Friday, December 30, 2016

The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter

In August of 2016, I visited the infamous Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky. I wrote an essay about it. It's here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why I Never Supported Bernie Sanders

By Mike Reid

Originally written in July 23, 2016
Updated November 9, 2016
Most of my friends are politically liberal and some are fervent Bernie Sanders supporters. Some of them have tried to get me to jump on the Bernie bandwagon and are frustrated that they could not persuade me to do so. I’m supporting Hillary Clinton. She’s not my ideal presidential candidate, far from it, but she is competent, qualified, disciplined, rational, and understands national and global politics. And at her worst, she would still be an infinitely better president than any of the Republican candidates would be, particularly their nominee. So what about Bernie Sanders? He’s genuine, passioned, and stands up to the ruling elites. These are laudable qualities, but I have never regarded him as a viable general election candidate. And even if by some miracle he were to win the White House, I believe he would be an ineffective president.

First of all, he’s unelectable. “Wait!” you say. “Polls taken during the Spring of 2016 have shown Sanders beating Trump by double digits in a hypothetical general election. He does substantially better against him than Hillary does. He would be the stronger candidate!” Yes, polls have shown that. And no, they do not indicate that Sanders would be the stronger candidate against the orange buffoon. Those polls, frankly, don’t mean anything. We know from past experience, that polls taken more than a few months before an election are not predictive of the eventual outcome and in this election, there’s even less reason to give any credence to those polls. Here’s why:

We have to start with an unfortunate reality: most Americans are politically clueless and pay little attention to politics until the final weeks before a presidential election. I know this seems incredible, but a very high percentage of the American electorate still knows little or nothing about Bernie Sanders. They don’t know that he’s a “socialist” and they don’t know what a “democratic socialist” is. To them, he’s just some obscure politician (or something) from some little state somewhere. In contrast, Hillary Clinton and The Donald have been public figures for many years and are both well-known even to the politically disengaged general public. Both are deeply unpopular. (In my opinion, the antipathy that so many Americans hold towards Hillary Clinton is mostly undeserved, but that’s another matter.) When the pollsters called a broad swath of the American people and asked them whom they preferred as a presidential candidate, Clinton, Trump, or Sanders, many of the people they called simply reacted negatively to the names that they knew, those of Clinton and Trump. To them, Sanders was the “none-of-the-above” option. They were not expressing support for him. They were expressing distaste for their two other choices. They simply didn’t know much about him and didn’t have a strong opinion about him one way or the other. To him, he was “the other guy”. I believe that this is why in those polls, he seemed to be the more popular candidate.

Sanders’ supporters often say, “But I went to a Bernie rally and the venue was packed! Haven’t you seen how many are supporting him on social media? Just about everyone I know is supporting him! That shows how super popular he is!” Um, no. Sorry, Bernie supporter, but it doesn’t. The community of people with whom you interact, both in person and on-line are a self-selected subset of the country. This community may be large, but it is still a selected group. This group does not in any way represent a statistically meaningful cross-sampling of the voting population at large. Yes, millions of Americans support Bernie Sanders, but there are tens of millions of voters. Trump’s supporters also look around within their in-person and on-line communities and see that nearly everyone they know is enthusiastically supporting Trump. This has convinced many of them that the only way Trump could lose is if the election is rigged. Like many Sanders supporters, they are mistaking depth of support for breadth of support.

An even larger problem is that Sanders has never faced the full scrutiny of the news media like Clinton and Trump have. His political skeletons, and he does have some, have not yet been brought out of the closet. Those political skeletons include his past flirtations around the edges of Marxism, his expressed sympathy for some very anti-American leftist regimes, and some very un-politique lifestyle comments. The fact that he honeymooned in the Soviet Union is another. You might look at those and say, “So what? Those were all decades ago. He’s grown up since then!” I don't disagree. That was then and this is now. He may well have matured as a person and as a politician. I give him the benefit of the doubt on that. However, regardless of whether you or I think these old malefactions are relevant today, you can bet that the news media will dredge them up and have a field day with them. These as of yet unexploited vulnerabilities will hurt Sanders deeply with middle America when they become widely known.

Now, let’s turn to his biggest problem of all. The Right Wing Attack Machine (RWAM) has never turned their guns on him. I define the RWAM as the collection of right-wing media such as Fox “News”, Breitbart, Drudge, etc., conservative political organizations, and the Republican Party attack dogs. In my opinion, the primary reason Hillary is so unpopular is that she has been subjected to the full wrath of the RWAM for a quarter century. She has endured a relentless and continuous barrage of negative propaganda from right-wing media and an unending parade of frivolous and politically motivated, hyperpartisan Congressional “investigations” of phony, manufactured “scandals.” Every successful propagandist knows that old axiom, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” And the RWAM has no scruples about repeating lies. Where there's smoke there's fire or if there is no fire, create a lot of smoke and people will assume there's fire. No one, no matter how honest, could withstand the withering character assassination campaign that Hillary Clinton has been subjected to and emerge with his or her reputation intact, not even Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton has survived these ruthless and often sexist attacks, but they have drawn blood and left scars.

Were Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee, the media would drag his old leftist peccadilloes out of the closet and the RWAM would go after him in full force. These forces would shape the opinions of that half of America who now knows little about him. The RWAM would paint him as a tax-and-spend raging Marxist. Many Americans will confuse Sanders’ European-style democratic socialism with old Soviet socialism. Yes, I know the difference, but many Americans don’t and the RWAM would deliberately reinforce their confusion. To most Americans who came of age during the Cold War, those of us over age 45, the very word “socialist” is toxic. To them socialism is un-American and emblematic of government tyranny. And this demographic is the one that has the highest voter turnout. Well-crafted propaganda labels can stick. Do you remember the infamous and deeply deceptive “Willie Horton” ad of the 1988 campaign targeted at Michael Dukakis or the mendacious “Swift Boat” ads of 2004 targeted at John Kerry? Both ads were preposterous and slanderous, but they were effective. Expect much more of that in 2016. Sanders would be deeply vulnerable to these.

“But Bernie is inspiring younger people to vote! They finally have someone to vote for!” It’s true that Sanders has his greatest support among younger voters and they have been enthusiastically packing his rallies. However that enthusiasm has not translated into actual votes. If you look at the polls by demographic, younger voters have not been turning out to vote in the Democratic primaries in extraordinary numbers. Their turn out rate is no better than it was in 2008 when Obama ran the first time. They express support for him when called by pollsters, but apparently that support is not enough to motivate them to actually get off of their apathetic butts and vote. Primary election turnout data show that the enthusiastic young Americans packing his rallies are a minority within their demographic. Sanders is very popular among that subset of the younger demographic that is politically engaged, but he is not enlarging it. Repeat after me: Depth of support does not necessarily indicate breadth of support. The larger part of their cohort are as apathetic as ever. This election, like all before, will be decided largely by middle-aged and older white voters. When this demographic, my demographic, hears the word “socialist”, most of us panic and run for the hills — or to the Republicans.

The next factor to be considered is campaign contributions. It is said that “Money is the lifeblood of politics.” This old aphorism sounds cynical, but there is a lot of truth in it. Campaign funds come primarily from wealthy individuals and economic interest groups. Most of these donors dislike Donald Trump and few of them are donating to his campaign. Many of them don’t like Hillary Clinton either, but they see her as someone they could stomach if they had to. So, many of the big political donors are simply sitting out this election or focusing on down-ballot races. However, they could not stomach Sanders. He wants to greatly raise their taxes, regulate their industries, raise the minimum wage, and he opposes their beloved international free trade agreements. I fear that many of them would hold their noses, but still come out and donate millions of dollars to Trump just to keep “the socialist" out of the White House and out of their pockets. With their money, they could buy a lot propaganda and the election. Unfortunately, the American public writ large is undereducated, unsophisticated and can be swayed by well-financed propaganda.

The polls that showed Bernie Sanders leading do not reflect these factors and should not be viewed as being at all predictive of how a general election would turn out.  Were he the nominee, these factors would come into play and his standing in the polls would collapse. Experienced political operatives, such as the people who get to be superdelegates, know this, which I think is why they have largely not supported him. For these reasons, I do not believe those polls are meaningful and I believe that Bernie Sanders would lose to Donald Trump in the general election.

Let’s suppose that by some miracle, Bernie Sanders did win and become president. The POTUS is not a dictator and cannot enact major initiatives on his own. Exactly what is he going to accomplish without support in Congress? He’s been in Congress for a long time, why hasn’t he pushed his progressive agenda from the Senate floor? Perhaps he has tried, but we haven’t heard much about it. This is because his agenda has so little support from his colleagues that any such bills never even make it out of committee. And as president, he would run into the same stone wall of Republican obstructionism that President Obama has. Even the purple state Democrats would keep their distance. Congress would enact none of his progressive agenda — none of it! His agenda would be dead on arrival. Without Congress, there would be no $15 per hour federal minimum wage, no universal health coverage, and no free public colleges, even if Sanders were elected President. He surely knows this, which makes me wonder what his agenda really is.

We do need honesty and sincerity in our government, but those qualities alone do not a successful president make. A successful president projects gravitas in public and a ruthless political craftiness behind the scenes. Jimmy Carter may have been the most honest and well-intentioned man ever to sit in the Oval Office, but he lacked those qualities and was a weak and feckless president. The Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt was his only memorable accomplishment and that success was largely due to the fact that he could proceed with it without Congress. President Carter simply lacked the gravitas, public salesmanship, and behind the scenes political skills needed to advance an agenda. Even with his own party in control of both houses of Congress, he accomplished little. And at that time, their was still a sane and moderate wing to the Republican Party that was much more willing to compromise. By the end of President Carter’s term, many people even in his own party saw him as in over his head. Unlike most incumbent presidents running for reelection, he faced a serious challenger for his own party’s nomination and after barely surviving that, failed to win reelection. Jimmy Carter is a truly good person, but he was not a good president. I expect that we would see a replay of this with a President Sanders.

Hillary Clinton’s many haters on the Right see her as a corrupt near Marxist who will turn our country into the old Soviet Union and hand it over to the Islamic Caliphate or whatever enemy du jour. Her haters on the left see her as a corrupt, bought-and-paid-for corporate shill who cares little about the working classes. You can choose to believe one of these two contradictory portraitures of her if you wish, but there is a third option which I think is closer to reality. Hillary Clinton is neither. She’s actually a centrist career politician who has mostly progressive views that are tempered by a keen understanding of political reality. Single-payer national health insurance, free or inexpensive college, and a $15 per hour minimum wage like what most of the rest of the First World countries have and what Sanders is advocating would be wonderful. They are also politically infeasible in the United States today. Clinton knows this and unlike Sanders, is not making promises that she knows she would not be able to deliver on. Perhaps in a generation from now America will be ready for such ideals, but it is not yet.

As for Hillary Clinton’s integrity, she’s no Jimmy Carter. But I don't think that she’s the she-devil that haters on both the right and the far left portray her to be either. I don’t know her personally and neither do any but a tiny fraction of the Americans who hold strong opinions of her. I think that her reputation for untrustworthiness and dishonesty is more a reflection of the aforementioned decades-long character assassination campaign which the RWAM and a sensationalist media have directed at her rather than of her actual character or anything that she’s done.

Yes, Hillary Clinton is a consummate political insider and she has ties to many segments of American society, including the corporate one. But that’s not inherently a bad thing. Sure, she supports her campaign contributors, but any effective politician has to do that. She’s not the progressive firebrand that Bernie Sanders is and she has been late to the game when it comes to supporting social issues like LGBT rights. She works from the political center and out of political expediency, but that’s what effective politicians do in a democracy. I think that deep down, she is mostly progressive, but is restrained by an acceptance of political reality. This country is moving forward, albeit slowly. At least a President Hillary Clinton would keep us moving in that direction, in fits and starts perhaps, and inevitably with a few stumbles along the way, but still forward. I believe that the nomination of Bernie Sanders would result in a landslide Republican victory in November. Even if he were to be elected, an overreaching President Sanders would become mired in political intransigence and would take us nowhere. He would be a failed one-term president. A President Trump would be a disaster.

I certainly don’t agree with everything Hillary Clinton stands for. I have a particular problem with her hawkish and interventionist foreign policy, but no politician is perfect. And please let us not pretend that third party candidates are an option. They are relevant only when they act as spoilers who siphon votes away from one of the two major party candidates. The nature our first-past-the-post voting system and the Electoral College make it nearly impossible for any third candidate to be elected. Sorry, but in our electoral system, a third-party protest vote really is a vote thrown away. Hillary Clinton is not be an ideal presidential candidate, but unlike Sanders, she is electable and has a realistic political agenda. This year we are in a particularly dangerous situation. Never in American history has one of our two major political parties nominated for President of the United States a person who is as monumentally unfit for the office as Donald Trump is. He must not ascend to that office! This is why I have been supporting Hillary Clinton all along and look forward to watching her take the presidential Oath of Office in January.

UPDATE Nov., 9, 2016: Trump won. This is bad, really bad.

Opposing Religious Themed War Memorials

This post was originally written in August 2015.

I just read this article about the American Humanist Association's (AHA) failed suit to remove a Maryland war memorial because it's in the shape of a cross. I've been a member and supporter of the AHA for many years and will continue to be, but I have mixed feelings about their position on this issue.

Sure, that cross is clearly a Christian religious symbol. One can make a solid legal argument, as the AHA did, that it should not be on public land as that can be construed as government endorsement of a particular religion. However, I'm wondering if challenging a decades-old war memorial is really a good idea. This memorial has been there for nearly a century and commemorates World War I soldiers. How many people passing by even notice it let alone fixate on its Christian symbolism?

I fear that challenging monuments erected decades ago, particularly those honoring war dead, makes us secularists look petty, trite and mean-spirited. These monuments have become part of the history of the communities in which they stand and frankly, I don't have a problem with them.

I think we should challenge the construction of any new monuments on public lands or with public funds that contain religious imagery because they violate the values of our time, but we should not challenge ones that were erected in a different era. They reflect the values and social norms of their time, outdated as those values and norms may now be. I think that we should avoid aggravating people over small, historical things like this and focus on the bigger matters of today. Issues such as protecting reproductive rights, fighting religious discrimination, keeping religious doctrine out of politics and public institutions, defending science, etc. are crucially important in the here and now. A local and little-known 90 year old war memorial is not.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lamenting the Death of Intellectual Conservatism in the USA

I used to be a Republican. It's hard to believe now, but it's true. That was back in the days when the Republican Party still had a pragmatic, responsible, secular, and intellectually sophisticated moderate wing. Sadly, those days are gone. Over the past two decades, the party's ant-intellectual, jingoistic, anti-environmental, theocratic, fiscally-reckless, wing-nut fringe took over the party.

I was a Republican because I believed in a limited role for the federal government, state's rights, fiscal responsibility, free market economics, and the need for a strong defense (this was when the USSR was still around). But I also believed (and still do) in the absolute separation of church and state, respect for science, abortion rights, environmental protection, that tax cuts must be accompanied by commensurate spending cuts, and that liberals were equally patriotic countrymen and colleagues who deserved our respect and with whom we could amicably disagree. The Democrats were the other major American political party, they were NEVER the enemy. Back then, these views were not seen as incompatible with mainstream Republicanism. Sadly, there is no place in today's Republican Party for people like me. I and many others left the party. Or more accurately, the Republican Party left us!

Now, the wing-nut fringe of the Republican Party is its base. To be a Republican now, you have to disrespect science, be religious, oppose abortion rights, believe in a militaristic foreign policy, support tax cuts with no regard to their impact on the Government's fiscal solvency, disrespect the separation of church and state, not care about the environment, and think that anyone who disagrees with you is a communist! I'm appalled at the absence of intellect in the Republican party of today. It's downright scary that Republican members of Congress and state governors feel that they have to cow-tow to a loud-mouthed and intellectually bereft buffoon like Rush Limbaugh and that the party's recent presidential nominee selected the risibly unqualified Sarah Palin as his vice presidential choice in order to appeal to its unsophisticated base voters.

It really infuriates me that these superstitious nincompoops think that they are the guardians of national morality. Bill Clinton lied about his reckless and inappropriate, but otherwise harmless personal behavior and got impeached for it. George W. Bush lied in order to sell an unnecessary and unjustified war in Iraq that costs thousands of American lives and many more Iraqi lives and got reelected! Do they have their moralistic priorities just slightly out of order?

Because I believe in science, the rule of law, support diplomacy over militarism, am non-religious, support gay rights and same-sex marriage, care deeply about the environment and want to protect it, believe in balanced budgets, and believe that America is and should be part of the world, today's conservatives consider people like me to be communists (or Nazis, they can't seem to make up their minds) and view me as someone who "hates America." These people are so fanatical and their beliefs are so lacking in intellectual content that we have utterly nothing in common. It's so bizarre that believing in the Bill of Rights and in the due process of law makes you a communist of a Nazi. I wonder what sane Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller would say if they could see what their party has degenerated into.

I left the Republican Party years ago and am now a registered Democrat. I now consider myself a political liberal, even though my views have not changed much over the years. I still harbor some hopes that the moderate wing of the party will resurrect itself, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A new day for the nation and the world

Today, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States! I live near Washington, DC and I thought about going down to the Mall to be part of the event.  But it was a regular work day for me and I have a lot to get done by Friday, so I really couldn't afford to take the day off.  And it was cold today, very cold.  I watched the inauguration live on a big screen at work with some coworkers.  I'm so happy that the nation and the world are finally rid of Bush.  I think that future historians will rank GWB as one of the worst, if not THE worst, president in US history.  Back when GWB was reelected in 2004, you could almost hear the groan from the rest of the world.  Today, you can almost hear the relief that he's finally gone.  Bush has left Obama with some huge messes to deal with.

In only eight years, Bush has turned the biggest budget surplus in history to the biggest deficit in history; he's transformed us from the most respected nation in the world to the most despised nation in the world; he's embroiled us in an unnecessary and disastrous war in Iraq; he's bungled the probably necessary war in Afghanistan; in the name of national security, he's trampled on the basic human rights and the very values that used to define what the United States stands for; he's stuck his head in the sand with regard to global warming, which might well turn out to be the biggest crisis to ever face humanity; he's knocked holes in our precious wall of separation between church & state; he's made decisions about climate and medicine based on religious dogma, not on science; and he was asleep at the wheel while the financial industry recklessly binged on price-inflated financial securities to bring about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.  The list goes on...  Well, done George! In fairness, I will give Bush credit for two accomplishments:  there has not been a successful terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 and he had done a lot to combat AIDS in Africa.  Except for those two successes, his presidency has been a disaster!  I wish Bush a happy and quiet retirement.

Good luck, President Obama.  You've got your work cut out for you.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Utterly "Religulous"

I saw a screening of the new movie Religulous courtesy of the American Humanist Association in Washington, DC on Wednesday (Oct. 1, 2008).  The movie, presented by comedian Bill Maher, challenges the truth of and outright ridicules the world's three largest religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  Well actually, I use the term "documentary" loosely.  The film is highly one-sided and is more a long infomercial in the style of Michael Moore's films rather than a serious documentary.  Maher attacks religion with a combination of ruthless satire and simply letting its most extreme and ignorant adherents make fools of themselves.

Never the less, I loved this movie.  It fired some well-deserved ridicule at religion.  Some of the extremely religious people he interviewed acted and sounded like such nitwits that they were difficult to listen to.  Some of the other people he interviewed, particularly two Catholic priests, one a Vatican astronomer and the other a monsignor, were clearly very sophisticated and very modern.  The movie is hilarious and outs religion as the anachronistic absurdity that it is.  Near the end of the film, Maher warns of the dangers of religion, particularly in how deeply religious political leaders can make critical policy decisions based on the tenets of Bronze Age mythologies rather than a rational evaluation of current facts.  Maher goes on to claim that religion is a direct threat to the survival of civilization.

This film will probably not change the views of many deeply religious people.  However, for that large number of people who are religious, but still open-minded and capable of critical thinking, it may well facilitate doubts that they probably already harbor.  Maher is dead on in his assertion that religion is absurd, outdated, and dangerous.  If nothing else, it might encourage a few closet atheists to come out and challenge these anachronistic dogmas.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Maelstrom on Wall Street

Well, it's day two since the US House of Representatives in its great wisdom (smirk) voted down the treasury secretary's $700M bailout of the financial industry.  The ugly faces of petty partisanship and ideological zealotry reared forth among the histrionic vomitus spewing out from both sides of the aisle.  The Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans for causing this mess.  SURPRISE!  Of course, the truth is, they both share blame.
Starting years ago with good intentions, but bad economic theory, the Democrats pushed forward the federal intervention in the housing market that made credit too easily available. They wanted to make home ownership attainable to a larger segment of the American population.  Through Fannie and Freddie, the Government made a lot more money available for mortgage lending.  This did make it possible for more people to buy houses and to buy bigger and better houses; however, in doing so, they disrupted one of the free market's natural checks and balances.  The free market normally hold's Wall Street's insatiable greed in check with risk.  But the Government made home more mortgages less risky than they would normally be for the lenders.  Risk was socialized while profits remained privatized.  What a deal for the lenders!  Through creative loan packages, they could make high-risk loans that they otherwise would not have touched and then quickly offload them to Fannie or Freddie who would repackage them and sell them off as securities.  And if the borrower can't afford the loan in the long-term, hey, it wasn't their problem.

This worked for a while.  Lots more people could buy homes or move up!  The real estate market soared and so did housing prices. As long as people could get loans at artificially low rates, the party went on.  Of course, there had to come a point when home prices got so artificially high that people couldn't afford them even with their complex hyper-packaged mortgages.  That's when the bubble burst.  So the Democrats, while trying to help more people own their own homes, made credit available to people who simply couldn't afford it.  Had the Government not intervened and made it easy for banks and mortgage companies to sell-off complex high-risk loans shortly after making them, things would never have come to this point.

Now the Republicans contributed their part to this debacle as well.  In the name of ideological purity, they would not let the Government regulate the free market.  No Government meddling in the economy.  Let Wall Street do its thing! Greed is good!  It moves the economy.  There's actually a perverse element of truth in this.  However, by guaranteeing  the value of home mortgage based securities, the Government had already meddled in the economy.  They made risky loans less risky--for the lenders, that is.  The Republicans let the tax payers absorb a big chunk of the risk, but would not let the Government regulate the lenders to make sure they staid within the bounds of prudence.  Thanks to Democratic risk reduction and Republican pseudo-laissez-faire, Wall Street had a feeding frenzy--on a charge card.

Moral of the story:  If you are going to follow a laissez-faire economic model, governments shouldn't meddle in the free market at all!  They shouldn't do anything that might disrupt the market's natural balance of risk vs reward that restrains reckless financial moves.  If you are going to intervene in the free market, no matter how noble your intentions, and interfere with its natural checks and balances, then you had damned well better regulate it to make sure that it doesn't overheat as it inevitably will.  What's truly pathetic is that the Government made this same type of mistake with the savings & loan industry in the 1980s.  They deregulated it while still guaranteeing the deposits.  With the natural check of risk removed, the S&Ls were free to gamble.  And gamble they did with predictably disastrous results.  Alas, history has repeated itself.  Some lessons are just never learned.