Some good news for the holidays

Billy Joel’s song “We didn’t start the fire” is an accurate reference that problems exist in the world and always have. I think the key difference is with the Internet and social media age we live in, you can find bad news anywhere in the world. It even slams you in the face if your browser opens up to the news of the day. But, it is not any worse than it has been before. I don’t know if that gives people greater or less comfort. To me, the worse issue is the amount of money it takes to get elected makes politicians beholden to funders and not the issues that face their constituents. So, real issues are not addressed in the way they should be.

However, in this time of bad news first, or per my friend Barney’s favorite quote about the press, “if it bleeds, it leads,” there are a few bright spots, even in the darkest stories.

  • The state of New York has banned fracking in their state due to a report that brings into the equation the health risks that fracking poses for its residents. This caught even anti-fracking advocates by surprise with the report noting there is a correlation between health risks and fracking and it warrants further study under the Precautionary Principle, which scientists around the world uphold. This principle states if there appears to be a risk to humans or the environment which impacts humans due to a process, then the group who benefits from the process needs to convince others that it is safe before proceeding.
  • The number of uninsured folks without healthcare coverage has dropped significantly per the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation from 17.7% to 12.4% as of September 30, 2014. With the huge enrollment success underway with the Affordable Care Act, with over 2.5 million new enrollees as of December 13, this uninsured rate will drop further. This helps people and the economy as it keeps more folks from becoming a train wreck through preventive services and medications, lessens the risk of bankruptcy due to medical reasons and gives them more money to spend. And, the healthcare costs increases are moderating due in part to the Affordable Care Act per multiple sources.
  • While the war on Ebola is far from won, significant progress has been made to the extent people can get a breath of air. Also, with candidates not in election mode spreading fear about Ebola risks, it is less center stage in the US. While it is still a real threat in those countries where it started, there seems to be more concerted efforts and positive stories in the battle to contain the virus. Time Magazine hit a home run with its recognition of the Ebola Fighters as the persons of the year in 2014.
  • Beneath the bad news on ISIS and the Taliban attack that killed the children in Pakistan, the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds are beginning to see who the real danger is to their existence. It is not the US and western allies with all of our imperfections. It is extremists who take advantage of economic strife and blame others for their problems. Killing children glorifies no one. Killing women glorifies no one. Killing people who disagree with you means you fear your argument cannot stand up to debate. The counter balancing problem is the corruption in the leadership. When leaders pocket money for aid, permit bribery to be standard operating practice, and squelch dissent, then they also are as guilty for sowing the seeds of disenfranchisement.
  • For all the crap the President is taking for immigration actions and the recent action on normalizing relations with Cuba, the moves are supported by many including the US Chamber of Commerce and will enhance trade, facilitate the retention of intellectual capital and let the economy be the best goodwill ambassador. Even during the Jim Crow era, economic trade benefitted all and normalized relations to a certain extent. The economic goodwill set the stage for civil right changes. So, if we can leverage what has been done and pass supportive bills to both, getting beyond the “gotcha politics,” then these efforts can be made even more significant.

Some people may not agree with my conclusions, but I see the above as positive developments, even though some of the good news has been instigated at a horrible cost. To me, we must honor those who have died to make sure that others do not die in vain, especially our children and women who are maltreated in far too many places.

Happy holidays to all. And, bless the women and children in the world. They need our support.

And, yet we choose not to act

It has been a few months since my last post on gun deaths in America. Since that time, we have seen the following:

- several more school shootings,

- several more hostage situations unrelated to schools that ended in death,

- many more accidental deaths of young children,

- several more law enforcement officers who were killed,

- several law enforcement officers who used their weapons to kill,

- many more homicides, and, of course,

- even more suicides, by far, the number one reason for gun deaths in America.

And, yet we choose not to act. Our leaders choose to let the ownership of guns dwarf the discussion, when it need not. Our leaders choose to be afraid of the National Rifle Association (NRA) who threatens legislators out of reasonable debate which would interfere with the revenue stream of guns and ammunition.

We are number one, by far, in gun deaths in the civilized world. We have 87% of all gun deaths among the top 23 wealthiest countries. Also, violent crime is up in states that have looser gun laws. And, then there are suicides which cause almost two-thirds of the gun deaths. In the top ten states for gun deaths, suicide is the number one reason in nine of them, with the probability of suicide 3x larger in a house with a gun.

In the debate, the right to own a gun is not being questioned by most people, although the Second Amendment has been expanded from what it meant when written. Per surveys, Americans are supportive of tighter background checks and elongated waiting periods, including Republican voters. Many are supportive of a restriction on the type of weaponry that is sold to the public.

And, yet we choose not to act. To be honest, this is extremely poor stewardship in our leaders. The sad truth, from a federal legislative standpoint, nothing good will happen. In North Carolina, when the GOP took over the General Assembly, they did the following: allowed concealed weapons to be carried into bars and on playgrounds and allowed weapons to be contained in the trunk of the car on college campuses.

These changes were pushed by ALEC, a conservative legislation engine. These changes are directly opposite of the kinds of action needed. Guns, testosterone and alcohol do not mix very well. Guns and children on playground do not mix very well. Guns on college campuses, which have a higher degree of depression than general society (just ask how busy the counselors offices are on campus) do not mix very well.

On the good side, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the new Surgeon General has rightfully spoken against lax gun control as a threat to health, which is a position supported by the Journal of Acute Care and Trauma and other medical journals and groups.* On the good side, several parents of the Sandy Hook shooting are suing the gun maker and gun seller based on the premise a Bushmaster assault weapon should not be sold to non-military people.

Folks, we are well past time to act. The NRA does not represent most gun owners, but they cause fear in elected officials as they can mobilize a vocal grass-roots group almost anywhere. The vote to pass a heavily endorsed Surgeon General nominee this weekend was 51 to 43, and the NRA has placed all 51 Senators in their cross hairs, metaphorically speaking.

Personally, I would be concerned with the conflict of interest of the 43 Senators (Republicans and some Democrats) who voted no, as a doctor who says that guns kill people and we should govern them better, would seem to be a sane choice for the position. This is especially true with the resounding number of physicians who support his candidacy.

And, yet this new Congress will likely not act to tighten gun control laws. If they do act, they may follow the lead of ALEC, which has been shown to be more expansive of gun ownership rights. On the good side, maybe others might act like parents and do something about gun restrictions that will be a step in reducing gun deaths. Someone needs to act.

* http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/senate-approves-obama-pick-for-surgeon-general/ar-BBgQAMd?ocid=ansnewsap11

I would do it again says former VP

The subject of the use of torture by the CIA continues to get debate, as it should. Of course, those who had a hand in it, don’t want them sullied by the use of the vile word “torture” and would rather euphemistically call it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Our former Vice President who played a key role said he would do it again to keep Americans safe.

As mentioned in my last post, I have never been a fan of the use of torture, as you lose the moral ground very quickly. If our country is to lay claim to exceptionalism, it may want to listen to someone who was tortured, Senator John McCain, than someone who sanctioned the torturing. The argument for it is torturing gains the torturer more information than less onerous means, but that evidence does not seem to be borne out by the study or supported by war crimes experts. Plus, there is an element of CYA going on when you speak with someone who did the deed.

Yet, are we really safer? To me the answer is no, as we now have tens of thousands and multiple generations of terrorists that despise us, when back at the time of 9/11, al Qaeda numbered only 200 people. Yes, there were other terrorist groups, but suppose we took the higher road. We would have been safer as the numbers would likely be fewer who are out to harm us.

However, the last person we should listen to on these issues is the former Vice President. He said he would do it over again, but would also do the following again:

- would he help invent the story of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that led to the invasion of Iraq, where al Qaeda was not present,

- would he ignore the advice of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to go in with more troops to secure the country (this later became the surge after many years),

- would he send our troops into battle with inferior equipment that cost lives,

- would he rely on the counsel of less than trust worthy advisors in the Middle East, which was the subject of later scrutiny,

- would he send in too few speakers of the various languages as our advisors, so as to avoid smoke being blown at us when we asked questions,

- would he fire the Iraqi police force, who later abetted the efforts ISIS and could have been allies to squelch fighting?

4,000 Americans died over there, so far. Many more of our allies died. Even more Iraqis, Afghanis, and others died. My thesis if we are going to send our troops into harms way, then we better support them and we better have a good reason other than unfound WMDs. As to do otherwise is a disservice to our country, our troops and their families.

So, excuse me for not giving much credence to what you would do over again. Your track record is not very good on these issues. If I had the choice to do over again, I would vote for Al Gore for President. And, make no mistake, it is torture no matter what you call it.

These truths should be self-evident

There is always much to comment on in our wonderful world of imperfection. I thought I would pick a few truths that I believe should be self-evident, but sometimes get lost in the weeds, especially with leaders who try to mask them. In no particular order:

CIA Report on Torture

The CIA is denial mode parading out several former directors and experts who say “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” were legal and gained us a lot of evidence and the Feinstein report is incorrect. I heard one refuse to call EIT what it is – torture. From where I sit, I have been against torture from the outset. The ends do not justify the means. If we do not hold ourselves to a higher standard, then we are just another country.

While the report is not 100% accurate, it is likely directionally correct and more right than wrong. And, a war crimes prosecutor countered the CIA argument saying torture has never been as successful as the FBI rapport building protocols used by law enforcement. Irrespective of the veracity of torture methods, we must be better than this and should not get down in the mud with the worst captors. Note, my friend Barney has two great posts the past few days on the CIA torture fallout. Here is a link to the more recent one: http://mountainperspective.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/fallout-from-the-torture-report/

Putin the Producer

I saw a western educated producer for faux-reality shows on the Russian owned television station being interviewed. Three things he noted I found illuminating. First, while we know the news includes a great amount of propaganda, what I failed to understand is the Russian news has made the Ukraine battles all about fighting America and the west. The producer noted in the US, we speak of it more as a battle in the Ukraine against Russian backed rebels.

Second, he noted that on the various faux-reality shows, the Russian leadership requests that extreme points of view be included on both ends with an intent to make Putin look like he is a moderate, galvanizing influence. His point is if people see what crazy looks like, it makes Putin look more statesmanlike.

Third, the polls that show Putin with favorability ratings give a false impression. He said many who say they like Putin, fear him, not like him. I found this akin to the elections where Saddam Hussein would get 97% of the vote. People dare not publicly come out against him or they may wind up in jail.

US Economy doing pretty well with a positive trend

The economy has returned to better numbers with a month-by-month series of job increases dating back several years. The last two months have shown even better job increases in the right places, some wage growth and good GDP growth. And, the expectation is for 2015 to be an even better year. This is the same time the rest of the world is suffering more.

Republican leadership has noted we should have numbers like we did last month all of the time. What I find interesting is Republicans have a much worse historical track record on GDP, stock market and job growth than under Democrat white houses. And, it is not even close, even when the data is corrected for trends. While the President role gets too much credit and blame for the economy, the data does not support the GOP’s claim that it is the party of job creation and actually reveals the opposite.

Affordable Care Act Healthcare Exchanges are working pretty well

While critics keep hammering away at the complex and imperfect Affordable Care Act, second year enrollment has gone pretty well and the numbers will likely bear it out. More insurance companies are involved to increase competition, the median premium increase is 4% although it varies by market, the CBO reduced its medical inflation projections and a few more states expanded Medicaid.

My focus from the outset is getting people access to care will help people in poverty or near-poverty, which is a huge problem in our country. Also, the access will help the state economies and budgets of rural hospitals who had such high percentages of indigent care. So, if the ACA is done away which runs counter to what 65% of Americans want, it will screw a lot of people in need.

My advice to the GOP, is back off the repeal rhetoric and make the law better. I would also ask that saner heads prevail and pull the lawsuit in front of the Supreme Court. If the use of subsidies in the federal run exchange is over turned, that would be a damn shame. This should be remedied in any bill to improve the law. And, to those states who did not expand Medicaid, please do so, as you are harming significant numbers of people in your states and your economies.

Gas Price reductions are not just supply glut, demand has fallen

This story makes me smile for several reasons. It is helping fuel the US recovery, pun intended, as people have more money to spend on other things. The falling prices are also due to reduced demand as well as over-supply. I recognize that demand for gas is less impacted by price, but the demand has fallen due to more economical driving.

In my view, as the economy improved beginning a few years ago, people starting buying new cars and trucks. What is important to the equation is the newer cars and trucks are required to have better miles per gallon standards. This was very wise move by Presidents Bush and Obama. So, even though a truck buyer bought another truck, if the average mpg improves from 15 to 25 mpg, that added ten miles per gallon has an impact when you consider people bought 750,000 new trucks, e.g. That is not counting the improved mpg for cars. And, the standards are getting better, so hopefully demand will lessen further.

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I recognize that much of the above is based on my opinion, but I have done my best to make sure my opinions have grounding in fact. I welcome viewpoints from others.

 

Ancestry Holes

I have returned to http://www.ancestry.com to update some new information on our ancestry, primarily on my wife’s family. The website is a powerful tool, but be prepared for it to suck you in and not let you resurface for hours. It is both fascinating and addictive, so be wary. The addictive nature is one reason I had to take a hiatus a few years ago. But, if you like history and/ or puzzles, you will love digging into the website tool. Trust me, there will be mysteries to be solved, given common names and lack of specificity in the information you search with.

What is interesting about our two family histories is their similarities and size. For the record, you can easily confirm that the “rhythm method” was a poor means of birth control. Plus, rural families as in our heritage tended to have more kids for labor supply. And, the further back you go, two additional things will pop out. First, it was not uncommon for people to marry second cousins, as the circles of social exposures were somewhat restricted. That makes interesting family trees.

Second, the other noteworthy observation is the huge damage that disease and war inflicted on families in the mid-1800s on. You will see far too many deaths of young people. The diseases were as crippling as the wars, as this is when cholera, dysentery, and other mixed sewage/ drinking water-borne diseases hit many, especially in larger cities and impoverished rural areas around the world.

You will also find mysteries that cannot be solved. In both of our families, we have a mysterious birth where the mother is not identifiable in the records. In my father’s family case, his mother’s mother is a mystery with only a father noted. This is likely due to one of two events – the father sired a child out-of-wedlock with someone the family disapproved of and the child was raised by a member of his family, in this case his teenage sister. Or, what I think happened, is the teenage sister was the actual mother after having an encounter with a young man, and the older brother’s name was posted as father to mask the public awareness of the true mother and the unfortunate shame that goes with that.

On my wife’s side, two similar stories occurred. Her mother’s mother was adopted. Yet, the adoption masks the true story that the grandmother was the child of young man from a well-to-do family who loved the daughter of their housekeeper, whose name may or may not have been known.  The family of the father of the child would not let the son have anything to do with the child, so she was eventually adopted by someone who likely was helping out the real mother. My guess is the young mother and her family were likely very poor, so needed to give the baby up for adoption or the adopting family knew the young mother and wanted to help.

Going further back, we have learned my wife’s great great grandmother did not have a husband. She had tryst with an Englishman who remains the unknown father of my wife’s great grandfather. In fact, he was given her last name. She was banished from the house, but was allowed to live in a smaller house on the property. She was both independent and beloved.

My father was very silent on these issues and I wish he was still around to ask. He may not have even known the true story. My father was not very close nor did we spend any time with his true parents who divorced and moved far away from each other and him. We spent more time with the aunt (the teenage sister noted above) and her family who helped raise his mother and also raised him after his parents divorced. My wife’s family knows the gists of both stories about their grandmother and great great grandmother, but the names are not officially known, although come under speculation.

My guess is these kinds of mysteries or “ancestry holes” exist in more than a few families. So, be prepared as you go back in time for some mysteries, which may or may not be solvable. If you do go back, middle names or initials are most helpful, as well as places where they lived or were born. Happy hunting.

As a white man with a few years under his belt

I wrote recently about context being lost in the discussion about Ferguson and the many other cities where dark-skinned males were killed by uniformed officers. I mentioned it is difficult for a white man, like myself, to understand what a black man goes through on what should be more routine occurrences. But, let me start with what I do know. As a white man, I have witnessed if I dress cleanly and neatly, I pretty much can go anywhere I please and not be questioned. The older I have gotten makes it easier as I look I am above-board in today’s society. Even if I look less than my best, I am typically not viewed as a threat, even when stopped by a patrolman.

The converse is true for a black man. Many black men of wealth and success have written when they are stopped today by a patrolman, even if well dressed, the thought that they need to move very deliberately comes to the forefront of their minds. The thought that this might be the last thing I do on earth comes to mind. I wrote recently about the example of a successful black man dressed for a funeral was stopped and treated as a potential felon. Black men or youth who are not clean-cut do not stand a chance at being treated fairly. They are profiled before they open their mouths.

Being profiled places a law officer on an alert status. As a result, they may be more prone to act with violence to apprehend a suspect. There is a predisposition to act. This is where the training needs to come in – how do I remain alert, without thinking violence is an inevitable action. Leonard Pitts, the national columnist who writes for the Miami Herald, noted a comparison to an older white man who was threatening people with a rifle. Over 45 minutes, the officers talked him into giving up his weapon. In Cleveland, a twelve-year-old black boy with a stun gun was killed inside of two minutes.

Think about that for a few minutes. That is context for why black men and women feel there is unfair treatment in the eyes of the law. They do because there is. And, that is what needs to change.

The better part of me

One of our favorite songs since the turn of the century is “Superman” recorded by Five for Fighting and penned by John Ondrasik. I am intrigued by the humanity afforded Superman in the haunting lyrics. But, the words that resonate the most with me are the lines spoken as Superman, “I’m just out to find, the better part of me.” Here is the first half of the song.

I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me
I’m more than a bird. I’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It’s not easy to be me
Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see
It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even Heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
Even Heroes have the right to dream
It’s not easy to be me

To me, the song reveals even a superhero has insecurities, wants and dreams. Even a superhero is searching to find “the better part of me.” We are an imperfect people. While we have true heroes that live and breathe amongst us, they are imperfect just like everyone else. So, we should not hold people up to a higher standard, as they will only fail to live up to those standards. Even if heroic or a great leader, they will also be imperfect.

One of the finest people ever to walk the earth was Mother Teresa, a true light for many. Yet, Mother Teresa noted in her journal that she prayed to God when she felt less pious. When she was broken down and tired, she prayed that she could get back to a better place. She prayed to rekindle “the better part of me.” In a recent survey published in Reader’s Digest, ministers also noted that there are occasions when they feel less pious and need to find their way back.

Gandhi was in a similar predicament. Here was an attorney who decided his life’s calling would be to fight for the disenfranchised. He would use his voice and body to say things are not right through civil disobedience. Yet, he was imperfect and had enemies as well. Martin Luther King took to heart Gandhi’s civil disobedience and adopted the strategy in the US during the civil rights fight. Yet, MLK was not perfect either. But, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King lived “the better part of me” and because of that, helped millions and are heroes to many.

I wrote recently about the wonderful series on PBS by Ken Burns on The Roosevelt’s – Teddy, Eleanor and Franklin. All came from the elite and were by no means perfect. Teddy could be a bully and liked notoriety. But, Teddy hated unfair advantage and wanted folks to have equal opportunity, a “square deal,” he called it. Eleanor was strident in her convictions, but was shy and aloof and turned many off, until she learned how to cultivate relationships and use her powers of persuasion to do great things. Franklin would use his version of the bully pulpit to get things done. He also had several affairs. But, he helped save the world from tyranny, promoted the New Deal and helped America focus its manufacturing muscle on the war effort. Each accomplished a great deal for this country and our world is better place because of them.

These folks are all heroes. Yet, they are all imperfect. For some reason, we have forgotten this and want our leaders to be perfect in every way. By the numbers, Bill Clinton may be the best president we have had in the last fifty years, yet he had a wandering eye and an impeachment scandal evolved when one tryst occurred in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan is touted as the paragon for conservative presidents and did many good things, yet he was almost impeached over the Iran-Contra affair and did not believe we should sanction South Africa for Apartheid, his veto fortunately being overturned. Yet, Reagan’s ad lib comment in a speech helped bring down the Berlin Wall among some of his other accomplishments.

We are not perfect either. We will  make mistakes just like everyone else. We should do the best we can and find “the better part of me” for ourselves. If we can do this, we can more legitimately expect others to do the same, especially our leaders. We can also treat others like we want to be treated. And, that includes forgiving others for mistakes, as we would hope they would do with ours.  No one is perfect, not even Superman.