Archive for September, 2016

Guns and Pot!


I’m rather tired of writing about Trump and Clinton, so let’s delve into Maine’s always exciting referendum scene — two questions this year will certainly get a lot of attention.

Question 1: Do you want to allow the possession and use of marijuana under state law by persons who are at least 21 years of age, and allow the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?

The full text of the proposal is rather complex, limiting the amount of marijuana anyone can have, and putting in place a number of restrictions designed to both support public health and protect small business.

To me, this question is a no-brainer.  Yes, marijuana should be legal.  As a drug, cannabis, besides having real medicinal value, is far less dangerous than alcohol.   The CDC estimates that 88,000 people die from alcohol use each year.  Add to that the domestic abuse, non-fatal car accidents, and alcohol induced violence, and it is clear that it is a very dangerous drug.   Marijuana, on the other hand, has no direct link to death.  There are cases where high heart rates and other side effects contributed to someones’ death, but compared to alcohol the drug is virtually harmless.

When smoked, marijuana has negative effects much like tobacco, though cigarette smokers generally smoke a lot more.   And, of course, vaping (using a vaporizer that burns at a lower temperature, thereby not releasing the more dangerous parts of the plant – ones that can lead to health problems but don’t get you high) is a healthier alternative.

Edibles are also popular, though in Colorado since marijuana legalization this has created a problem.  If parents aren’t careful, a child might see a marijuana laced chocolate chip cookie or a brownie and decide to eat it.   That hasn’t killed anyone, but the number of cases in the ER have increased.  It’s not a high number – and it could also be that people are now more forthright about why a child is having symptoms.  When pot was illegal they might be afraid of having their child taken away – leaving an illegal drug out where children can get it.  With it legal, the consequences aren’t so dire.


Vaporizers offer a more healthy way to “get high.”

But we all have vices.  Humans from time immortal have used plants and substances to enter at least mildly altered states of consciousness.   If someone chooses pot over the far more dangerous substance alcohol, they should not be considered a criminal!  But dangerous as alcohol is, I don’t think anyone wants to bring back the prohibition!

So yes on question one!

Question 3: Do you want to require background checks prior to the sale or transfer of firearms between individuals not licensed as firearms dealers, with failure to do so punishable by law, and with some exceptions for family members, hunting, self-defense, lawful competitions, and shooting range activity?

Proponents of this measure argue that there is a loophole in the law – that individuals can trade and sell firearms without the background checks that are required at gun shops.  This means anyone who really wants a gun can find a way to get one without a background check.  In a world of terror threats and school shootings, they argue, this is a loophole that should be closed.

Though I can see the logic to that position, it is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

My view of the law is that in as much as possible, individuals should be able to freely interact and exchange personal favors and objects without government interference.  In fact, government should only interfere with private liberty when a significant social good can be achieved, or if a societal problem can be mitigated.  Even then, the bar is high – too much government is not a good thing.


Maine falls below the mean on gun deaths compared to gun ownership levels, but these are not deaths caused by the legal “loophole.”

In this case, individual liberty would be sacrificed with no real gain.  There is no reason to increase the scope of government.   Maine is a safe state.  People have guns, they buy and sell guns, they hunt, they target practice, and yet in terms of gun violence our rates are low, and there is no evidence of anything bad happening that this law would have prevented.   There is no reason to increase regulation.   So no on question 3!

And in any event, it’s more interesting to talk about cannabis and firearms than Donald Trump!


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The State of the Race


If you’ve been following the polls (which you can do here by clicking “2016 Polls!” above), you know that the race for the Presidency is very close.  Despite a disastrous August, Trump has emerged in September with real momentum, while Clinton’s campaign has been stymied by rumor and more recently, a rather serious bout of pneumonia.

It is still early, but the talk of Trump dropping out or Clinton winning a landslide has faded as people come to grips with the possibility that come January 20, 2017 we may be talking about President Trump.

Trump’s rise is due to a number of factors.  First, he’s an outsider.  A recent state poll in the swing state of Ohio showed that Trump was clobbering Clinton among self-proclaimed independents.   For those who want change – who want someone from outside the normal political field – Trump is worth the risk.

Second, third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are polling better than expected, mostly at a cost to Hillary.  Many thought disaffected Republicans would flock to Johnson, a former Republican governor, but his libertarian views and foreign policy isolationism have made him appealing to those who might otherwise vote Democratic.  Usually third party candidates poll better than they draw on an election day, but at this point Clinton is hurt by Johnson’s strength.


I love this cartoon – read from the top down, it’s Trump speaking, from the bottom up it’s Hillary.

Finally, Trump has a coat of Teflon that is unprecedented.  Ronald Reagan was the original Teflon President, but his misstatements were so minor as to be virtually non-existent compared to Trump’s.   Clinton assumed that these would form an albatross around Trump’s neck that would sink him.  While she needs to keep up the effort to use Trump’s past against him, it’s not going to be enough to defeat him.

Trump’s appeal has multiple facets.  Some hate the cultural and demographic change that has swept the country, and hope Trump somehow can bring us back to America circa 1984. Others are disgusted with politics as usual and figure Trump will at the very least shake things up.   Some like the fact he’s unapologetically politically incorrect.  People are sick of being told what words they can and can’t use – and Trump represents a middle finger to the face of political correctness.


Gary Johnson and Jill Stein can’t win, but especially Johnson is in the position to play the spoiler.

I’ve heard even more unexpected rationales for voting Trump.  One person figures America is going to collapse anyway, and Trump will at least make that happen more quickly (why she wants that to happen more quickly, I do not know).  Another believes Trump is really a New York liberal and will govern to the left of Clinton.

In other words, Trump’s appeal is that he is different things to different people.  People see in him what they want, he’s kind of a political Rorschach test.

Clinton, on the other hand, suffers from 25 years of constant attacks from the right, and conspiracy theories from the right and left.  Sanders supporters who learned to hate Clinton believe she’s some kind of evil right wing fraud;  people in the middle either don’t trust her or are sick of the Clinton name.  Unlike Obama, she doesn’t inspire; few people are going out of their way to put up Hillary signs or sport Hillary bumper stickers on their cars.  Even those who hate Trump are rarely enthusiastic about Hillary.  She’s the anti-Trump, people see in her negative traits like corruption and dishonesty.


To be sure, I don’t think those views of Hillary are fair – she’s a victim of long term character assassination, and it’s worked.  But she’s not going to undo that by November, the best she can do is try to convince those on the edge that she’s really not so bad.  But while Trump’s Rorschach candidacy helps him, Clinton’s past hangs on her neck like the albatross she thought Trump would carry.

The result is a candidate, Donald Trump, having the chance to win the Presidency despite having a favorability rating below 40%

What will happen?   This election is yet undecided.  That isn’t always the case by mid-September.  In both 2008 and 2012 it was pretty clearly Obama’s to win at this point.  That means the debates matter, Clinton’s ability to bounce back from pneumonia matters, and the ups and downs of the campaign trail yet to come matter.  This is a real battle.

Clinton is still the favorite to win.  Her favorability ratings are bad, but not as bad as Trump’s.  As the election gets closer and people really look at Trump, it will be harder to ignore the negatives.   Beyond that, Clinton has a better organization and more money; she might win through her get out the vote effort.

But if the Democrats had nominated someone like Corey Booker, they’d probably be looking at much better prospects.  Clinton can be defeated, she is not a strong candidate, something she admits.   Moreover, Trump has the chance to stay on message, be disciplined, and not give in to the rants and temper tantrums that have hurt him in the past.  I think Clinton will win, but at this point the race is undecided and anything can happen.


The Dakota Pipeline Protests


North Dakota has had an oil boom!  In the US only Texas produces more oil.   Nearly 10,000 wells are now operating, and that number could rise to nearly 50,000.  The impact on the people living in North Dakota is ambiguous – but that’s a subject for a future post.

Recently the issue of how to get the oil to market has become salient.  Currently rail and truck transport are the means of getting the oil to refineries, but that’s expensive – and of course burns oil in the process.  The logical and seemingly compelling solution is to build a pipeline.  Let the oil flow from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa to Illinois, where it can connect with existing pipelines.  Its capacity will be nearly 600,000 barrels of oil a day.

On the surface, it seems like a great plan.  Using less energy to get oil to refineries is good for the environment, jobs will be created, and it’ll help the US economy.  There are pipelines all over the world for oil – who’d be upset with one zipping through the relatively barren Dakotas?


The most vocal opposition to the pipeline comes from the local Sioux, whose land is being traversed by the pipeline.   The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has brought a law suit to halt construction of part of the pipeline, and on September 6th a judge asked the company to cease until a court could come up with a ruling.

The protest has been met by efforts to intimidate the protesters, who are mostly Sioux, but who have had some celebrity support.   One day dogs were used to try to force the protesters to scatter.   The company building the pipeline is annoyed by the protests, viewing it as a bizarre Indian reaction to a very profitable economic activity.

There are two specific reasons for the protest.  One is that the pipeline will traverse sacred lands, including burial grounds that federal law already tries to protect.  The other is that the pipeline passes under the Missouri river at Lake Oahe, up about a mile from the reservation boundary.   If there were some kind of spill or problem, it could be both a cultural and economic disaster for the Sioux.  Indeed, in 2014 when the House of Representatives voted for the Keystone XL pipeline, the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota declared it an act of war.


Lake Oahe is a large reservoir created by the Oahe dam near Pierre, SD. It continues up into North Dakota, a “lake” that is 230 miles long!

The water concerns are real; the Dakotas rely the Missouri and Lake Oahe and a pipeline disaster would devastate more than just the Sioux.   But for me, the issue goes deeper.  Seeing the violence against protesters, and the disdain the pipeline company and its supporters have for the Sioux recalls a shameful portion of US history: our low tech holocaust of the native tribes that lived here for centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

I grew up in South Dakota.  As a kid I learned the stereotypes.  Drunken Indians, lazy, taking government hand outs but not doing anything to better their situation.  “If they’d just move off the reservation and join the world, they’d do more for their children,” people would say.  “The past is gone, they have to let it go.”

Yeah, would you say that to a Jewish person remembering the holocaust?

Consider the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.  It sought to bring peace with the natives by giving them a large, viable reservation that included the Black Hills of South Dakota, a land scared to the Sioux.   In 1876 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, in 1877 the US seized the land, violating the treaty.  In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that the treaty had been violated, awarding the Lakota Sioux $105 million – the value of the land and 5% interest for each year it was held.  The tribe refused the money, saying they wanted the land back.

While a romanticized image of the Lakota Sioux or any tribe would be a mistake, they had a sustainable and predominately peaceful life style, living in partnership with nature rather than trying to control everything.  Their systems of government were based on tradition and consensus, rather than power and control.  Their notion of property rights was collective, rather than individual at base.


The Standing Rock reservation straddles North and South Dakota.

Yet now in 2016 the reservations remain intensely impoverished.  I drove with my two sons through the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota when they were 8 and 6, to show them the reality.  They were shocked by the poverty.  “Why do they live like this,” the eldest asked.  “They lost a war,” I replied.

“Who did they lose a war to?”   I paused.  “The Americans.”   My youngest son said, “What – that’s us!!”

I explained it was long ago, but sad that the people defeated so we could have this country are so disrespected and ignored.  True – the treaties allow them to control life on the reservation, getting federal money for support.  That’s why so many blame the Indians – they have become dependent on government funds, with high levels of alcoholism and unemployment.


Regardless of why, the fact that our Indian Reservations have third world conditions should be a national shame.

But the reservations were purposely chosen because the land wasn’t as good for farming, operating as a kind of American apartheid for a long time.  Yes, the current system isn’t working, but the answer can’t just be to say “forget the past: forget your culture and heritage.”  To me this is another case of disrespect and disregard for the people  whose land was stolen and culture all but destroyed.

I don’t know how to solve the larger problems of life on the res, but a first step could be to treat the protesters with respect.   Take seriously the importance of sacred lands.  Build a partnership rather than simply seeing them as annoying people who happen to live on land that can yield a very profitable pipeline.

I get that the powers that be will never let a group of Sioux stop a project like this; too much money is on the line.   But even if it costs more money and requires more time, they should do everything they can to avoid endangering the water supply and threatening sacred lands of a people who have had almost everything else taken.  So for now, I stand with the protesters, at least in spirit.


Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself


Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, warned that the most dangerous threat to freedom would come if politics became like marketing campaigns.  Advertisers don’t try to try convince us to buy their products because they are better, they try to appeal to our emotions.   Sometimes it’s overt (the diamond companies saying that if you get engaged, the man should spend three months salary on a ring – otherwise it can’t be love), but often it is subtle.  Think of how ads use sexual innuendo and images, even for things like dish soap.  Advertising is emotional manipulation, designed to circumvent and even prevent rational thought.

Emotions aren’t bad.   Indeed, ethics and morality may be triggered first by sentiment, as we feel pain or distress when we see others suffer.   But emotion can either aid rational thought or it can prevent it.   When it prevents it, people make errors.  While that can happen with good emotions (feeling in love with a new flame, someone might spend money and neglect friends, only to regret it later), the most dangerous results come from fear and anger.


Emotion is triggered by forces inside our brain we don’t completely understand. Depression, anxiety, fear, and even self-loathing can overtake good people.  Usually it’s related to low self-esteem, rendering one susceptible to suggestions – comparing oneself to others, feeling one is a failure, fearing the future.  Damaging emotions can ruin lives at the individual level.  Tapped into at the societal level, they can destroy cultures.

That is why the Trump candidacy bothers me.  It’s not just that Trump seems to be a high end confidence man who is trying to pull off the biggest con job in American history, but that to do so he is using the technique of spreading fear and anger.  That leads to division and could damage our political stability.

If the political advertisers tell us that our country is under threat, that things are going horribly, and that we should fear illegal aliens and ubiquitous terrorists, soon society undergoes a similar downward spiral.  Afraid, angry and anxious, people trade their freedom for a sense of security, and in so doing, risk losing both.


Many people are susceptible to that.  We are going through dramatic period of social transformation, with change occurring at a pace previously unimaginable.  As technology spreads, and the culture shifts (gay marriage, transgender, globalization mixing cultures together, demographic change), many people think they are losing the world they thought was natural and normal.  To them Trump promises to restore things to how they used to be, a promise impossible to keep.  Others see the economy seem to worsen, and blame immigrants and welfare recipients (rather than the big corporations who get most of the government aid!)

The only way to a better and peaceful, successful and prosperous future is to change the way we think about politics and society.  Our thinking has to accept how the world is changing, rather than fear it.  If fear guides us, then our system and culture will become increasingly dysfunctional, people will scapegoat others, and those in power will find it easy to manipulate us.   If Trump’s message resonates, it may be the start of a deterioration of American political discourse (though many might say that deterioration started long before this election cycle).


Life is often a choice between fear and acceptance.  Fear of the other leads us to reject things we should accept.  Parents might not accept their child being gay, or marrying someone of a different race.  Homeowners might not accept immigrants moving into their neighborhood, fearing change and violence.   A spouse might not accept the full individuality of the other because they fear not being in control.

Acceptance is ultimately more powerful than fear.  You can’t have a good friendship – or marriage, or anything – if you do not accept the other person as they are.  You cannot deal with change in your life if you struggle against it.   Only if one accepts change can one handle it and make it work for them.


We need as a society to accept the world as it is changing, and not to fear.  35,000 people died in car accidents, 42,000 from suicides…and only 55 from terrorism last year.  We should be fearing ourselves more than terrorists!   Illegal immigrants are not creating crime waves or economic pain, nor are Muslims in America.  Using these groups as a target of the Angst people have about their lives and the future – making it seem like these “others” have caused the problem – sets up division and anger.  It also keeps people from recognizing that the change is real – and we need to accept and deal with it!

At this point, Roosevelt’s words still resonate.  We have nothing to fear but fear itself. And in this election cycle, we must reject fear.