if he turns out to be the fine, upstanding young man rehabilitated criminals are supposed to turn into, he can start playing long about Week 6 this year.

To put that in perspective, Donte' Stallworth got in a car drunk at 7:00 one morning and hit a construction worker who darted out in the middle of the street, killing him. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and served 24 days of a 30-day sentence. Technically, he's suspended from football, but he's expected to play most of the year.

The thinking goes, Vick was running an interstate gambling ring, while Stallworth wasn't really to blame, he probably would have hit the worker even if he was sober. Stallworth is only a few years younger than I am; I'm guessing he had pretty much the same driving instruction I did, which means he spent a lot of time with people yelling, "don't drink and drive!" at him.

Drinking and then getting behind the wheel is pretty close to the worst thing you can do as a human, we were more or less told in driver's ed, high school, youth groups, college, you name it.

I'm not saying Vick's a good guy for fighting pitbulls and killing the weak and the old ones. That's despicable, too. But he's paid a debt to society and to his career. This additional suspension is going to damn this season for him, too.

Anybody willing to spend Michael Vick money probably needs a quarterback now, not in Week 6. Sure, he can practice now, which means a team could sign him and start working with him, but he'd miss the first few games. Enough games to put a team out of it, if they have to go with their second- or third-choice quarterback.

Now that Brett Favre has actually retired (we think), maybe the Vikings would be willing to live with Tarvaris Jackson for a few weeks and then look at Vick to bail them out the rest of the way. I can't see him going anywhere else.

Any team willing to take him would, of course, have to deal with the protests from animal rights groups, who always turn out in force when they're angry. Personally, that's a headache I'm willing to deal with as an owner—sure they're loud, but it's not like they're football fans. Ticket sales aren't going to suffer.

Fighting pitbulls? Bad. Spending 18 months at Leavenworth and another 5 under house arrest? Adequate punishment. Further keeping him out of the career he has made for himself? Really, you're just giving him a month and a half to get back into trouble.

Israel vs. Hamas, round infinity

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008


Daryl Cagle - See more cartoons

I have a long history of bothering friends and relatives by occasionally declaring my support for land-for-peace efforts, and for more often than not, failing to blindly support Israel in offensive maneuvers against its neighbors.

So it may come as a shock to some people that I'm supporting Israel in its current offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

I've been mostly following the action in the Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera, so I'm getting a fair balance of unbalanced news.

The cool thing I found today, was that the Israeli Consulate General in New York, David Saranga, gave a live Q&A; on Twitter (you don't need an account to read it).

He and his staff will be releasing a FAQ tomorrow, as they got flooded with questions and ran out of time.

There was a protest today in Syracuse, with those turning out largely against the Israeli action against Hamas.

But one commenter takes a good approach:

Allow me to introduce you all to a concept: gray. It's the thousand shades that come between black and white. It's where 99% of human actions and decisions fall.

Most of you are taking a very complex situation and boiling it down to two absurdly simple sides, then choosing one or the other. Have any of you ever tried any of these ridiculous ideas in your own life?

It's a shade of gray that makes me support Israel's offensive here.

Israel pulled out of the Gaza strip – a territory it had occupied since it overcame an attack in 1967 – in 2005. They pulled out enough that the U.N. said they were out of there. That has to be good enough for pretty much everyone.

Hamas was put in control of the territory by a plurality of voters (about 40%).

Hamas does things like build schools, staff hospitals, and train suicide bombers. The U.S., Israel, and others list it as a terrorist organization.

Israel and Hamas agreed on a six-month cease-fire earlier this year, and as the clock wound down on it, Hamas started launching rockets out of Gaza and into Israel, killing several Israeli civilians.

Israel responded by launching an all-out attack, killing hundreds of Hamas operatives and dozens of Palestinian civilians living in Gaza.

But I have to blame Hamas for those civilian deaths.

When Hamas shoots its rockets, it just shoots them into cities, killing whatever happens to get in the way. Most frequently, that would be civilians, who live in cities, while military bases tend to be out of the way.

Meanwhile, Hamas builds its bases among apartment buildings in densely-populated areas, making the civilians who live nearby the next best thing to human shields – a violation of the Geneva Conventions (like they're concerned about that).

If you're not familiar with the concept of a human shield, it's simple. You grab a gun, and you grab a civilian, and you figure the other guy won't shoot at you because they don't want to kill the civilian. If they do, you have a good piece of propaganda to use.

I always feel bad in war. I always feel bad when people die. But I feel worse when a country sits by and takes it, like Israel was forced to do during the first Gulf War. As I remember it, Iraq at that point said that if the U.S. invaded (which it did), it would bomb Israel (which it did), and the U.S. told Israel, "don't worry, we'll take care of this, just if you see a scud missile coming, run."

I have to think that if Israel keeps it up, the people of Gaza will realize it's Hamas' fault, and they will oust their leaders.

Saranga, the Israeli consulate, said that the Israeli government is pro-cease-fire, and that it thinks the only way to go is with a two-state solution.

I think a two-state solution is a great idea, but I don't see it working out: the Palestinian Authority will want Jerusalem (which has holy sites for both Jews and Muslims), and that's just a non-starter. I don't even see Israel giving open passage to Jerusalem.

Is there a solution? I'm not confident there is. Jerusalem has changed hands 24 times in the last (roughly) 2,200 years. The violence hasn't ended, and there's no reason to think it will stop now.

But we can certainly do our best to try to figure out how not to shoot at each other.

The proposed state budget

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Governor David Paterson appears to be attempting to make New York a really miserable place to live, in an effort to shore up a $15 billion budget gap.

OK, that's a lot of money, I get it. But among Paterson's proposed measures are 88 new taxes and fees, along with service cuts.

There are some definitely reasonable measures. Upping sin taxes (beer, wine, cigarettes, cigars) and removing the 8-cent-per-gallon gas tax cap, no worries. Upping the auto insurance surcharge from $5 to $10? OK, fine.

But then there's things like...

• Taxes on non-diet sodas, and other "non-nutritious" beverages like juices that aren't really juice (officially, less than 70% juice). You can't really call this an "obesity tax," as some news outlets have dubbed it, because, well, where's ice cream? Cheeseburgers? Bacon? And if you tax non-diet sodas, you get people drinking diet sodas. So, what, they get cancer instead of fat? That will do great things for the health care budget, eh?

• Taxes on services like gym memberships and hair cuts. This might be fine at upscale places, but people will leave gyms if their memberships go up $6 a month (adding weight to the health care problem), and you start pricing people out of some services – if you're generally only willing to pay $15 for a haircut, when taxes send it to $17, you're going to go every other month instead of every month, and your barber will close, meaning a decrease in the business tax base for cities.

• New license plates, which will cost you $25. Why don't you just up the registration fee? Why do I have to stand in line at the registry to exchange my tags, then notify my insurance company, the bank that holds my car loan, and my landlord?

• Raising fees for camping and parks in general and cutting services. Pay more for less? OK, sure!

• Increase fees for fishing licenses by $10 – but only if you're fishing for salmon or trout. Hmmm...if I don't know my fish, will can I catch one by accident?

• New fees for cable TV, satellite TV and satellite radio. I would be in favor of this if these weren't monopoly industries. If there were price competition, it would be easy to swallow an extra $5 or $10 a month (well, maybe $10), but since you pretty much pay $15, $50 or $99 for cable from the local company (at least in this area), you're held hostage for whatever the company wants to charge you to pay those fees.

• Taxes on bus and cab fares. First off, we should be rewarding people for taking public or mass transit, not finding new ways to make money from them. Second, you wind up diminishing public transit services. Centro, the local bus company here, isn't likely to raise their fare to $1.08 per trip, they'll make their rate $0.93 so the sales tax makes the trip $1. And losing even seven cents per passenger means they're going to have some trouble, especially when gas prices go up.

• Taxes on less expensive clothing and shoes. Many states charge a luxury tax for some items (I remember growing up that it was a $70 item you had to pay taxes on in Massachusetts), and in New York, $110 is the demarcation point. You don't pay taxes on on a $109.99 dress, nor on a $3.99 t-shirt. Maybe you lower that threshold to $50 or something, but eliminate it all the way and you have retailers who make their livings on selling $3.99 t-shirts closing up because people are now buying two shirts at a time instead of three, taking away fully a third of their income.

• Taxes on entertainment, like movie tickets, tickets to sporting events, and movie, music and book downloads. I'm sure the anti-piracy firms will love the last bit. When you jack up prices, you encourage stealing of intellectual property.

The budget proposal also includes cuts to SUNY hospitals, increases in tuition at SUNY schools, a removal of a tax incentive to renters in New York City, an eight-fold increase in the cost of taking a civil service exam, and large increases in professional fees for certifications for physicians, lawyers, social workers and others.

And for just a brief second, let's talk about one of upstate's big problems: Brain Drain. Do you see that list of stuff up there? A lot of it hurts younger folks, and that means that once they finish high school or college, they're gone, to some place they can afford to live.

I don't think this budget is going to pass in this form, but if it does, I think we're going to start seeing more problems at ground level – more housing foreclosures, more businesses closing up shop, more people leaving the state.

At some point you have to realize, it's not just a hole in the state budget, it's a hole in people's pockets, and holes in people's pockets means holes in New York – as a whole.

Poverty isn’t just someone else’s problem

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Today is Blog Action Day, a day when bloggers band together to hit on one topic. This year: poverty.

I'm going to focus on poverty in the U.S., because, well, I can't begin to imagine what it looks like in other countries. Countries that might be considered "underdeveloped," "developing" or, God help them, "poor."

We don't eliminate poverty in the U.S. until these three things happen:

(1) People recognize the sources and cycles of poverty
(2) People who aren't suffering realize poverty is their problem, too
(3) The federal government grows a brain about realistic guidelines

Let's look at item #3 first.

Federal minimum wage is $6.55 an hour, and goes up to $7.25 an hour next July.

If you work 40 hours per week, 52.5 weeks per year, at minimum wage, right now you're pulling in $13,755 now, and you'll be pulling down $15,225 next year.

According to this year's poverty level guidelines (PDF), right now you'd be below the poverty line for a family of two; next year you'd be above that, but below the line for a family of three.

Let's assume that someone making minimum wage pays no taxes. None.

Let's take John McCain's word that $5,000 will cover your health insurance.

Let's say you pay $500 in rent.

Let's say you drive a used car that you're paying $150 a month for.

Let's say you fill your gas tank once a week for $25 per week, and you skimped on the auto insurance so you're paying $50 a month.

Let's figure your heat and stove are electric, so you're averaging about $50 in utility bills all year round.

Everybody get $15,300? Have you eaten yet? Put down a co-pay on a doctor's bill or a prescription? Bought any clothes?

OK, maybe the car is a luxury, so let's knock of the $3,000 in car-related expenses.

But let's add $40 a month in bus fare and $10 a week in cab fare, since you can't load all your groceries onto the bus.

OK, so now we're at $13,300 in expenses for one person – again, we haven't eaten yet, we haven't been to the doctor, and we're still naked (not to mention sleeping on the floor).

The federal government's poverty guidelines says one person needs to make $10,400 a year to live. We've just racked up nearly $3,000 more than that, and we haven't even done some basics.

And if you're a single parent raising a kid? Forget about it.

Yes, there are social programs available, but they're getting cut left and right, and things are going to continue that way.

Minimum wage jobs tend not to have paid sick days, personal days or vacation. So, people working them are putting excess stress on their immune systems and are encouraged not to have any sort of family life. And if you're not emotionally strong enough to handle that? Too bad.

So people working minimum wage jobs tend to have little job security, and they bounce from minimum wage job to minimum wage job.

They see others around them – friends, parents, neighbors – doing the same thing, and don't learn how to break out of that rhythm or cycle.

#2 is a big one, too. People who don't consider themselves victims of poverty, have to lose the "I'm doing OK, why can't they?" attitude.

Everything from accidents of birth to circumstance to bigotry helps to keep a cycle of poverty going, and if you can't see that, maybe you need to spend a week actually walking in someone else's shoes.

Walk 6 miles to work one day because you spent the $2 bus fair on a can of beans and a pound of rice so you could eat for three days. Heck, keep your other comforts and consume only a can of beans and a pound of rice for three days – drink only tap water, give up the morning coffee and forget happy hour.

Figure out how you'd live if had to choose between paying your electric bill and your doctor bill, and when you've made that choice understand that your resulting bad credit keeps you from getting a checking account, so you have to carry around whatever cash you earn. Do your best not to get robbed, when everyone else around you could really use a sandwich.

You might complain about your taxes taking away your ability to live comfortably, but without taxes, governments can't provide services. No services means more poverty, especially if we're not going to regulate the industries everyone needs – insurance, pharmaceutical, etc.

Poverty is everybody's problem – yours, mine, the CEO of your company's, and yes (as the general election approaches), government's as well.

Wise up.