Archive for category Maine

Maine’s Weird Race for Governor

Senator Angus King with Democratic candidate for Congress Emily Cain

Senator Angus King with Democratic candidate for Congress Emily Cain

Supporters of Governor Paul Le Page are livid.   They are mad at Angus King.   They have no reason to be, except that they fear their candidate will have a harder path to victory.  That’s because of the weird twists and turns of Maine’s gubernatorial contest.

Senator Angus King is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.  King also served two terms as an independent Governor in Maine.   King, who has endorsed Democrat Emily Cain for the second district seat, earlier endorsed independent candidate Elliot Cutler for governor.    He’s also endorsed independent Larry Pressler in South Dakota.

Le Page supporters know that in a two way race between their man and Democratic candidate Mike Michaud, Le Page has no chance.  He is not the typical Maine Republican, he’s a tea party Republican who has made his mark by refusing federal funds to expand medicare, hurting both Maine citizens and hospitals who need the money.  Other Republicans, like Ohio Governor John Kaisich, praise medicare expansion – and have chosen to benefit from it.  That and his embarrassing quotes, bullying and temper tantrums make Le Page an unpopular governor.

Yet he could win the election if the opposition to Le Page splits their vote between Elliot Cutler and Mike Michaud.  The GOP has been pouring money into support for Cutler for the very purpose of undermining Michaud.     The anger against King comes because he changed his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud.

Maine's governor Le Page is a polarizing figure in Maine politics.

Maine’s governor Le Page is a polarizing figure in Maine politics.

Supposedly King was being a “traitor” by changing sides, or showing “no principle.”  That is absurd.   King supported Cutler as an independent.  But in a press conference yesterday Cutler admitted he was a long shot, and said voters should vote their conscience.  King, realizing that he did not want to see a second Le Page term, came out and changed his endorsement to Mike Michaud – following his conscience, as Cutler advised.

That is a principled, rational response to the conditions in this election.   King may have even talked with Cutler about it.  So why the fury against King?   It’s simply an emotional reaction to the sudden realization that the anti-Le Page vote may not be as divided as Le Page supporters hoped.  King’s change is symbolic of the possibility that many Cutler supporters will switch to Michaud, thereby making it much less likely Le Page will win.  The anger isn’t really with King, it’s with the possibility Michaud will be Maine’s next governor.

Mike Michaud, Maines's first openly gay candidate for governor, stands to benefit from King's endorsement.

Mike Michaud, Maines’s first openly gay candidate for governor, stands to benefit from King’s endorsement.

The dynamics of the three way race remain uncertain.  In 2010 Le Page barely bested Cutler, with each getting about 39%.  The Democrat Libby Mitchell was back with 22%.  Cutler almost won – hence he tried again.  Yet Michaud, a popular Congressman, is a much stronger candidate than Mitchell, and Cutler was never able to seriously challenge the two leaders.   The polls show a very tight race at the top – the Huffpost pollster has the race as 50-50, with Le Page and Michaud both averaging 40% in the polls.  Cutler has remained well below 20%, down to 7% in one poll.

It says something profound when one side thinks it can only win if it divides the opposition – Le Page supporters implicitly admit their candidate would not win a two person race.  Yet this also shows a weakness of a plurality vote; a third candidate messes up the works, creating unintended consequences – Le Page’s 2010 victory is an example of that.

The real solution is to ditch the plurality vote and create a run off election of the two top candidates if no one reaches 50%.  They do that in other states, we should do that in Maine.   The odds are good that this move away from Cutler will help Michaud win – but any three way race is hard to predict. Allowing a run off election would help independents because people could truly vote their conscience in the first round, and not need to worry about strategic voting.  Hopefully Maine will move in that direction in the next legislative session.

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Yes, it’s Climate Change!

Lake Michigan frozen in Chicago

Lake Michigan frozen in Chicago

If you’re on Facebook you’ve no doubt read the posts about how cold it is.   When a reporter in Bangor threw a cup of hot coffee in the air it crystallized and blew away.   Another in Minneapolis did the same with a pot of boiling water!   It’s not just the cold.   Having grown up in South Dakota and lived a long time in Minnesota, I’m no stranger to minus 35 degrees (NOT including wind chill).   Rather it’s the duration and wide spread scope of this cold weather.

As NPR explains, this is because we are experiencing a polar vortex.    Usually a low pressure cell with extremely cold air sits atop the north pole all winter.   Minnesota will get the occasional minus 40 degree weather because at times bits of it come south.   Due to the way continents and climates interact, the coasts stay mild as the middle grows intensely cold.   Since moving to Maine I’d many times see my friends back in Minnesota experiencing minus 35 while here we didn’t go below 10 above.

That’s still the case.   While we’ve been going below zero in the single digits in Maine the temperatures have remained frigid all over the northern plains.   The cold here is more intense than usual.

vortex

The polar vortex comes from a larger piece of that low pressure cell moving south, and bringing with it more cold war than we’re used to.  And as Time explains, this could be real evidence of global warming.   The reason is that the warm gulf stream has helped keep cold air caged up north, allowing milder air to reign through most of the US.   That’s why when I moved from Minnesota to Maine I was moving to a distinctly warmer climate.   A lot of Arctic ice has been lost in past decades due to global warming, cooling down the north Atlantic.

Think of it like big ice cubes breaking off and melting in warmer water.   While with ocean currents and depths it will take awhile, eventually that can cool the ocean enough to impact the jet stream.   If that’s what’s happening, it may well be that we’re getting yet another real indicator not only of the reality of global warming (which only a few holdouts deny), but that its impact may be multifaceted in unexpected ways.

polar2

For us in the Northeastern US (and probably everywhere between Montana and Poland) global warming may mean colder winters.   So how is that global warming?   When the cold air leaves the polar regions, they warm up.  This has been a warm winter in the Arctic, and usually frigid places in Alaska have had mild temperatures.   Polar warming seems to defy expectations, but the impact of cooling oceans on the jet streams and climate patterns suggests a hard to predict but likely destabilizing climate change.

It could also mean warmer summers, altering the nature of local climates and forcing changes in just about every aspect of life.  Few scientists doubt global warming, or that human green house gas production is a major factor causing it – the evidence is overwhelming.  A few ideology-driven political types try to deny it, and hopefully karma will give them what they deserve for endangering future generations far more than would be the case if we acted to clean up our energy usage.

But the reality is that humans live in denial, and it won’t be until it’s too late to stop the disaster that people realize we were warned and did very little.   Something like the polar vortex shows that the consequences of global warming may be very unexpected and vary from place to place.   But it’s here – and expect the headlines to get more dramatic and worse in coming years.

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No election rigging, please!

If electoral votes were awarded by district

If electoral votes were awarded by district

Many Republicans, including RNC Chair Reince Priebus, think that it would be a good idea to change the way we award electoral college votes.  A state is allocated electoral votes based on the number of Representatives and Senators they have.   So Maine, with two Congresspeople and two Senators, gets four votes.   In most states whoever wins the state gets all of that state’s electoral votes.

Republicans would like to change that to award electoral votes by district, which is currently the practice in Maine and Nebraska.   So in Maine one vote goes to the winner of the first district, and one to the winner of the second.   The final two go to whoever wins the most popular votes in the state.

However, there is a dark side to this idea.   While Maine and Nebraska choose their system in a bi-partisan manner, without one party wanting to use a change in rules to rig the election in their favor,  plans now are pushed only by the GOP with the specific goal of trying to improve their chance to win the Presidency, even if they lose the popular vote.

The real 2012 results

The real 2012 results

Simply, the purpose is to undermine the democratic will of the people so one party can get and hold on to power regardless of whether or not they have popular support.  That is the kind of plot one expects to see in third world states rather than a country that claims to be the world’s greatest democracy.

As the maps above shows, even though President Obama easily won the popular vote by a four point margin, with a hefty 332 electoral votes, awarding them by district would have given Mitt Romney the Presidency.   Democratic districts tend to be urban and overwhelmingly Democratic – sometimes over 90%, some precincts get no Republican votes!    Republican districts in the suburbs and rural areas have a significant number of Democrats, rarely below 30%.

Another problem has been gerrymandering.   That’s when the party in power redraws the districts with the intent of using district boundaries to make it easier for their party to win.     Consider: the Democrats got far more votes for their candidates for the House of Representatives than did the Republicans.   But the GOP easily maintained their majority of seats.

Virigina's Republican Governor Bob McDonnell nixed the plan - for now.

Virigina’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell nixed the plan – for now.

Virginia was the first state to seriously consider changing how it awards electoral votes after the 2012 election.   The Republican party there hatched a plan to not only award electoral votes by district, but to give the two extra votes each state has (based on two Senators) to the person who won the most districts rather than to however won the popular vote.   That would be different than the Nebraska and Maine systems, and mean that although President Obama won Virginia by 3%, he would have gotten only 4 electoral votes to Romney’s 9!   Again, that’s the kind of shenanigans you’d expect in some banana republic.

Wisconsin politics has already been poisoned by partisan scabbles

Wisconsin politics has already been poisoned by partisan scabbles

The Virginia plan appears dead for now, thanks to opposition from two Republican State Senators and the Governor, but many said they didn’t like the timing rather than the idea.   Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are also considering such action – all of it very partisan and with intense opposition from the other side.  Those are also “blue” states in which awarding by district would give the Republicans a majority of electoral votes.

What would the ramifications of the change be?   If a few “blue” states changed their system then it would increase the chance for a Republican to win the Presidency in 2016, even if he or she fails to win the popular vote.   But just as the cuts in early voting led to a backlash against the Republicans in states like Florida, the unintended consequences of such a move could hurt the GOP.

Democrats would be forced to compete more intensively in areas they now cede to the Republicans.   That could ultimately expand the Democratic party and endanger currently safe Republican House members.   Beyond that, state politics would be injected with more anger and partisanship.

One can imagine that Democrats would undo the changes if they managed to get power, and the issue could make it harder for parties to cooperate in times where problem solving is necessary.   It is time for Republican leaders to say that changing the way we elect our President is a serious matter and should not be done on a partisan basis to try to use the rules to rig elections.

"We can't be the stupid party," Bobby Jindal pleaded

“We can’t be the stupid party,” Bobby Jindal pleaded

The Republicans should follow the lead of people like Bobby Jindal who recognize that the party needs to appeal to the majority, rather than looking to change the laws in order to grab power.   It is a sign of desperation that some Republicans would even consider trying to change the rules so they can win power even if they can’t win vote.   It is also an opening for people like Jindal to take the lead and recast the Republican party to be able to compete to win a majority of votes, not just electoral districts.   America needs two strong, competitive parties.

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Binders of Black People!

Maine Republican Chair Charlie Webster

I wanted to blog about something other than politics today but I can’t ignore a local story gone viral.

Farmington’s own Charlie Webster, who runs a successful heating company, got into some hot water this week.   Webster, who serves as the state Republican party Chair, made a claim that “dozens” of black people had registered to vote on election day at rural polling places where none of the poll workers knew them.

Immediately he was attacked for making a charge that seemed racist — black people voting in rural Maine?   They must be from away!   I think, though, it was more stupid than racist.

Here’s the context:  Charlie Webster has long thought that Maine’s same day registration policy makes fraud likely.   He once produced the names of 206 college students in Farmington who had registered on election day and had the Secretary of State Charlie Summers investigate.   No wrong doing was found, though many students were sent semi-threatening letters warning them that they shouldn’t vote in a community if they had cars registered elsewhere or otherwise did not plan to become long term members of that community.   Maine law has no such provisions, but Summers had to show some deference to his party Chair.

The Republicans grabbed control of both houses and the Governorship in 2010, and one of the first things they did was push through a law ending same day registration.   Reports are that in a state legislature where individual independence usually trumps party loyalty, this was one issue where intense pressure was put on legislatures to vote in favor of ending the practice.   This was a priority for Webster.

In Maine the people can overturn legislation through a referendum and that’s what happened.   By an overwhelming margin of 60% to 40% Mainers voted to keep same day registration.   Many on the right, buoyed by early polls showing support for the ending same day registration, thought having an off year (2011) vote would help them win.   It did not.

If 2012 was like other years, about 50,000 people state wide registered on election day.   They must have ID and a piece of mail addressed to them showing that they have a Maine address.     Part of what irks Webster is that often college students in his town of Farmington (where I also live and teach) come and vote in elections even though those students probably don’t really consider Farmington home.   His view: they should vote in their own localities, or if they are out of state, in the state in which their parents live.

UMF students were active on the same sex marriage initiative, trying to register students and get them to vte

That is a legitimate argument.   To the extent that local representation in the state house in Augusta gets decided by students with no real “base” in Farmington, local residents may feel like their vote is being usurped by students from elsewhere corralled to vote by campus activists.

Counter arguments would note that these students live at least a good nine months in Farmington and add significantly to the local economy.   The strongest counter is that it’s unlikely the campus determines election outcomes.    Students tend not to vote, and many who do vote Republican.   Republican candidates such as the State Rep Lance Harvell and State Senator Tom Saviello actively campaign on campus and have strong levels of student and faculty support, including from Democrats.

The point:  same day registration irks Webster, he thinks it damages the electoral process and should be done away with.   Yet dozens of black people going to rural Maine?

Most people would be skeptical.   Busing black folk to rural locations would be an expensive and rather odd way to try to influence elections!  \    The Sardine report did a nice satire on this, claiming “thousands of mysterious white people voted in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Brunswick, Bangor, Brewer, South Portland, Waterville, Ellsworth, Sanford, Saco, Westbrook, Augusta, Orono, Belfast, Bath, Rumford and Newport.”   An excerpt:

“It was an ingenious plan, really,” commented Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant. ” We were only able to get a few hundred black people up from Massachusetts, and we had them voting in places like West Norridgewock, where they kind of stuck out. In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest way to undermine the electoral process.”

And:

Rumford town clerk Corinne McLaughlin said they were definitely some shady European-looking types registering on election day in her town. “I make a point of noticing and remembering all the white people in town, and there were definitely a few that I had not seen before,” she said.

After the Webster story went viral on Drudge, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, and most political websites he backed off.   He apologized for making it sound like he was disparaging a racial group, and withdrew his claim that he’d send out postcards to see if people really did live where they registered.

In the end, it was a bit absurd.  I’m not sure how it went down, but I can imagine Webster hearing rumors about black people voting, taking them seriously and then blurting it out while being interviewed.    He hates same day registration and thus is predisposed to believe stories that show it to enable fraud.

Here in rural Maine there are not many black people.   Therefore we sometimes forget to think about how what we say might sound.   Heck, my six year old son in looking at a picture of Barack Obama once said, “dad, do you have to have black skin to be able to become President?”    I suspect Webster was so focused on the issue of same day registration fraud that it simply went over his head just how racially charged his claim was.

“He who gaffes last…” Romney putting blame for his election defeat on Obama’s “gifts” to voters reinforced why the Governor had so much trouble connecting

So in the end it was just a minor gaffe that gave this part of the country some national attention for a day or two.  It wasn’t even the worst gaffe of the week – that honor belonged to Mitt Romney who channeled his 47% video self to decry how Obama won by “giving gifts” to various demographic groups.    Republicans reacted to that by distancing themselves from Romney even faster than Maine Republicans fled Webster.

I’ll take Webster at his word that he didn’t mean to focus on race and is genuinely sorry about how careless his comments were.    The gotcha gaffe game is a poor excuse for political discourse in any event.    And as much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s sort of fun when something silly puts Maine and especially my part of Maine in the national spotlight.

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Vote Early?

I like to vote on election day.   Here in rural Maine not only is there never a line, but local candidates are outside the polling center to shake hands and chat (but not campaign), and there is real community spirit.

Voting, after all, is not a rational act.   Rational action means one calculates the expected utility (positive outcome) of a choice.   In the case of voting the time lost, gas used, and effort undertaken is almost certain to be more than the very unlikely possibility that ones’ vote will determine the outcome of an election.   In terms of pure rationality, you’re better off not voting.

Voting instead should be seen as a duty, a moral obligation to our democratic community.  It is a collective good – it may not be in any one person’s rational self-interest to go vote, but it’s in our collective interest to have everyone vote.    People who feel connected to a community are more likely to vote as they recognize it as a task we undertake in order to enjoy the benefits of democracy.

The problem is compounded in cities and urban areas where voter can stand in line for hours.   Not only does this make voting seem completely irrational, but not everyone has hours to sacrifice – a single mom who works and then has to take care of small children may be unable to take the time, for example.

Thus the rise of early voting.   States have always had absentee ballots for those who couldn’t vote on election day.   That later evolved into “no excuse” absentee ballots and in person early voting.   This has grown rapidly since the 2004 election.  That year Ohio decided the election for President Bush, and the state was dogged by long voting lines which arguably dissuaded some people from voting.

The states in blue allow no-excuse early voting either by mail in or in person ballot.  The purple states are in person only, while the green ones are mail in only.   The grey states have no ‘no excuse’ early voting.   Is this a good thing?

Here in Maine early voting may have determined an election in 2010.   In a three way race for governor, early polls showed Democrat Libby Mitchell in a tough campaign against Paul LePage, a tea party Republican who narrowly won a plurality in a field of six Republican primary candidates.    Independent Elliot Cutler was third when early voting started.  Mitchell’s campaign plummeted after that and the result was:  Le Page 218,065, Cutler 208,270 and Mitchell 109,387.

The Democrats had an extensive get out the vote effort and many are convinced that Mitchell had at least 10,000 ‘early votes’ that would have gone to Cutler if people had waited and seen Mitchell’s campaign collapse.   Some vowed never to vote early again!

Some claim that early voting helped bring tea party favorite Paul LePage to the Governor’s mansion in Maine

That is probably an exception, and may not even have determined the result.   10,000 is a lot of votes, about a quarter of the total early votes.

Some dislike early voting because they believe people should pay attention to the campaign and be willing to change their minds up until the end.   That is idealistic, but most of the early voters are not going to change their mind.   Indeed, probably over 90% of voters are still where they were in their preferences half a year ago.   The Maine case noted above wasn’t so much a change in preference but of strategy – they wanted to stop Le Page.

Others note that early voting benefits the campaign with the best get out the vote effort.   GOTV efforts used to focus on election day, now campaigns can cajole voters to fill out absentees or go in to vote early.   This is especially important in swing states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.    This year it appears Obama’s GOTV operation is stronger than Romney’s, but it’s hard to tell.

The fact is that this year about a third of voters are expected to vote early, and in states like Colorado and Nevada it can be well over half the voters.    Republicans have tried to limit early voting out of a belief that it is more likely to increase the turn out of groups that traditionally don’t vote in high numbers like blacks, Latinos or the poor.   Since these groups are also more likely to vote Democratic, they believe that early voting helps Democrats.

Efforts to demand voter ID and limit early voting are seen by critics as Republican efforts to block the vote of those more likely to vote Democratic

While I prefer to vote on election day, I support early voting.   I support it because of the fact it just might bring out poor and minority voters who traditionally don’t vote.

Someone who votes is more likely to take responsibility and work to build a better community.    If you care about an election, you may become more likely to care about your neighborhood.  If you care about your community, you might be more likely to make extra efforts to improve your life situation, help your children achieve more, and move out of poverty.

Idealistic?  Perhaps.   But critics of social welfare programs argue that they create psychological dependency, whereby a chunk of those on welfare find it easier to feel like victims and just live off others.   Not 47% by any means, but there are some.   Still others may not be that far gone but yet feel alienated and powerless.   These are curable conditions.   They may result from poverty, but they also increase the likelihood poverty will become permanent.

There could be much more done to address this issue.   Social welfare programs should be less the mailing out of checks and more in the realm of community action.   Community organizers should be the key line of defense against poverty, not bureaucracies in Washington.   Real reform could help make the safety net also a ladder out of poverty.

Voting can’t do all that, but perhaps it’s like a gateway drug, creating a connection between the individual and the community.   That can be built upon.   So if early voting brings out more voters, especially people who have felt alienated and outside the community, then it is a good thing.

Still, I’ll be at the community center on November 6th (not the 7th – thanks Sarah, for catching that!), enjoying the ritual of voting in person on election day!

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The Reagan Legacy

Ronald Reagan’s true legacy is in opening the door for high US debt

In 1980 I voted in my first Presidential election and like many people, voted for Ronald Reagan because of his optimism and vision of better times for America.    The late seventies had been traumatic.    After first bringing a sense of relief to a country torn apart by Vietnam and Watergate, Jimmy Carter seemed helpless as the US slipped into another oil crisis, a recession, and renewed tensions with the USSR.  In retrospect Carter handled the situation about as deftly as one could, but to a country used to being on top, it felt like we were in decline.

I had been a fan of Reagan’s back in 1976 when he challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination.  His optimism was contagious, he was likable and seemed to offer a clear answer to our problems:  freedom and confidence.

Reagan, Bush and Ford on the podium at the GOP convention in Detroit in 1980 – I was there and took this picture – the theme was “Together a New Beginning”

Alas, the reality turned out to be much different.    When President Reagan took office the US debt was 30% of GDP, considerably lower than that of most European countries.    However, the deficits climbed in the 80s:

In 1977 the deficit was $53.7 billion.   That was low enough to help pay down the US debt, as the economy was growing faster.   It was down to $40 billion in 1979, though the recession caused a sky rocket to $73 billion in 1980.  Then the debt started to pile up:

1981 – $79 billion (mostly Carter’s budet), 1982 $128 billion, 1983 $207 billion, 1984 $185 billion, 1985 $212 billion, 1986 $221 billion, 1987 $150 billion, 1988 $155 billion.    Things would improve after that, and for four years (1998 – 2001) there would be supluses before debt would skyrocket again.

During the Reagan years debt went from 30% of GDP to nearly 60% of GDP.   Private debt grew just as fast, and credit card debt began to grow (it was very low before 1980).    Reagan’s rejection of the “malaise” of the 70s was straight from Michelob’s marketing department —  we can have it all!   Low taxes, less regulation, and more spending!

Due to borrow and spend, the 80s felt opulent and instead of being hippies, people like me became “yuppies” – young uppwardly mobile professionals

That was, unfortunately, the wrong direction to go.   Working in DC for a Republican Senator in the early/mid 80s I recall hearing constantly how the deficit was not a problem.    When told that during an economic boom one should keep surpluses in order to have money to stimulate the economy when the next bust comes, the response was predictable – counter cyclical funding was Keynesian demand-side economics.    Laffer curve supply side economics was now the rage.

Others had a more Machiavellian view — increasing debt would “starve the beast,” making it impossible to continue liberal big government programs.   Even as David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, resigned out of anger over the economic illogic of the increasing debt, the growing economy with low inflation caused most people to close their eyes and enjoy.   It was the 80s, after all!

This decision is now haunts us.   The ‘we can have it all’ response to the recession of the early eighties was really simply a refusal to accept reality — that the US had to structurally adjust to the changing global economy and the fact that the rest of the world was catching up.   The post-war superiority that the US enjoyed after WWII was over, and the US needed to find ways to live within its means and make sure that commitments didn’t overwhelm capabilities.    We didn’t necessarily need to pay off the debt we had, but keeping a 30% debt to GDP ratio would have been smart.

Instead the so called “conservative” economists of the Reagan-Bush administrations (and later the George W. Bush administration — in which Vice President Cheney boisterously proclaimed budget deficits to be irrelevant) opened the spigots and borrowed and spent even during a boom.   As long as inflation didn’t rear its ugly head, they figured it was safe.   Add to that the deregulatory fervor that even the Clinton Administration joined in, and the cheap credit to the public coming from the fed, and it was party time for thirty years!   Borrow spend, carpe diem, living high, living fine on borrowed time!

Add to that the end of the Cold War and all was grand — we won the Cold War, the Soviets and communism lost, it was going to be an American led free market world… what could go wrong?

Perot warned of the unsustainable debt, and shaped the 1992 debate. By the end of the decade the US was running surpluses and it appeared on the right track

Ross Perot, a successful businessman and political gadfly, saw the problem and brought it front and center in the 1992 election.   It appeared to push the parties towards fiscal responsibility.   Unfortunately the US was beginning an advanced stage of economic decline, perpetrated by two sequential bubbles, the “dot.com” stock bubble and then the real estate bubble.   The latter was driven by both a renewed bout of debt from 2002 onward, plus very cheap and easy credit thanks to a misguided federal reserve policy.   The result is that when the bubbles burst and dust settled we see that de-regulation, tax cuts, and deficit spending gave us about a total debt of over 100% of GDP, an economy that relied on consumption more than production, and imbalances requiring a deep and long recession to repair.

Both parties share blame.   Both mouthed a desire to balance the budget but neither made the hard choices it would take.  Instead they reached the Great Republican and Democratic compromise – lower taxes and more spending, financed by debt.

I’m in the yellow shirt kneeling lower left in the South Dakota “College Republican” youth for Reagan delegation to the GOP Convention in Detroit.

Reagan can’t be blamed for all this – it took a long term bi-partisan effort to do so.   However, if we had heeded Jimmy Carter’s prophetic warning and avoided the Michelob “you can have it all” mentality, we might instead have built a sustainable economy in the 80s, immune to oil shocks and banking crises.   We took a wrong turn thirty years ago, and it’ll take at least another ten to get on the right path — assuming we start making better choices now!

Looking back at being part of the large “youth for Reagan” group in Detroit in 1980, being on the floor when Reagan accepted the nomination (they let a lot of us in despite lack of credentials in order to give television the image of lots of young people supporting Reagan), I don’t regret going.   Reagan did inspire hope, and it was an amazing experience.  I even traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a Maine lobster decal I’d carry all over on my photo case for over ten years, never dreaming I’d actually live in Maine (I’d never even been there).   But unfortunately the hope was misplaced.  Reagan’s borrow and spend approach bought short term prosperity at a long term cost.   But to be fair, he couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t a bi-partisan effort.

We stayed with youth from around the country at EMU in Ypsilanti — these two Maine girls (no idea who they are) traded me the decal I’d proudly carry on my photocase for over a decade, an omen perhaps that I would end up in Maine!

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What is Independence?

Independence Day.  The 4th of July.  A day of parades, fireworks, picnics, games and celebrations.  I remember growing up in Sioux Falls, SD, spending a day at “Westward Ho” playing games, enjoying a greased watermelon in the pool contest, swimming and at night going out in the country to shoot fireworks.

Fireworks in South Dakota was fun.   We’d drive out into the country, find a gravel road and locate a spot to shoot off a bunch of fireworks we’d bought at the big firework store on the edge of town.   South Dakota had (and I believe still has) very lax fireworks laws.  I recall as a kid lighting cones, roman candles, firecrackers, and a bunch of other things.   My dad would give me the punk (a slow burning small stick used to light fireworks), my mom worried that I’d burn myself, and I felt proud to be old enough to light the fuses.  By the time I was 12 I had taken over virtually all the lighting duties!

Later in high school and college July 4th meant 18 hour shifts at Village Inn Pizza.   I didn’t have to work so long, but I liked the idea of getting so many hours in one day so I volunteered to run the store all day.    Being in charge I’d try to make the day fun for the workers, though it was often pretty busy.   The Assistant Manager was always grateful – he was supposed to run the day shift!

That’s me with the pizza pan in hand (turning it so sauce spreads across the whole pie), back in 1981 running a shift at VIPP! Those were the days…

This year in Maine we went to Jay for fireworks last night, and today in Farmington there was a typical small New England town parade.  Some antique tractors, people representing companies and churches driving through town on makeshift floats, and local political candidates/parties dressing up, shaking hands, and of course, handing out candy.   Tootsie rolls, suckers, taffy and other candy thrown to the kids on the curb who rush out to grab it.

From the Daily Bulldog (an online Farminton newspaper), the 2012 Independence Day parade in Farmington Maine

The parade included calves for the kids to pet, a couple small bands, youth organizations, and at the end a line of eight firetracks from local communities, blazing their sirens in turn to the delight of the kids.   The firetrucks signify the end of the parade.  It was rainy, but the parade went on undaunted – and most of the time the rain was so light people put away their umbrellas.    The community is out, people chatting with each other…you can buy some strawberry shortcake or hot dogs (only $1), and it seems timeless.   One doubts the parade was much different thirty years ago or will be thirty years from now.

So what does this day mean?   Everyone knows what it signifies – the day the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.   But while the Declaration of Independence states vague ideals – all people are created equal, we have inalienable rights, and we should not be governed without the consent of the governed – what those ideals mean and how they are to be implemented are unclear.     When the Constitution was ratified 13 years later it still allowed slavery, women couldn’t vote and since then independence – freedom – has been an on going project.

Another photo from the Daily Bulldog: http://www.dailybulldog.com/db

To me independence day is a recognition not of a past event or ideal, but of the on going process of building true freedom.   All may be created equal, but some are born in poverty and others in plenty.    We fought to end slavery, to give the vote to women, to create civil rights for blacks, and now to provide full rights to homosexuals.   We worked to create public education so all could have opportunity.   We’re trying now to figure out how to make health care something all Americans enjoy, how to expand economic opportunity, and how to handle an economic crisis thirty years in the making.

There is something this day does not represent: selfish individualism.    Kurt Anderson may have a point in the New York Times today that the problems we face come from the triumph of radical individualism over our sense of community and shared duties.   Freedom was once an ideal that had a context – we are free in a community, our freedom is connected with duties and obligations to those around us.

Now it seems that many people see freedom simply as a desire to be able to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences to the rest of the community.   If a CEO at a financial firm can earn $25 million bonuses thanks to bogus mortgage backed CDOs, hey, that’s fine.  So what if it brings down the economy, the market decides they get a bonus and who are they to question the market (especially when they can manipulate it!)

But it’s not just the bigwigs, it’s all of us.   I know that my thinking is quite often very selfish.   Yes, that’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to be connected with others.   Freedom is the proper balance of ones’ own individual desires and interests and the sense of duty to the community.    Ignore the community and things start to fall apart and the capacity to achieve ones desires and goals becomes more difficult.

Farmington has been a community since the late 1700s…I’m not sure what year this picture dates from.

That’s our challenge now – independence means rediscovering the balance between selfish pursuit of whatever we want and the recognition that we need to care about our environment, community and neighbors.   We’re all hurt when any American goes hungry, lacks adequate health care, is denied equal opportunity, is unfairly put in jail or in any way mistreated.

In that sense the parade today in Farmington – a community coming together – reflects what we need more of.   And it’s already beginning.   People are starting to focus on eating local food, buying from area merchants, and working together to maintain that sense of community that has traditionally defined American life.    Strong communities will yield a strong country.   Crass individualism and selfishness will tear us apart.

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A Tad More Magical

Tuesday I was driving back from Portland to Farmington.   I was nearing Augusta thinking about where I’d pick up a bite to eat, as well as getting equipment for my just turned nine year old son to start a video editing hobby.   It crossed my mind that interstates are dangerous places, it’s always possible that an unexpected turn of events could lead to an accident.   My last thoughts of this life could be about how I was feeling hungry!

This wasn’t a disturbing or ghoulish thought.  Death is an integral and necessary part of life.   I think to really embrace life and be content one has to first overcome the fear of death.   There is one fundamental reason people fear death – they believe that this reality and life experience is the only thing of value, and that once it’s gone one suffers extreme loss.   If one believes that, then the events of the world are of monumental importance, they are the essence of life’s meaning.

Such a view shifts focus from looking inside to looking at the world for validation, approval and self-worth.   The world is really bad at providing those things.   Career only provides temporary validation — there’s always one more step to take up the latter.   Advertising and movies have created unrealistic ideals of beauty, family life and success.   The world is more likely to make people feel worse about themselves, focusing on what they lack, where they fall short, and what’s missing from life.   Others might fixate on sports, politics, fashion or something to stay distracted. Fear of death increases dissatisfaction with life.

I was simply curious.   So I decided to open up my mind and just say whatever words popped out.   “What does one feel upon death,” I asked?   Then I said the word “accomplishment.”  I said it without thinking and puzzled.   Accomplishment?   “But not every life is an accomplishment is it?”

I then answered myself, “Of course it is.   Life itself is just an experience.  It is an exploration of the nature of existence.  The universe is unified, everything is connected.  Lives provides information and understanding.  A life as a drug addict murderer accomplishes as much as a life as a Nobel scientist because it explores how it is that context and personality lead to those sorts of experiences.   The individual is a conduit of information.”

I then pondered the words that had just come out of my mouth and continued to talk out loud.   “The individual is an experience point, but I and the world in which I inhabit are part of a unified reality, and life is a way to experience how that reality works.   A person who experiences a very horrific existence may in fact accomplish more than a person who has an easy existence…

“No…every life is an equal accomplishment.  It is part of the tapestry, it is part of some kind of universal self-learning/awareness…”

I paused.  “OK, what does that mean?   Does it mean nihilism, anything goes since all life is accomplishment?   No, because that kind of attitude is only possible when you separate context from individual experience.   Whether or not you say ‘anything goes’ depends not just on you as a discrete individual, but the way the context of your life experience shapes how you understand and interpret your reality.   The discrete individual does not make choices outside of a context, who we are is very much determined by our place in the universe, we are not disconnected entities navigating a world separate from ourselves.

“Maybe life is being a part of everything.  Maybe what’s inside reflects all of what’s outside and vice-versa.  Maybe different people living different lives are not truly ‘someone else’ but a part of me experiencing the world from a different perspective.”

At that point I had to exit the interstate so I stopped talking and shifted my focus to driving my car and avoiding a life ending accident!  I got a personal pizza at the Pizza Hut in Target, and then bought a Sony camcorder and video editing software at Best Buy.  As the sun was setting I headed up towards Farmington, enjoying an absolutely beautiful evening.  Even though my mind went elsewhere after that, the world seemed a tad more magical than it had before.

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After the Culture Wars

In a revealing article in “Politico,” Republicans admitted that they are dropping their focus on the issue of gay marriage. The article points out that in the 90s this was a bread and butter issue for conservatives.   They decried “activist judges” who tried to force acceptance of gay marriage on the country, and could appeal to the emotions of citizens who wanted to maintain the “traditional” definition of marriage as “one man and one woman.”

No more.

Conservatives are quoted noting that there has been a cultural sea change in how Americans think.   Only 30% of Republicans actively support gay marriage, but if you went back to the early 90s polls would have probably shown at best 30% of the country supporting it.   As with any culture shift, the youth are leading the way.   People between 18 and 26 overwhelming support gay marriage rights 70% to 30%.   Yet even in the mainstream the shift is becoming very clear — what once was seen as weird or at least exotic is now common place.

Rick Santorum’s quixotic run for the GOP nomination demonstrates the change.   His emphasis on contraception, opposition to abortion (even in the case of rape and incest) and rejection of gay marriage have led most Republicans to consider him un-electable.  His views are simply too far from the mainstream, even though twenty years ago they would be defining stances in the ‘culture wars’ launched by social conservatives in the eighties.

To groups like Equality Maine, the battle is nowhere near over.   They are fighting to pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Maine, and are confident that they can succeed.  In 2009 they lost a referendum 53% to 47% in which the voters rejected same sex marriage.   Things could be very different this time around.

Not only is it a Presidential election year, meaning a much broader voter turnout, but unlike three years ago the Roman Catholic church is going to sit this one out.  The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is on the defensive about tactics it employed to try to drive a wedge between blacks and gays, convince hispanics that opposition to same sex marriage was a “badge of Anglo identity” and get children to speak out against gay parents.  The fact Romney gave to that group is being used with success against him, as it makes him vulnerable to charges of “right wing extremism.”

In 1992 President Clinton retreated from allowing open service by gays in the military, implementing “don’t ask don’t tell,” which social conservatives still saw as going to far.  In 2010 President Obama gained political support and stature by going back to Clinton’s original decision, repealing DADT.  The appeal of a Falwell-esque “moral majority” is virtually nil, Pat Robertson has become more a joke than a political force, and Republican sops to social conservatives do them more political harm than good.   Within the Republican party the libertarian wing is eclipsing the religious conservative wing of the party.

Yet while that can all be seen in a positive light, there is something missing.  Perhaps the biggest distortion in the so-called ‘culture wars’ is the way in which religion and spirituality got defined in terms of very socially conservative world views.   Take the recent “reason rally” in Washington — the alternative to religion appears to be a cold, materialist embrace of rational thought.  The world has no inherent meaning or value other than that which we create for it, and we should do so using reason and logic.

The "reason rally" sounds good, but the belief that all that exists is a material world with no deep meaning or underlying purpose is as much a leap of faith as any religious belief.

Back in 1789 the French revolution embraced reason as the key for governance and learned a hard lesson – reason is a tool, it is not a path to truth, especially not in terms of values and ethics.   Where reason leads depends on core assumptions made, and those assumptions ultimately are taken on faith — or based on sentiment/emotion.   Reason as a tool is meaningless on its own.

Embracing reason alone doesn’t counter consumerism, hyper materialism, and the sense of emptiness many find in day to day routines, especially in a culture where community solidarity has given way to the notion that each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness.   For all their faults, religions do serve a function of giving people a sense of a deeper meaning and a ethical core that rises above individual self-interest.

So the culture wars may be over, but the need for meaning and a core sense of meaning is still something people yearn for.  We live in a society with unprecedented material wealth, yet full of problems ranging from anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders and a general sense of emptiness about life.

This 1979 video from Supertramp captures the dilemma.  There is something missing in the purely rational approach to life.  So the conservative “culture wars” may be ending, but the challenge to build a positive sense of identity and meaning remains.   The economic crisis may have dented the drive of consumerism, but people still look for external fulfillment of internal needs.

The next culture shift needs to address that issue.  It’s one thing to combat the fear of those who are different, we also need positive change.  Reaching out, understanding both ourselves and others, and overcoming alienation and low self-esteem requires openness to sentiment, emotion and a sense of wonder.   It’s not enough to just work against fear, we need to promote love.  Not love as romance or abstract emotion, but as a concrete sense of connection to each other and our world.

Sometimes kindness does more than any political campaign or cause can accomplish

So after the culture wars, it’s time to build positive cultural peace.

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Victims?

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been identified as the soldier who went on a killing rampage in Afghanistan, perhaps dooming the US mission there.

A soldier goes on a rampage and kills 16 Afghan civilians, causing outrage and anger among the Afghani people.   How would we like it if a foreign soldier killed innocent Americans?   Shocked, we are quick to point out that the entire military can’t be judged by looking at a ‘bad apple,’ and that Bales doesn’t reflect the attitude of most American soldiers.

True.  Bales is 38, the father of two (ages 3 and 4), and on his fourth tour of duty, two of them in Iraq.    His family said he was not a mean, aggressive or angry man.  He hadn’t wanted to go to Afghanistan this time; the constant tours interrupted his life.   Apparently he was in a strong marriage that showed tension due to his absences.  He was injured more than once, one concussion that could have possibly caused brain damage.   The day before the rampage, he saw the leg blown off a friend of his.   Before the rampage, he had been drinking heavily.

This makes me immensely sad for both him and his family.   I write that without meaning to show any insensitivity to the Afghan victims; their deaths are tragic.   Families have been torn asunder by these killings – children had their lives cut short, the pain to those remaining is immense.

However, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is extremely common amongst soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we in Farmington learned last year when a local man apparently confronted police with a desire to be killed.  When soldiers are sent back over and over, facing immense pressure and hardship, even a strong, ethical person can crack.   Add alcohol, perhaps a brain injurty (and PTSD is itself a kind of brain injury), and a man who could have had a life as a successful family man with a career in the military faces a very uncertain future.   He probably will only know his children indirectly as they grow.  Although he must accept responsibility for his actions, his mental health was a victim of war, stress and government policy. Think of all those who suffer and don’t get and often don’t seek help.

A sad face

On Wednesday in the nearby town of Jay, Frank Smith took a man hostage at the Verso paper mill, holding him most of the day.  He released the hostage at about 3:30 and gave himself up a couple hours later.   I stopped at the Hannaford grocery store in Jay that day and saw about 20 logging trucks parked in the parking lot as they couldn’t make their deliveries to the locked down mill.

I don’t know the details of Frank Smith’s case.   Comments left by readers in the article I just linked give a clue.   Despite working there almost 25 years he was apparently fired for a minor infraction, spraying a co-worker who had sprayed him with a hose.  Moreover, there are a few comments that the mill treats employees like disposable tools — after all, with high unemployment, there is an excess of people wanting to work.

If so, that’s appalling.   You don’t fire a 50 year old in this economy — especially not in central Maine — unless you have to.   To look at this as hard discipline would be perverse.  Discipline him, but recognize that firing a man in his position is may destroy his finances and cause severe disruption to his life.   Now, most fifty somethings who lose their jobs can handle it, just like most in the military can handle PTSD without going on a killing spree or wanting death.   But if you have the right mix of circumstances, such things can cause a downward spiral.   And don’t forget – it only takes a moment of bad decision making to change life completely.   You can do good things for years and one mistake can destroy all that.

Jason Russell, whose work on Invisible Children and Kony 2012 have garnered attention, was detained in San Diego.

The last case is that of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who was detained by police because of strange behavior, charges of public masturbation and vandalism.   However, the police did not arrest him, they decided that what he needed was medical care and sent him to the hospital.   The Invisible Children network put out this statement:

“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”

In this case it’s clear that a man’s passion and effort to help the victims of children and war will find his personal reputation and even his cause harmed by an incident that seems out of place with who he is.   While some conspiracy theorists have suggested powerful people wanted to destroy him, it’s likely given the statements that he had a mental health issue (from the description it could be bipolar disorder).

Are these three men victims too?  Victim is perhaps the wrong word.  They are symptoms of something wrong in our culture, a kind of human expression of the danger of pushing people to the edge in a society that has become so individualistic that people are left to fend for themselves emotionally.   When mental health is the issue — as it is in all three of these cases, apparently — we don’t forgive or understand, at least not in society at large. .

But whether it’s the soldier pushed over the edge, the fired worker whose life now seems hopeless, or the activist whose mental illness threatens to derail his work and reputation, I can’t help but think that all of us could end up in a similar place given the wrong circumstances.  As a society we need to learn to be more understanding and less judgmental.

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