Politics Archive

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Texas Education in the Budget Crisis

TEA LogoI moved to Texas several years ago to start a new job. For the most part, I like Texas, but the politics and the consequences thereof can be infuriating.

Texas has never had a stellar reputation for education. There were the shenanigans in our Board of Education over the past few years (Chris Comer resignation, language arts standards, science standards, more on science standards, social studies standards), where a bloc of ultra right wing board members have passed some standards that can only be described as counter to reality, and in very underhanded ways, doing a deep disservice to our students.

There's the TAKS Test, originally set up to try to make some accountability for students and teachers, but which has resulted in teachers training students for that particular test, rather than giving them a well rounded education.

There's our abysmal sex ed, which is abstinence only and focuses on scare tactics, resulting in the third highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country. (If you want to get involved in reforming Texas Sex Ed, take a look at the Texas Freedom Network 'Help Change Sex Ed in Texas' page.)

And then, there's just the depressing state of the general welfare of children in the state. According to the executive summary of the report mentioned in that article:

Texas ranks 50th among states in health care coverage for children; mental health services for children with diagnosed challenges; preventing childhood homelessness; preventing childhood food insecurity; and preventing obesity among adolescent girls. The state also has the most fatalities from child abuse or neglect among states and ranks 50th in per-capita spending on child abuse prevention.

So, what have legislators decided to do for children here in our state? Cut funding! Here's the headline that greeted me the other day when I looked at the local paper:

School district asks for 134 resignations

I realize that the state is facing a big budget shortfall (thanks Republican dominated state government), and that cuts need to be made. But damn, is it frustrating to see the cuts being made to education, when the education system was already so underfunded to begin with. If it really came down to it, I wouldn't mind my taxes going up a bit to keep education funded, because education is one of the most important foundations for a functioning democracy (not to mention for those kids' futures).

I guess I don't really have much of a point to this entry, other than just venting. And with the way politics goes down here, I don't have much hope that the representatives that got us into this mess will be voted out anytime soon, or that the quality of education in the state will be improved in the near future.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Email Debunking - Government Mandated CFL Bulbs

CFL BulbAnother chain mail found its way into my inbox. It links to a video of Texas Representative Ted Poe, speaking on the House floor about the evils of our intrusive government forcing us to use light bulbs containing toxic mercury. You'll have to watch the video below to hear all of the claims, but rest assured, they're almost entirely false. I know, I know. It's a shock that a Republican Congressman would lie in front of the House, but that seems to be the case here.

Here's the e-mail I received. I didn't completely match the formatting from the e-mail, but I at least tried to give a flavor for the way it looked.


MORE political "LUNACY" of "Selected Officials" knowing better!!
Take a look at this video for some incite into the use of our new "Required" light bulbs.
This short talk is by a Texas representative in congress who is a bit upset with the new regulations regarding said light bulbs. If it doesn't make you laugh you will surely cry.



Here's the text and video from the page that link takes you to.

Once Again, a Government ‘Improvement’ Makes Things Exponentially Worse

Here’s an excellent summation by a Congressman from Texas of all the wonderful things we have to look forward to once we are forced by the Federal government to use only the new environmentally-“friendly” CFL light bulbs by 2014.

[Video moved to after blockquote]

Poe's whole rant was based on a false premise. The legislation passed by the federal government was for efficiency standards, not specific technology:

So, if you don’t want to use a mercury containing CFL bulb, you could use an LED or ESL bulb. Plus, there are new incandescent bulbs coming onto the market that meet the new efficiency standards:

He also misrepresented the EPA by calling those instructions ‘law’ instead of merely recommendations:

There’s also a U.S. company that manufactures CFLs:

I think that covers most of his points. It reminds me of the title of Al Franken’s book (which I haven't read), Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

When I responded to the person who originally sent me the e-mail, he was appalled that a representative would so blatantly say untrue things in front of Congress. We've voted our representatives into positions of trust running our government. They should be capable and honorable. Poe was either so incompetent that he actually didn't understand the law, or he was dishonest and was simply lying to pander to his constituency. I wish I could say that I was appalled by his actions, too, but I guess I've become jaded by politics.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Another Example of the Free Market Failing Society

CaduceusI've blogged previously about how a free market doesn't necessarily produce the best results for society at large. In particular, I mentioned how new antibiotics weren't being developed because they just don't offer the same return on investment to pharmaceutical companies as other types of drugs. To reuse the same quote from an article from Innovations-Report.com:

FDA approvals of new antibiotics declined 56 percent during the past 20 years (1998-2002 versus 1983-1987). Looking to the future, the researchers found only six new antibiotics in the R&D pipeline out of 506 drugs being developed.

Well, now a new article from Nature News, Pfizer slashes R&D, gives more depressing news on the failure of free markets when it comes to new medicines. To quote two passages from Nature's article:

Yet the dire consequences for drug research — and the scientists behind it — still took many by surprise last week. With key patents about to expire, Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical company in terms of sales, unveiled plans to slash its research and development (R&D) spending by billions and cut thousands of jobs.
"The pharma industry is deciding its core capabilities are marketing and dealing with regulatory bodies," says Judy Slinn, a business historian at Oxford Brooks University, UK. "Pharma companies will still do development work. They won't do discovery."

So, now it's not just research into new antibiotics that's going to suffer. Research into all new types of medicine is going to suffer, because it's just not profitable enough.

I would think that we as a society would like to see new medicines be developed, and it seems that some type of government intervention is necessary if we want to see development continue at the pace it has been. So, to echo my questions from my previous entry, what type of intervention should that be? Regulations? Tax breaks? Direct investment of public funds? Whatever the case, the free market is failing us in this regard.

Don't take this entry the wrong way. I'm not against capitalism. I think there are many, many ways that capitalism and free markets do provide good results to society. Competition does force companies to improve their products and services. However, I think it's naïve to assume that a free market will always produce outcomes that are best for society, so government intervention is sometimes called for.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The annual Roe v. Wade protest took place the other day in D.C. A co-worker had mentioned it last week. We avoided getting into a heated debate about it in the office, but it did get me to thinking about the issue. I've mostly steared clear of talking about abortion on this blog, but I have discussed it in my entry, The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican. However, my discussion there was a bit scattershot, so I thought I'd consolidate it all into a new entry (read recycle), and add a few more thoughts.

Abortion is a difficult topic, not easily reduced to slogans. Anybody considering it shouldn't take the decision lightly. But there are legitimate reasons for people to get abortions, so they shouldn't be banned outright.

A few years ago, I used to think it was simple. I thought that life began at the moment of conception, and that all humans were worthy of protection, so it followed quite simply that abortion was bad, and should only have been performed under the most dire of circumstances (such as a pregnancy endangering the life of the mother).

Now, I realize that even my first assumption was wrong. Life doesn't begin at the moment of conception. Life began a few billion years ago, and has been continuous ever since. There's no point at which the egg or sperm are dead before coming together for fertilization. Every organism you see is part of an unbroken chain of life stretching back to the first cells. (Even if you don't accept evolution, the same point still holds for individual species, including us, going back to the first breeding pair in whatever creation myth you happen to believe). Plus, there's no 'moment' of conception. Like most things, it's a process. A sperm enters an egg, then has to release its genetic material, which must then find its way to the nucleus of the egg, enter the nucleus, and finally fuse with the DNA from the egg.

I know some people wouldn't care about my semantics of 'life' in the above paragraph. They're more interested in the soul, and think that's what makes us human. In this country, with a population of around 80% Christians, I think it's safe to assume that most people get these ideas from Christianity. I'm really not going to bother with trying to figure this out. First, as is probably clear from the rest of this site, I'm not a Christian. And, at this point, I really doubt that souls even exist. But even if I were to give the concept the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did, I wouldn't see any reason to think that it was only humans who had souls. Other animals besides us certainly seem to think and experience emotional lives. A few, such as elephants and cetaceans, seem to be nearly as smart as us, just not technologically inclined. (I do think that we're the smartest species on this planet to date, but just like some animals can approach the speed of a cheetah, I'd bet that other animals can approach our intelligence.) So, if it's okay to kill, say, a pig, even though it would presumably have a soul if souls existed, what would be the justification for saying it was wrong to kill a human embryo? In fact, I think souls are rather extraneous to this question. Assuming that other animals besides us think and experience emotions, how can we say it's okay to kill intelligent non-human animals, but not an undeveloped individual that just happens to have human DNA? Additionally, if organisms did have souls, death wouldn't be nearly as big of a deal - it would just be a transition from one type of existence to another. It's only if we don't have souls that death becomes the ultimate end.

The other problem with the soul idea is determining when ensoulment actually occurs. I'm not going to get into this very much, since I doubt the whole concept, anyway. But, this page has a good discussion of the issue. For example, if ensoulment occured during the process of conception, what would happen if the embryo split into twins? Does the soul split, do two bodies share the same soul, or does one body end up a soulless automaton? It seems that Christians have been debating the moment of ensoulment for centuries. So, until there's some type of evidence, these debates will just keep going around and around in circles.

I disagree with considering a fertilized egg to be a full human being with all the legal rights that entails. Just because a collection of cells has human DNA doesn't make it a human being. I doubt anybody would argue that it's murder to kill a HeLa cell. In a way, trying to grant that status to a zygote cheapens the status of actual humans.

My brother has suggested (and I've heard others make this suggestion, as well) using brain activity as the legal definition for when people should be considered human. At the end of life, it's when brain activity ceases that we say it's okay to pull life support. Likewise, when brain activity starts is when we should say that the fetus becomes a human who should get appropriate protection. There's definitely a grey area when the fetus begins to develop a nervous system (the physical structure of the brain starts coming together around the start of the second trimester, and measurable brain wave activity begins around 25 weeks, near the start of the third trimester*), but before there's a functioning brain, what type of experiences can a fetus have? And even when brain activity begins, the rights of the developing baby need to be balanced against those of the pregnant woman. If the pregnancy is endangering the life of the woman, I would think that the woman's life takes precedence.

Still, it's not as if making abortion legal is the same thing as making it mandatory. It's only an option for those who choose it. A woman could continue with a life endangering pregnancy if she wanted to. And any woman that wanted to put her baby up for adoption would also be free to do so.

There's a very touching article on this subject, and if you only follow one link from this blog entry, follow this one. It's written by a woman who found out during the second trimester that her baby had severe hydrocephalus and spina bifida, and that if it had survived at all, it would have experienced severe suffering. Following her story is that of another woman who's baby girl had anencephaly - no brain or any chance of life. Both women had what could be termed 'partial birth abortions' to terminate the pregnancies.
Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

Another story that greatly affected my views on abortion is that of Jonny Kennedy. He had a rare skin disorder known as dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa which caused him horrible suffering. In a documentary on his life, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, he was asked what he would do if he had a child, and it was discovered while the child was still in utero that the child had the same condition. Without hesitation, he said that he would want the woman to have an abortion. For those of us who have been lucky enough to live comfortable lives, it's easy to say that every potential life should be given a chance, even if there are circumstances that might not be perfect. But to hear someone who had suffered their entire life basically say that no one else should have to experience that suffering is pretty powerful.

Not too many people are actually pro-abortion. Most would prefer that the unfortunate circumstances that lead to a woman choosing abortion never happened in the first place. This leads into a related topic, which I'll only mention here, which is one of the more frustrating when dealing with many from the anti-choice crowd. We know that one of the best ways to avoid unintended pregnancies is through comprehensive sex education. So, if you really want to reduce the number of abortions, teach kids the ABC's - abstinence, birth control, and contraception. Don't stop at just the A part, because abstinence only programs have been demonstrated not to work.

Hardly anybody likes abortion. Most people who go through with the procedure take it very seriously. Read the articles I linked to above. They present very good reasons to get an abortion, and they're not the only ones. Rather than banning abortions, we as a society should do what we can do eliminate the conditions that lead to them, and give women the choice to get abortions for those times when they are justified**.

*Even a newborn's brain is still pretty undeveloped. Babies don't have much self awareness at all. In fact, most children don't 'pass' the spot test until around a year and a half to two years old.

**As far as when abortions are and aren't justified, I'd rather err on the side of freedom, and leave that choice up to individuals, rather than let the government legislate it. However, I think Roe V. Wade was a reasonable, if not perfect, compromise.

Updated 2013-04-19: Fixed a few broken links, either pointing to their Wayback Machine version when available, or their new location if they were moved.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts on the Arizona Shooting & Violent Rhetoric from the Right

Right Wing PropagandaMany, many people have already written about this incident, and I've even read some articles that very closely match my thoughts (such as this one and this one from the Digital Cuttlefish), but I still thought I'd share my opinion.

First of all, it's heart wrenching. I read about that little girl that was shot, and don't even want to imagine what it would be like for that to happen to my daughter. I feel for all of the victims and their families.

Many people were too quick to assume that the right wing's violent rhetoric influenced Loughner. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but too many people assumed it did just because it was at a Democratic political rally. By way of comparison, John Hinckley's assassination attempt of President Reagan wasn't politically motivated - it was driven by his obsession with Jodie Foster. So, until all the facts are in, people shouldn't make any assumptions about Loughner's motives.

The problem of attribution is also a bit analagous to storms and global warming. Just like no single hurricane can be attributed to global warming because hurricanes are going to happen, anyway, no single assassination attempt can be linked to the political climate, because, sadly, assassination attempts are also going to happen, anyway. There's a violent lunatic fringe that always exists, which could strike out at any time.

However, this tragedy has focused the spotlight on the right wing's current rhetoric. For a bit of a scary look at the extreme right wing, go read this Insurrectionism Timeline. The events listed in that timeline are a combination of several things - individual acts of crime, organized acts of crime, quotes from politicians, quotes from activists, quotes from pundits, etc. Some have been spun a bit, but the overall picture is one of the extreme right wing being driven towards violence (on a side note, it's people like these that illustrate the dangers of profiling for Muslims when it comes to terrorist threats - we have plenty of homegrown white Christian terrorist threats to worry about, not to mention groups like the Animal Liberation Front).

Looking to just politicians, radio hosts, and television hosts (i.e. those people with real audiences, as opposed to just bloggers), here are a few examples of the most explicitly violent rhetoric.

I am convinced that the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will.

-Joyce Kaufman, then Chief of Staff for representative elect Allen West

We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that's the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.

-Catherine Crabill, GOP Candidate for Virginia House of Delegates

I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

-Sharron Angle, GOP Candidate for Senate to represent Nevada

My children? We're not getting the flu vaccine. No. The state comes and says my kids have to have the flu -- go to hell. Go to hell. Get off my porch. You want to take my kids because of that? Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. Get off my land. Period.

-Glen Beck, discussing a hypothetical scenario
source (Go read that site for Beck's bizarre stance on medical neglect not being child abuse)

To keep this final quote in perspective, I debated whether to include it, since, as stated above, my intent was to include more mainstream voices as opposed to just the radical fringe. Turner is the most radical of all the sources I've included here. To get a better idea of his place in the political spectrum, go read this article.

While filing a lawsuit is quaint and the 'decent' way to handle things, we at TRN (Turner Radio Network) believe that being decent to a group of tyrannical scumbags is the wrong approach. It's too soft. Thankfully, the Founding Fathers gave us the tools necessary to resolve tyranny: The Second Amendment. TRN advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force ... If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they're going to get uppity with us about this, I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down, too.

-Harold Turner, Radio Host and Blogger

Those are just a few examples, but I think they make it clear that there is a fair amount of violent rhetoric coming from the right. I'm not saying that all, or even most, conservatives condone this type of language (in fact, some Republicans have resigned due to threats from the Tea Party), but consider the sources. Among those people from the quotes above are candidates popular enough to have won their primary election, and a host on a national TV network. They're a lot less fringe and a lot more mainstream than many would like to think.

Recall as well, that Byron Williams, who was stopped in a shootout on his way to attack the Tides Foundation and the ACLU, specifically cited right wing pundits, including Glen Beck and David Horowitz, as inspiring his actions.

Now, with this in mind, consider Sarah Palin's latest public statement, her video denial of any wrongdoing in relation to the Arizona tragedy. First, to concede a few points to Palin, like I said above, it is premature to say that Loughner was motivated by right wing rhetoric. And even if it turns out that he was, Palin's rhetoric hasn't been the worst there is. Her cross hair map, while certainly not in the best taste, wasn't a specific call to violence, and was nowhere near on the same level as Neal Horsely's Nuremberg Files. She also made a good point about Representative Robert Brady's overreaction in wanting a law that would restrict free speech.

However, I disagreed with most of the rest of the video. The one point that's made some of the most headlines, her use of the term, blood libel, was rather tasteless and insulting, but it wasn't the worst part of her video.

Palin's overall message is where I strongly disagree with her. Consider her statement:

Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.

The easy point here is to show Palin's hypocrisy, considering her opposition to the Ground Zero mosque. If the responsibility for all crimes is shouldered solely by those who committed them, what possible reason could she have to oppose the mosque?

Ignoring her hypocrisy and looking at the actual sentiment, I disagree. Noone is an island. We're all connected to our society, and are shaped and influenced by it. Similarly, we all have an impact on our surroundings, as well. One very obvious example is parenting. Us parents are held accountable for our children, because everyone knows how much influence parents have over our children. Moving past that child parent relationship, we influence all of those around us, from simple interactions like smiling at them, to giving them advice about issues.

People in the public spotlight, whether they like it or not, do have a bigger sphere of influence than the rest of us. Their words and actions are observed by a great many people, and so they do need to be careful of what they say in the public light. A very important consideration here is that not everybody is well balanced. If a public figure knows there's a chance that using certain language could inspire some of those unbalanced people to act out in bad ways, then they ought to reconsider using that language.

Individuals need to take responsibility for their actions. Byron Williams ultimately pulled the trigger, and so carries the bulk of the responsibility for his shootout with the police. But, had the pundits who spread misinformation and violent rhetoric not done so, Williams may not have committed his crimes, and so those people share some of the responsibility for what he did, and they should own up to it.

Palin tried to paint the extreme right's rhetoric as 'heated' debate. Consider the following two quotes from her speech.

And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated, just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world, all discourse would be civil, and all disagreements cordial, but our founding fathers knew they weren't designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our founders' genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So we must condemn violence if our republic is to endure.
When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote. Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully, at the ballot box.

I'm not really old enough to have a feel for how the political climate now compares to that of the past. I know it certainly seems more heated right now, but I can't be sure if that's simply because I've started paying more attention to politics. However, I have had a few discussions with people older than me, and many of them do feel that politics is more divided now than it has been for a while.

Her statements about heated debate seem disingenious. I'm glad she at least paid lip service to non-violence, but she's acting as if right wing politicians have only argued passionately, never suggesting any violent actions, and that any supposedly violent language was merely metaphor. Refer back to those quotes I included up above. When a candidate refers to fighting "at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box", another refers to "Second Amendment remedies", and a chief of staff shouts that "if ballots don’t work, bullets will", I don't think it's hard to take those as threats. If they were intended as metaphors, they were very irresponsible ones, considering how they could be interpreted by many of their constituents.

Before assigning any blame for this particular incident outside of Loughner himself (and even then, he still has the right to a trial), people should wait until they have all the facts. However, the extreme right's rhetoric is dangerously violent, and has in fact been cited as the reason for criminal actions in other recent events. Rather than pretending that this violent rhetoric doesn't exist, political leaders should step up and take some responsibility for their political party, apologizing for what has already been said, and strongly denouncing this type of language in the future.

Updated 2011-01-17 - I moved Turner's quote to the last, and added the explanation of his place in politics - he really is less mainstream than the other examples I used.


Selling Out