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Fri Feb 28, 2014 at 01:43 PM PST

Another Citizens United

by AlexPalombo

Should the rich have a larger say in the outcome of elections? It sounds like a silly question to ask, but with the decision of Citizens United v. FEC, the answer seemed to be a resounding "yes." With the latest campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, the rich might have even more power headed their way.

In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a landmark campaign finance ruling with its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Splitting 5-4, the fine judges at SCOTUS decided that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting independent expenditures by unions, corporations, associations, politically active non-profits and super PACs – allowing these groups to donate millions of dollars to campaigns and potentially swing elections with money.

As laws stand now, contributions by private citizens are still limited. Individuals can give a total of $123,200 to candidates, national party committees and some political committees and are limited to donating $48,600 to a particular candidate – per cycle, they are limited to giving $2,600 to a specific candidate. Individuals are limited to giving $5,000 a year to a PAC, or political action committee.

These spending limits were implemented after Watergate to reign in the influence of the super-rich over elections and to level the electoral playing field, but this could all change with the upcoming verdict in McCutcheon v. FEC.

The “McCutcheon” in this case is Shaun McCutcheon, the CEO of Coalmont Electrical Development Corporation. In 2010, McCutcheon reached his spending caps donating to the Alabama governor’s race – which was a bummer to him, because he wanted to donate $1,776 to conservative candidates.

That’s right, $1,776.

McCutcheon challenged the spending cap because he feels it violates his First Amendment rights – the same argument used (unfortunately/successfully) in Citizens United. His argument is backed by the Republican National Convention, who would obviously stand to benefit greatly if McCutcheon is allowed to spend more. In an op-ed for POLITICO, McCutcheon explains that he is trying to do away with the aggregate limits on contributions, saying that the rules are outdated following Citizens United, and questions why donating to 17 candidates is allowed but 18 candidates is corrupt. In his eyes, these caps “hurt democracy.”

I respectfully disagree.

McCutcheon’s first argument is that good candidates need more funding:

“We will fight political corruption by having the freedom to spend on more candidates whom we support with more competition in the process. Good candidates who aren’t rich can raise more money and challenge entrenched insiders.”
The “insider” language here most likely points to support of Tea Party candidates. But to say that more money will fight political corruption is to say that all incumbents are corrupt, which is a pretty wild statement.
“So how can they ensure elections remain uncompetitive? How about limiting the amount of money that challengers can get from potential supporters? Aggregate limits do exactly that because politically active donors donate to incumbents first, long before they even have challengers in the cycle, and it’s those marginal dollars that aren’t there when challengers need funds. And while candidates and parties are accountable to voters and are going to be there even after elections, forcing campaign spending away from them and into super PACs creates less accountability.”
Super PACs have accountability – they have stricter donor disclosure laws than non-profit organizations like Crossroads GPS, who do not have to release their donors. Surely McCutcheon should know that – he’s the head of the Conservative Action Fund, a registered PAC for the 2014 election cycle.

But I think McCutcheon’s last point is where his opinion and mine are most different:

“More than any other reason, I am bringing this case to the Supreme Court because I love my country and ideas that it represents. The U.S. Constitution makes it clear that nothing is more sacred than the rights and freedoms of the individual. It is no coincidence that freedom of speech is enshrined in the very First Amendment, and since the earliest days of our republic we have been able to express that freedom by contributing money to the political candidates of our choosing. When there is no compelling reason to take basic freedom away from us, it must be protected first and foremost.”
First, kudos to him for loving his country and the First Amendment – we agree there. But people haven’t been donating to political campaigns since the “dawn of our republic.” The first president to run a modern campaign with a finance committee was Andrew Jackson in the 1800s. This isn’t Founding Fathers material we’re talking about here.

Even more, our ideas on freedom of speech and election spending are vastly different. In his view, the problem is that freedom-loving Americans aren’t allowed to donate as much money as they want to the candidates they want to see elected, and this cap on spending infringes on his right to voice his opinion and express himself – in this case, with his wallet. In my view, the problem is that some freedom-loving Americans have the means to give thousands of dollars to a candidate to affect the outcome of an election while others don’t.

Voting has come a long way since the Founding Fathers. Back then, voters were white, landowning wealthy men over the age of 21. No one else. Over time, we gradually grew that base of voters to include poor men, black men, women, and other minorities. The voting age moved from 21 to 18. We made progress towards full inclusion, although we certainly have a ways to go in that department. To lift the aggregate caps on campaign spending and allow rich donors unlimited donations to candidates would be a step back.

Letting the wealthy speak with their wallets and not with their votes would give even more power to our predominately white male elite to influence policy than they already have. Look at the Fortune 500 companies from last year: only 22 are run by women. Only six are black. There are eight Latinos and eight Asians on the list. It means the vast majority of the wealthiest Americans – many of whom would be interested in the outcome of this case – are white men. As we’ve seen in the past, wealthy white men don’t always support minority or women’s issues.

Elections are supposed to be an equal playing field, where each person gets one vote, and that vote is equal to the vote of everyone else, no matter how rich or poor they are. They are not a mechanism for the rich to have more sway simply because they are rich, as much as McCutcheon or businessmen like Tom Perkins wish were true. I believe that laws which allow the wealthy to donate thousands, even millions of dollars, gives these wealthy voters a louder voice than mine – and that infringes on my right to voice my opinions and express myself. Their money buys them an electoral stereo to amplify their voice. My vote can’t get me much more than a bullhorn in comparison.

Electoral caps on campaign spending are not an infringement on the First Amendment. There are plenty of other avenues to spend millions of dollars on political campaigns, thanks to Citizens United. I for one sincerely hope that the Supreme Court sides with the FEC – all votes should be equal, and elections should be won, not bought.

Discuss

Fri Feb 28, 2014 at 06:26 AM PST

Why, Oh Why, Ohio?

by AlexPalombo

Are you a minority, a low wage worker, a student, or a senior citizen in Ohio? Were you hoping to vote on Election Day? Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you.

From Think Progress:

“Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has followed through on promises to restrict voting opportunities in his state. The change, announced Tuesday, eliminates extended early voting hours on weekdays, the final two days before Election Day as well as Sunday voting…”
This isn’t the first time that Husted has tried to cut early voting – he attempted to cut hours before the 2012 election as well, even openly defying court orders to restore the hours. Early voting was reinstated only after a judge called him into court over the issue and he backed down.

This cut to early voting is a huge blow to Ohioans' voting rights. Now, polls are only open until 5 PM, so people can’t stop by after work to vote. By taking away early voting days during the week, Husted is effectively blocking thousands of votes from low wage workers, students, the elderly, minority communities, and other groups that, coincidentally, don’t vote for Republicans.

Low wage workers and young people often lack flexibility in their work or school schedules, so cutting early voting means a lot of them will never get to the polls on time. Seniors cannot always get to the polls on on Election Day and rely on others to get them to and from their polling place. So there go your elderly votes. And minorities disproportionately vote on weekends compared to other voter groups; African American voters in particular run “Souls to the Polls” carpools after church to encourage turnout. By cutting Sunday hours, Husted is coveniently wiping a huge chunk of minority votes out of the results.

Ohio is a model for states seeking to depress turnout. They have already trimmed early voting hours, they require a federal photo ID (and don't allow student IDs). They purposely understaff polling stations to create long lines that discourage voting, they won't allow college students to use their dorm addresses for voter registration, and they have attempted to purge voter rolls of minorities.

What all of these tactics have in common is simple: they’re all aimed at groups that vote Democratic. And the legislators making these laws are, coincidentally enough, Republicans. In fact, the latest voter disenfranchisement laws were passed “With a straight party-line vote” by a Republican state government.

By putting these measures in place now, Ohio Governor Jon Kasich is trying to set his state up for a national Republican victory. And for good reason: Ohio hasn’t voted for a losing presidential candidate since 1960 – and lower voter turnout tends to favor a Republican victory.

It’s sad to see a state gradually chip away at the rights of its residents. To see a party so desperate for a victory that they have to suppress participation to get it is irresponsible. Republican Party, you hope to govern these people. How about doing something for them to curry favor, rather than shutting people out? How about voting for a raise in the minimum wage or something that would benefit these “undesirable” voters? How out of touch does your party have to be when its best hope for winning is to keep as many citizens away from the ballot box as possible.

Cut this nonsense out and get it together, Ohio. You can't stop people from exercising their right to vote. Even Pennsylvania knows that.

Discuss

It’s been a bit since I’ve written about net neutrality (really, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything), but it seemed right to bring the topic up again with regards to AT&T’s new toll-free data proposal:

“AT&T Inc., the country's second-largest wireless carrier, announced Monday that it's setting up a "1-800" service for wireless data. Websites that pay for the service will be toll-free for AT&T's wireless customers, meaning the traffic won't count against a surfer's monthly allotment of data.

It's the first major cellphone company to create a comprehensive service for sponsored wireless access in the U.S. The move is likely to face considerable opposition from public-interest groups that fear the service could discourage consumers from exploring new sites that can't afford to pay communications carriers for traffic.”

This follows a similar, albeit smaller-scale, announcement from GoSmart mobile, a smaller subsidiary of T-Mobile. The company promised free web access to Facebook for its customers, with Facebook footing the bill. Verizon and ESPN were in talks about a similar plan last year.

On its surface, this proposal sounds fantastic for AT&T customers. Suddenly there would be a breadth of websites that users could access for free, no data charges required. And it would give companies a chance to reach a larger consumer base.

Problem here is that it goes against net neutrality, and has a pretty big chance of being struck down by the FCC. And rightfully so.

While this idea is seemingly great for AT&T customers, it creates problems and conflicts with existing net neutrality law and practices. First and foremost, it creates a tier of internet users that can afford to pay for more exposure and more accessibility from telecom companies. Giants like United Health Care can now pay AT&T for their website to be free to mobile users, encouraging more users to go to their website and, most likely, buy their product, instead of buying from a company that doesn’t pay AT&T for increased exposure. It gives an unfair advantage to wealthy, established companies over smaller companies and start-ups.

It goes against the founding idea of the Internet: that service providers cannot discriminate between different content types and providers – if everyone is on a level playing field, it allows Internet users to access a wider variety of content. For example, it allows an internet user to read an article in the New York Times, read a similar article on a site like Salon, and then read a rebuttal on a smaller independent blog – and the speed and ease of access to both sites would be the same.

By creating this tiered system, it not only kills the idea of a level Internet playing field for established companies and start-ups, but it allows service providers like AT&T to double dip for profits. Most mobile users pay for a plan, rather than pay as you go – meaning, they pay a monthly fee for an amount of data. By having people pay for data in advance, and then having companies pay a fee to have their website freely accessible, the cell phone companies are getting two profits. This proposal doesn’t cost smart phone users any less in their monthly bill, and it doesn’t give more broadband to the companies that choose not to pay extra. The only one really benefiting from this is the cell phone company.

AT&T was able to make this proposal, by the way, because of loopholes in current net neutrality law – the body of laws that protect net neutrality almost exclusively deal with prohibiting internet service providers – cable and fiber-DSL providers – from creating a tiered system. It doesn’t specifically make laws regarding mobile phone providers, who now supply millions with internet access (and many families with their only internet access, as I’ve discussed before).

The internet was created to be a free, accessible database of information for anyone who wanted to access it, edit it, add to the base and use the information within it. To add preference to wealthy companies, and to favor access to preferred websites and providers would be to defeat the purpose and take away not only a source of information, but in a sense to limit free speech.

Discuss

Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 11:35 AM PDT

What 19th Amendment?

by AlexPalombo

It’s a trend lately, that if a party is afraid of losing an election, they pass legislation barring key groups in their opponents’ base from voting. And clearly, it’s something Texas has taken to heart. Right after Wendy Davis declared that she was running for governor, Texas Republicans set out to disenfranchise women from voting, 19th Amendment be damned.

And the way they’re keeping ladies out of the voting booth it is a doozy.

From The New Civil Rights Movement:

As of November 5, Texans must show a photo ID with their up-to-date legal name. It sounds like such a small thing, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice, only 66% of voting age women have ready access to a photo document that will attest to proof of citizenship. This is largely because young women have not updated their documents with their married names, a circumstance that doesn’t affect male voters in any significant way. Suddenly 34% of women voters are scrambling for an acceptable ID, while 99% of men are home free.
Adding another wrinkle to the plan, women in Texas must show original documents of the name change: a marriage certificate, a divorce certificate, or a court-ordered name change certificate – and no photocopies are allowed. This leaves women in Texas either scrambling to gather the proper paperwork and get their ID in order before the registration cut-off, or leaves them unable to vote.

As ThinkProgresspoints out, getting approved copies of these documents is often expensive or difficult for many, especially low-income women, to obtain:

Constituents must show original documents verifying legal proof of a name change, whether it is a marriage license, divorce decree, or court ordered change – they are prevented from using photocopies. In the absence of original documents, voters must pay a minimum of $20 to receive new copies. Due to inflexible work schedules and travel expenses, voters often opt to have their documents mailed, incurring additional costs.  
Similar to how poor, minority, and elderly voters in Pennsylvania had trouble getting to the DMV to obtain a state ID or driver’s license before the election, women in Texas are having trouble getting an acceptable photo ID that matches their most current name.

The clear argument for this law is that people prove who they are to vote – that they are citizens, that they live where they say the live and are who they claim to be. The clear argument against this law is that it specifically targets women in a year where a controversial, pro-choice woman is running for the highest office in a state with a conservative, pro-life dominated government. The timing isn’t an accident.

This law comes after a summer showdown in the state house over abortion restrictions, where Davis stood for hours telling the stories of Texas women who made the agonizing decision to terminate their pregnancies. When the state government went ahead with passing the restrictions – despite the law being passed after midnight, despite the cries of thousands of men and women who stood strong in the state house lobby protesting the decision, despite the entire country watching the fight on CNN, Twitter, and YouTube –Davis’ popularity and reputation for fighting for women soared. Rick Perry has a reason to be scared of Davis, his own popularity with women is low, most likely due to his strict reproductive health restrictions, gutting of childcare funding, and opposition to equal pay.

Texas clearly isn’t afraid of shutting people out on Election Day – just hours after the Supreme Court knocked down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act this past summer, Texas declared that its new voter ID law and redistricting plan were effective immediately. This move gerrymandered the state even more in favor of conservative legislators, and shut out thousands of poor, elderly, minority, and student voters without proper ID. Added with this move to cut thousands of women out of the voting pool, I have to ask: who exactly is left to vote in Texas?

It seems that if the Tea Party gets their way, the only people left to vote will be wealthy white men. And while that is exactly what the Founding Fathers did back in Revolutionary War times, fortunately, our country has come a long way since then. We have fought too hard for voter inclusion to bar people from the polls because they don’t vote the way we like them to. We live in a representative democracy where everyone’s voice should be heard. If Texas Republicans want to beat Wendy Davis at the polls, they shouldn’t keep women out of the polling places; they should pick a better candidate than Rick Perry.

Discuss

Mon Oct 14, 2013 at 10:33 AM PDT

Default is in our House

by AlexPalombo

After years of watching our country claw its way back from the Great Recession, these debt ceiling and government shutdown are foreign to me. Why would we ever want to put our country in the position to default on our loans? Why is this even an argument?

And yet here we are, on the brink of default. From the Washington Post:

“The government will begin Monday with about $30 billion cash in the bank and a little more room to borrow as a result of extraordinary measures launched in the wake of the debt-ceiling crisis. By Thursday, administration officials say they will exhaust all borrowing authority and have only that cash on hand.

Experts on federal finances say that money might be enough to make payments for a few days, but certainly not for more than two weeks. In any event, they say, President Obama will have to make untested decisions about who and what to pay because daily tax receipts will make up only about 70 cents of every dollar of necessary spending.

Economists roundly agree that no matter which course Obama chooses, a drop in federal spending that large would exert a huge drag on economic growth. And in contrast to what happens during a traditional downturn — the safety net expands to help the vulnerable — assistance to seniors and low-income people could be delayed or reduced if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling.”

Essentially, if the government doesn’t decide to raise the debt ceiling, we will default on our international loans and send the economy back into a tailspin – one worse than the recession we’re just now coming out of.

All of this mess, because people are grandstanding and power-grabbing to make a point.

Sticking to principles is admirable, yes. But sticking to these principles set forth by recent Tea Party additions to the GOP is not. The Tea Party has pulled the mainstream GOP establishment to the far right (because politicians fear primary challenges from extreme right-wingers). And because of that pull, we’re sitting on the edge of a national fiscal crisis because of the loud voices of a crazy few.

Their voices are not only getting louder, but more powerful. Because of a rule the Tea Party-heavy House GOP made, the only person that can bring a motion to the House floor to end this shutdown is the Majority Leader, or an appointee of the Majority Leader – a man who seems to be in no hurry to compromise and put people back to work.

Let’s leave aside the issue of gerrymandering for a second – it’s the reason that many Tea Parties got elected and will continue to be elected, but it’s an issue for another time. Right now, a large chunk of the government seems unconcerned with the consequences of a default and a shutdown. There have been almost daily protests at monuments around Washington, where the Tea Party speechifies about honoring veterans. But aren’t these the same people that shutdown the government, keeping the VA backlogged and preventing benefits from reaching the very veterans they claim to honor?  Aren’t these the same people who want to put people back to work, but instead have left thousands of government workers without pay? And aren’t these the people who stubbornly drove us into this mess, but want to impeach the President for a problem he didn’t cause?

With all of this crazy intent on holding their breath until they get their way, it seems like we’re on our way to defaulting for the first time. I shudder to think of the consequences. But if Congress’s popularity stays  as low as it is (worse than Nickelback, if you can believe that), maybe we’ll get more levelheaded and moderate representation in Congress this time next year.

Discuss

Earlier this week, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from two of my old bosses from the UK – Kevin Bonavia and Ian Gilbert. Both were writing me for the same reason: Kevin was standing for Parliament again – in a different district this time, Greenwich and Woolwich – and they were wondering if I would write a quick paragraph about how Kevin would make a great MP.

I decided to do him one better and write a whole blog post about it.

Kevin’s campaign was the first campaign I’ve worked on. I was studying abroad in London, and based on my field of study (journalism, double minoring in politics and international communications), I was assigned an internship on a Labour party campaign. What struck me when I met Kevin and Ian was how young and enthusiastic they both were (at the time, they were both barely 30), and how young and enthusiastic the whole team was – most of the volunteers on the campaign, like me, were in their 20s, with one volunteer (Gray) only 16 years old. Yes, there are young people on campaigns here. But the candidates were young too. In the UK, you could stand for a seat as soon as you turned 18, and people did. To see people so young, so committed to making their community better, was inspiring.

What also inspired me on the campaign was Kevin’s drive to make the campaign as focused on the community as possible. The district he was standing in, Rochford and Southend East, wasn’t an easy seat for a Labour candidate, and the campaign wasn’t as well funded as it could have been. Kevin decided instead to pound the pavement and knock on as many doors as he could – his goal was to meet everyone in Southend by election day, and he got pretty damn close to doing so. We spent countless hours on peoples’ doorsteps (Kevin longer than the rest of us, to Ian’s chagrin), talking to families about child care credits, extending bus hours for the elderly, making sure everyone knew about programs to help afford heat going into the winter months. No home was skipped.

He grasped policy like no one I had met before, and had not only smarts from school and law school, but also knowledge of history, of the town, of politics and of what worked and what didn’t that I hadn’t seen in someone running for office. He’s a great communicator and loved taking time out to talk to constituents. Kevin really immersed himself in Southend – he started taking runs on the weekends in a red t-shirt so people got used to seeing him around town. His Mini Cooper became the “Labourmobile,” covered in posters and stuffed to the gills with fliers in case he needed them (which made for a clown car effect when people and paraphernalia came spilling out of the back when we went to the pub for a beer. Poor Ian, who is over 6 feet tall, had trouble fitting in the back seat when we went out canvassing). He held surgeries every weekend, and the deli on Sutton Ave knew his lunch order by heart.

In addition to all that, Kevin is just genuinely a great guy, which I think is undervalued in an MP.
I wrote this not only because Kevin has the skills and the drive to be a fantastic MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, but also because his passion for politics drove others, myself being one of them, to pursue their own interests in government. After watching Kevin’s campaign in Southend, even though it was unsuccessful, I saw that there were people out there who actually did care about their communities and wanted to make them better. I saw a growing progressive movement back home, where people were tired of infighting and wanted to get stuff done. And I saw that maybe journalism wasn’t where I wanted to be. Had it not been for that internship, Kevin’s know-how and passion, I know my career (life) would’ve gone a little differently.

Right now, Kev is in the “selection” process, which is basically the primary process in the US before the actual election for MP. I have no doubt that he would make a fantastic MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, and I can’t wait to stay up watching BBC in a few months to see what London decides.

Discuss

Tue Sep 17, 2013 at 07:34 AM PDT

Standing Up or Sitting Down

by AlexPalombo

I was inspired to pick up the pen (well, type) and write another blog post by my good friend, Kimberly McGuire at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Last week, she and dozens of other brave women – young, old, black, white, Latina, mothers, sisters, daughters – stood up by sitting down.

I wanted to highlight this video, and this protest, for a few reasons. One, because it’s a group entirely comprised of women fighting for justice in immigration – as the video notes, the majority of those affected by immigration laws are women and their children. Two, because despite the promise of immigration reform from both the President and from Congress, we have made little progress towards a comprehensive plan for immigrants in this country.

It’s true, we have made some steps forward recently. The United States deferred the deportation of thousands of immigrants who were brought here as children (under 16) illegally , allowing them to stay in the United States. This is a huge step forward – these young men and women have done nothing wrong, they simply followed their parents to another country for a better life. But this step forward also creates problems. The children are allowed to stay, but their parents are not. Our policy is still splitting families apart.

If they don’t face separation from their families and friends, they face challenges in access to work, to health care, to security and to integration into society here. And unfortunately, they face a lack of urgency in government to work towards a common sense plan for immigration.

I think that part of the hesitation in proposing a practical plan for immigration reform, is the view that illegal immigration is a problem. Congressman Rush Holt put it best in his recent Geek Out! event when he said that immigration should not be framed as a problem, but instead as an opportunity for economic growth and cultural enrichment.

The other part of the problem is a lack of enthusiasm by Congress to propose a plan because it’s too controversial for an election year.

That is a crap excuse. It will always be an election year. The concern shouldn’t be with keeping a job. The concern our government should have, is for the people that elected them, and the country they work for, and the problems in that country that need practical solutions to issues like this.

This month marks the 41st time that conservatives in Congress have tried to repeal Obamacare. Forty one. It’s an exercise in futility if I’ve ever seen one, and a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time and tax dollars. Instead of going through this pointless song and dance again, why are we not putting our energy towards a common sense and comprehensive immigration plan?

We have average citizens (and non-citizens) who are more passionate about this reform than Washington is. There are thousands demanding action on this subject and we have yet to see significant action because politicians are too afraid to risk such a controversial vote before an election year. Why is it that men and women like Kimberly, and the women who sat with her, are willing to risk arrest to see change made, but those in the halls of Congress stay silent?

Discuss

Tue Aug 13, 2013 at 01:58 PM PDT

SnapChatting Around The Issues

by AlexPalombo

In the aftermath of Anthony Weiner’s most recent sexting scandal, I keep hearing this argument for better technology from pundits and late night hosts. Something along the lines of “Why didn’t he just use SnapChat? Those photos on only last up to 10 seconds! Any middle schooler who has ever sent a picture of their bits knows that!”

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, and I wanted to address them.

First, let’s take care of the “use better technology” part. SnapChat, for the uninitiated, is an app for iPhone and Android phones that allows users to take and share photos with other SnapChat users. They allow captions, drawings on the photos, and a set expiration time: usually 10 seconds or less. In my experience, the technology is used to send dumb, double-chinned photos with Perez Hilton-esque finger paintings back and forth to your friends. But the app gained some popularity with sexters because of the set time limit. Finally, people could send NSFW photos to others and have them disappear after mere seconds!

This argument is flawed. Even with this “new and improved” sexting technology, there are ways to keep that photo. You can still screen grab them – and screen grabbing DOES allow you to send the photo along to others. The app has developed a notification system for the sender in case this happens, but it doesn’t actually do anything to stop the recipient from freezing that photo, adding it to their camera roll, and then sharing it with others.

The second problem with this argument is, technology is not the problem we should be focusing on.

By focusing on the technology part of this scandal, we’re ignoring the fundamental fact that Anthony Weiner sent photos of his junk to women who were not his wife – some of whom probably didn’t want that photo in their inbox. After doing so, he lied about it and said his Twitter feed was hacked, and spent thousands of dollars to investigate the hack (when he could’ve saved that money and simply owned up to sending the photos). After swearing to never send those photos again, he sent more photos of himself to women who were not his wife, and appeared unrepentant when asked about it.

In this way, the news media and entertainment media focusing on the technology used, instead of the transgression, is a disservice to their viewers. This is an elected official lying about his personal life, and wasting campaign money in investigating a “hack” to save face. This is a candidate for public office, expected to be (semi) honest with the people he governs, and by focusing on SnapChat as a solution rather than his lies as a problem, it’s not helping anyone.

More importantly, by suggesting a technological “work around” to getting caught sexting, we’re acknowledging that politicians are going to sext people, and that it’s acceptable behavior. We’re not holding someone accountable for their actions here – we’re telling them how to obfuscate their behavior even further. By saying “Just use SnapChat!” we’re saying “You’re an idiot, instead of not sending pictures of your junk, you should’ve just sent them another way so we have less chance of finding out about it.”

Call me crazy, but I think people should be held accountable for stupid things that they do. I think Wall Street bankers that shafted millions out of their homes and retirement savings should be punished by more than pithy fines. I believe that 18 year-olds that post drinking photos on Facebook without at least making their profiles private should have employers find them and question them. I believe that journalists that mislead people and report false news should be exposed as the frauds they are. And I believe that public figures should be questioned when they do dumb things like send photos of their naughty bits to constituents. I don’t think we should be advising them on how to lie more easily, because this just grows the problem into something larger – and it has nothing to do with technology.

Discuss

Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 02:07 PM PDT

Show Me The Evidence

by AlexPalombo

Last night I had the pleasure of live-tweeting during Congressman Rush Holt’s “Geek Out Live!” event, an interactive online panel of Congressman Holt and other scientists talking about the economy, the environment, education, and other issues facing our nation. And my biggest takeaways from that event were these:

  1. Rush Holt has some solid ideas regarding climate change and banking accountability that people should pay attention to – check out the video of the event here - and
  2. He made a great point when he said that "In today's politics, we must…oppose the impassioned minority who deny reality."

I couldn’t agree more.

It’s not often that people associate science with governance, or think to elect a scientist by trade to the Senate. But the logical thinking and reasoned responses that Congressman Holt gave were not only thought-provoking, but pragmatic, sensible, and inspiring. This scientific thinking has clearly served Holt well in the Congress, but it could serve the country even better in the Senate.

If those in power were able to think a little more scientifically, to set aside their ideologies and see the evidence before them, I think we would be a lot closer to solving many of this country’s problems, like gun violence and climate change.

Holt made a great point on gun violence during the event, saying that if we examined shooting deaths as a public health problem, rather than a gun problem, we would see that over 30,000 people die each year from guns. But instead of discussing the human costs of this violence, lobbyists and politicians are arguing over rights and the Constitution. Yes, we have the right to bear arms, but as many gun violence prevention advocates are quick to point out, we also have the right to live without the fear of being shot. We are consistently more concerned with the rights of gun owners than the rights of gun victims, consistently too afraid of taking away someone’s God given rights to own an AK-47, than concerned with preventing tragedies from occurring.

Another area where we seem to be refusing to look at evidence is with regards to climate change. Anyone looking at the facts would know that climates around the world are changing, that peoples’ energy habits and lifestyles are contributing to this climate change, and the results of that climate change are devastating – Holt used the example of Super Storm Sandy, a storm that hit his state of New Jersey particularly hard, to prove that climate change is real and has devastating and expensive consequences. And yet there are still powerful people who doubt that people contribute to this change – or that it exists at all.

It seems that in the last decade, the “impassioned minority” has collectively risen up and gotten louder, throwing facts to the roadside and bulldozing anyone who doesn’t agree. Whether the topic is women’s health, voting rights, gun violence, climate change, education, or banking, past evidence – “experiments” in scientific context – and research and evidence don’t matter. And it’s hurting us as a nation. If we had more people thinking things through the way Congressman Holt explains, we might be closer to solving many of the ills facing us.

Discuss

Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 06:57 AM PDT

Pro-Life vs. Pro-Birth

by AlexPalombo

I’ve gotten called some awful things when I tell people that I’m both a practicing Catholic and an advocate for women’s choice – from baby killer to hypocrite. But hear me out.

I was raised with a strong sense of faith in a “cafeteria Catholic” family – that is, a family that picked and chose from doctrine and tradition what we would actually practice. There was an overarching idea of being good to other people, whether you agreed with them or not, and trying to stand in someone else’s shoes when considering situations. I was raised to help the poor, to speak up for those who couldn’t, and to be as good of a person as I could be.

I was raised in a church where my LGBT friends weren’t accepted, but in a family where they were welcomed; in a church where stem cell research wasn’t embraced because it killed live embryos, but in a family with history of diabetes and dementia, diseases that could be potentially cured by such research; in a church where women aren’t allowed to be priests, but in a family that sees it as a practical and natural progression for an aging priest population.

This isn’t to say that I was raised in a family that espoused abortion. They didn’t. I formed that opinion on my own. But it comes back around to the idea of thinking of others first, and trying to see a situation from their perspective. I consider myself pro-choice, and pro-quality of life, rather than pro-life.

Let me explain.

In states like Texas, Virginia, Kansas, and Wisconsin, legislators are not necessarily banning abortion and pre-natal care, but making it harder and harder to obtain. By instituting waiting periods, enacting parental consent requirements, building specifications that are nearly impossible to meet, and other hurdles, they have created a de facto ban on abortion in their states, tearing away at the freedom and rights that Roe v. Wade guaranteed to American women over 40 years ago. But what these politicians fail to acknowledge is that women have been having abortions for years, and will continue to have them whether they're legal or not. The difference is that by keeping them legal, regulated, and performed by doctors, we can save more lives than the abortions end and keep thousands of women from shoddily performed procedures that result in their sickness or death.

These legislators, and their supporters, consider themselves to be a righteous, “pro-life” movement, where every life is sacred (except for the mother in question), and where we as people have no right to end a life (unless it’s someone on death row). What I argue is that these people are not pro-life. They are pro-birth.

Legislators who are against women terminating their pregnancies are also the ones who want to cut funds to programs helping families. They aim to slash the budgets for SNAP, food assistance, child care credits, education, and health care. Parents who couldn’t afford to have a child to begin with, but couldn’t abort the pregnancy, are now faced with the challenge of raising a child without the means to do so, and with little to no assistance. Not only is this difficult for the parents, but for the child. Yes, the child is alive, and that’s wonderful. But what is the quality of his or her life like? Is it really best for a child to be born when their quality of life is subpar?

I mention this argument and tie it to my religious upbringing because many of the legislators making it difficult for women to have abortions and nearly impossible for them to receive government assistance once they deliver claim to be Christian men and women of high moral standing –they're just trying to stop people from killing babies, they say.

I don’t agree with this misguided sense of morality.

 As Christians, as Americans, as people, we cannot let this counter-intuitive, counter-productive set of principles guide our legislation and limit a woman's ability to plan her family and access health care. We must help women do what is best for themselves, their partners, and their families, even if we don't personally agree with their choices. It is not our place, and it goes against the sort of Christianity I was taught growing up – the “judge not, lest ye be judged” kind that Bible thumpers seem to forget about when they’re spewing t their hateful ideas and claiming them as Christian doctrine.

Am I comfortable with abortion? Not really, no. But as a woman, I could never deny or legislate against a sister or a friend or a mother or a stranger seeking one because it was her best option. As a woman, I can’t bear to watch states domino one-by-one into legislating against half of the population. And as a Catholic, I cannot bear to watch legislators who fail to listen to the voices of their constituents and who refuse to care for their brothers and sisters and children as they were elected to do.

I wanted to end with a quote by Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Catholic nun who talks about human rights, war, poverty and women’s rights. I think she sums up my position more succinctly and eloquently than I ever could when she said:

"I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is."
Discuss

We hear constantly from politicians and candidates for office that young people are our future, and that we need to invest in our future if we want to grow our economy, and if we provide more training and education we can boost people out of poverty. So on, and so forth.

I agree with all this – being a young person and recent college graduate, I can attest to the earning power of a college degree. And education should be more accessible and affordable. But it never ceases to amaze me how a candidate will appear so concerned with courting the youth vote, but won’t actually do anything to earn their votes.

Never has that been more clear than today: because of Congress’s inaction on student loan reform, the interest rates on federal student loans will double, jumping from 3.4% to a staggering 6.8%.

Part of the problem is that government (and most voters) don’t see a student loan hike as a far-reaching economic problem. They see it as affecting a small percentage of the population, a population with lower voter turnout than most and a percentage of the population expected to either suck it up and borrow from the bank or their parents (if they’re able) or to forego college altogether.

We cannot afford to keep thinking that way.

Clearly, the first group of people affected by this rate jump is college kids. On average, college students take out loans and graduate from four-year universities with around $27,000 worth of debt). So before day one their careers students are already digging out of a hole instead of laying the foundations for a productive and successful future. Since wages have remained stagnant over the past few years, these graduates are not making enough to put away any savings and they’re not making enough to save for retirement. Because college is so expensive, a new subset of the lower middle class is emerging – hard working Americans who will never catch up to their parents in earnings or benefits, a class of workers that will take longer to pay back their loans at higher rates, leaving them less money to contribute to growing the economy.

The next group of people affected: the parents of college kids. When students can’t take out a loan because of bad or nonexistent credit, what often happens is that parents take out loans on the students’ behalf. The parents, though, are also dealing with stagnant wages (if not straight-up unemployment or underemployment). The result: either they cannot help their children get the educations they need to succeed, or they must make huge sacrifices to do so. In the end, both students and families are forced to mortgage their futures for a shot at a better career.

We’re hurting schools as well – by making education less affordable, fewer students will be able to attend college. This can drive a university's costs up, beyond the obscene tuition prices they already charge, and anyone who has been paying attention understands the implications for professors, administrators and staff, who can suddenly find their own jobs in jepoardy.

The final group hurt by this jump? All of us, really. By raising the interest rates on loans and failing to "invest in our future," we’re setting ourselves back in terms of productivity, buying power and global competitive edge. If our students cannot afford to go to college, they stand to earn 84% less than their friends who do attend. They will not be qualified for the higher paying jobs in health care, engineering, research, math, and education. They will not make enough to afford even the basics without taking on a second or even third job. And they will not make enough to save, retire on, or spend on homes, cars, clothing and other services that keep our economy on track. More will need assistance and benefits from the government because their jobs will not pay enough or provide those benefits.

By making it so expensive to attend college, we’re hurting students and we’re hurting our economic recovery. To grow our economy and keep the recovery on track, we need to grow our middle class, to pay good wages to working and middle class Americans, and to train more workers for future careers rather than leaving them out in the cold to fend for themselves. By investing in our students, we do our entire country a favor by training the workforce of tomorrow and growing from the middle out.

By failing to act, Congress has made it that much harder for students to get a college education – and by extension, Congress has made it that much harder for students and families to earn more money, get the training and education that they need for a good paying job, and made it that much more difficult for us to keep recovering.

Discuss

Today was a sort-of victory for LGBT youth: the Boy Scouts of America lifted the ban on LGBT scouts today, after gathering over a million signatures to allow homosexual scouts to join. From the Huffington Post:

The Boy Scouts of America have reportedly voted 61-38 to allow gay Scouts.

According to multiple media sources, the scouting organization has chosen to eliminate sexual orientation as youth membership criterion. Under the new ruling, gay Scout leaders are still prohibited from serving.

I say it’s a “sort of” victory because I’m conflicted in my response to this new ruling. Obviously, this is huge progress for the group and great news for LGBT youth hoping to join the Boy Scouts – this outdated and discriminatory requirement is no longer a problem, truly a “better late than never” decision. Also a victory? The decision inspired the close minded, “morally straight” scouts and scout leaders in the On My Honor network to quit the Boy Scouts of America, and convene in Kentucky to consider “the creation of a new character development organization for boys.”

While these victories are hard-earned and fantastic to hear, the Boy Scouts of America still aren’t allowing for LGBT den leaders, and do not allow for older LGBT scouts to be included in programs like Venture, a co-ed program for scouts that outgrow the traditional troops. This ruling is the Boy Scouts saying “It’s okay to be gay, unless you’re an adult.”

This sort of restriction bars young scouts from experiencing part of the real world, stops scouts from meeting people with different viewpoints and lifestyles of their own, and keeps scouts from learning that being LGBT is not a big deal. To me, it implies that being gay is okay until you’re 18 – an adult – as if being LGBT is something childish that scouts will outgrow.

Even more, by barring LGBT adults from participating in scouting, the Boy Scouts of America are allowing LGBT youth but giving them no LGBT role models to look up to. How wonderful would it be for a scout who is LGBT, to have a successful and strong den leader who is just like them? To see that being LGBT is okay, and that they can be strong, independent and successful? And how great would it be for young straight boys to have an LGBT den leader to show them that being homosexual isn’t a bad thing, and that LGBT people are just like everyone else?

And how is it even an argument, that LGBT leaders and scout members are such a detriment to the organization, such harm to other straight members of the troop, when the Girl Scouts of America have long since proven this wrong?

When the Boy Scouts were excluding LGBT youth and leaders, the Girl Scouts were admitting everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or religion. From TIME Magazine:

In their statement of purpose called “What we stand for,” the Girl Scouts explicitly reject discrimination of any kind and consider sexual orientation, “a private matter for girls and their families to address.” Noting their affirmation of freedom of religion, a founding principle of American life, the Girl Scouts “do not attempt to dictate the form or style of a member’s worship” and urge “flexibility” in reciting the Girl Scout Promise. (They are encouraged to substitute the word “God” for something that’s more in line with their own spiritual practice.) It’s an arresting contrast to the Boy Scouts of America, who in addition to excluding gays also refuse to hire non-believers.
The religion factor in the Boy Scouts’ organization has a lot to do with its sponsorship: about 70% of sponsorship funding for the Boy Scouts of America comes from religiously affiliated groups (about half of those groups are Mormon), with the other 30% coming from corporations. The Girl Scouts are funded by corporate backers like Coca-Cola and MetLife.

Aside from religion, I believe the diversity and acceptance of the Girl Scouts of America has to do with its founding: the Girl Scouts of America were formed in 1912 to teach “girls – all girls” to be independent, to make their own decisions, to “help people at all times,” to dream big, to be as ambitious as the boys, and to forge a path for themselves in their professional and personal lives. The Girl Scouts were formed because young women were being excluded from the boys’ club – so to exclude girls would be hypocritical and counter to its purpose. Two great examples of this inclusion have been the integration of African American Girl Scouts as early as the 1950s, and the recent inclusion of transgender Girl Scout Bobby Montoya showed.

While the Girl Scouts encouraged girls to think critically and to consider others’ ideas, the Boy Scouts encouraged boys to think as a team and subscribe to traditionally masculine “duties,” an idea growing more outdated as men and women in America grow into less traditional gender roles – a doctrine which makes it more difficult to fully integrate everyone, including LGBT scouts and non-religious scouts, and provide scouts a more accurate picture of the world outside the den.

I think that the inclusion of LGBT scouts in the Boy Scouts of America is a belated, but fantastic step forward. And I do believe that eventually, the Boy Scouts of America will have to include LGBT den leaders. But I think we need to stress to people that both of these additions are good things, that they are signs of a changing and more inclusive nation, and that they will show today’s young men that being gay is okay, and will grow more accepting leaders of tomorrow. Just like the Girl Scouts have been doing all this time.

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