Progress, Diversity, and the American Project

Fifty years ago yesterday, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, enthralled by this real-life version of Star Trek. Thinking back, I remember how this fed my belief that Americans can accomplish anything given the necessary will and a common goal. What I saw on TV, fact and fiction, gave me the idea that with Americans leading the way humankind could achieve a society without hatred and bigotry that provided for everyone.

I was only 11, and soon learned that we had a lot of work to do when I lived through desegregation in the sixth grade.

Many of the men who fought the British and established our Constitution were privileged white males who owned slaves. Their high-minded words about inalienable rights that come from our Creator and belong to each of us ring hollow to descendants of slaves who had to fight for freedom and women who had to fight for the vote. But I believe they intended to establish a democracy that would embrace people of all backgrounds and religions. I believe they wanted the nation they founded to become an example for everyone around the world who shared the idea that human beings of all backgrounds could live and work together in liberty and tolerance for other cultures and ideas.

This project is now at risk. Many Americans would preserve liberty only for those who look and think and worship as they do. They tolerate no others. They want so badly to exclude others that they appear willing to end the American democratic visionto achieve this goal. They manipulate voting processes and draw favorable districts so they can take power while holding no kind of popular majority. They have managed to elect one of their own as President and if given the chance they will destroy the American experiment in liberal democracy. We have to stop them.

Americans have proven the power in our diversity. Immigrants built great cities like New York and Chicago and Detroit and Miami and San Francisco. The United States won two world wars with the help of slavery’s grandchildren – men and women with arguably no duty to a system that forced them to live and work apart from those with whiter skin. We unlocked nuclear secrets in a very short time by applying government resources and the know-how and labor of men – and women – of all backgrounds and nationalities. 

And we went to the moon in only a few years with the same technology and engineering and manufacturing systems that gave us the 1967 Ford Mustang. In the process we began the research – funded by government – that let us later develop computers and cell phones and flat-screen TVs and stealth fighters and safe rocket engines and food that could travel long distances and last weeks without spoiling. We did this by together harnessing the power of government directed by a healthy and educated and diverse population.

Conservatives would use authoritarian methods to block progress and participation in American democracy by people they don’t like. They would define “American” as dependent on skin color, culture, and religion. This is not what the Founders intended when they started the American Project, and we cannot let conservatives end it.

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Support Workers. Protect Unions

Last week I attended a labor issues conference presented by the Northern Virginia Labor Federation. We heard general presentations on labor issues and short discussions about specific problems faced by workers in different economic sectors.

Labor policy in Virginia is broken. Republican legislators, using American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) templates, pass laws that attack worker rights and block legislation that would improve workmen’s compensation programs. It’s time to fix this.

Firefighters and other emergency responders come in contact with hazardous materials every day in the course of risking their lives to manage fires, crashes, and other emergency situations. These heroes get cancer at higher rates than the general population, and exposure to these chemicals is the cause. Yet in many cases they must prove a specific case of exposure before they can collect disability and health care coverage. 

It’s time to enact laws that protect our community heroes by presuming that an emergency responder with cancer of any kind has it because of exposure to hazardous materials in the line of duty.

More generally, we need to end right-to-work laws, brought to us by ALEC and its corporate funders (especially the Koch brothers), and Senators like Ryan McDougle – an ALEC member. These laws amount to an attack on unions that give employers an advantage when hiring. This is why worker productivity has risen since the 1970s but wages have remained stagnant. 

It’s time to allow workers in every sector of the economy – public and private – to bargain with employers for higher pay, safe conditions, improved worker’s compensation plans, more vacation, and better benefits. No business or government agency can function without workers, and they need to have a voice through a union if they wish.

If you like weekends, thank the labor movement. If you think Virginia needs middle-class jobs that don’t require a college degree, only unions can deliver. In fact, Virginia unions run apprenticeship programs – on their own dime and without government help – that provide a path to stable employment at good wages to young people in the Commonwealth who want to learn a trade.

I know how important unions are to the workers in Virginia who build our homes and office buildings, stock shelves in grocery stores, make sure our cell phones work, and teach our kids how to read. I support them without reservation.

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Extended Magazines (Updated)

UPDATE: Commenters to versions of this post at other sites pointed out that I got the magazine size wrong for the M9. Mine held a 15-round, not a 9-round, magazine. I regret the error and that my fond memories of service weapons past failed me.

The first weapon I trained to use in combat was a .45 caliber pistol. As an Armor Crewman we carried sidearms and this was my main personal combat weapon. The standard magazine for this weapon held seven rounds of ammunition. Not long after I enlisted the Army replaced the .45 with the M9 Beretta.  The standard magazine for the M9 held nine rounds. The new Sig Sauer sidearm the Army has just adopted has only a 17-round magazine. 

Think about this: US Army combat doctrine calls for smaller combat handgun magazines than civilians can purchase on the open market for “individual self-defense.”

It seems to me then that a non-standard thirty-round magazine for a .45 caliber pistol like the one used by the gunman in Virginia Beach last week has only one use: to maximize effectiveness for a mass shooter who wants to kill as many people as possible. Their sale and possession should be prohibited.

This year the Virginia General Assembly considered legislation that would have done just that, but Republicans blocked this approach. Republicans reject any approach that might reduce gun violence and save lives because the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers pay for their political campaigns.

We will mourn and grieve the losses suffered by victims’ families. We will support them in their time of need and comfort them as they live through the loss of loved ones. Virginia Beach, like Virginia Tech, will bear the scars. And healing will come. But this is not enough. It’s time to do something about this problem so it does not happen again.

It’s time to regulate these mass shooter tools more strictly. Weapons and accessories designed to facilitate a high rate of fire and maximize the ability of a shooter to inflict maximum damage on human beings have no use for hunting or self-defense. Indeed, we need to regulate firearms in general more strictly. Evidence shows that more guns do not reduce crime – more guns correlate with higher homicide, suicide, and accident rates.

I support stronger background checks, longer waiting periods, registration for some weapons, and laws that require firearm owners to keep their weapons secured and hold liable those who don’t. We need to give local law enforcement officials the authority, with proper due process, to remove firearms from dangerous people and situations. 

Many Virginians object to these kinds of regulations on Second Amendment grounds. But the Second Amendment right to bear arms does not override the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble at work, school, church, or any other public space. We have a right to those as well.

I am running for the State Senate in Virginia’s Fourth District to protect this right. I’m running because I think it’s time to rethink gun culture in the Commonwealth. We’ve accepted mass killing by firearm in public spaces as part of the “cost of doing business” for far too long and it’s time to stop it. Please do what you can to support my campaign, but if you have money to give right now please contribute to a support group for the Virginia Beach victims or a gun violence group. 

Then go to www.StanforVirginia.organd sign up to support my team by knocking on doors, making calls, and writing postcards. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Spread the word. Tell your family and friends that someone is running in the Fourth Virginia Senate District who will work hard to make public spaces safe from gun violence. 

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Military Service and Progressive Values

Since I began thinking about running for the State Senate, a lot of people I’ve spoken to have asked how I can be a liberal – or even a Democrat – after spending 20 years in the Army. One man at a Tea Party meeting wanted to know how I could be a member of the “party of perversion and invasion” after a career “defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” 

I understand why some people assume that veterans might skew conservative. Military life is one of hardship, self-discipline, honor, duty, and commitment to service.  It’s a life of personal and professional sacrifice that affects every part of family. Soldiers forego big salaries and comfortable lives to train and fight in the snow and heat and mud and rain because they know they have a role in something that really matters to every American: a vision of liberty seen no-where else on Earth.  My obligation to this vision, my country, the Army, and my soldiers took precedence over my individual needs for twenty years. There is no doubt that many Americans associate this kind of patriotism with conservatism.  

But many conservatives today appear to believe that life well spent isn’t about service and community but individual ambition and greed. It’s less about liberty for all than about organizing society around how we spend money in a market. They show allegiance to flags and a symbolic patriotism but no apparent duty to the higher ideal of American exceptionalism as a nation of people devoted to the right of everyone to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

My personal experience in the Army shaped an alternate – and progressive – perspective on policy and how we organize economic, social, cultural, and political society. These rights, after all, depend on good health, appropriate education, public safety, and freedom to love whom we choose.

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Mother’s Day 2019

Mom gets her Master’s Degree circa 1972

My mother is simply an amazing woman.  She grew up in a poor family and attended Central High School in Little Rock right before the Little Rock Nine.  Mom married very early in life and had two sons in a single year – before she was old enough to drink legally – and a third four years later.  

Family lore holds that on the day Mack, her third, was born Mom rode the city bus across town to a beauty salon to have her hair done.  She terrified the stylist when she responded to “When is your baby due?” with “Any minute.” Her contractions had begun on the bus ride over, and in the Thanksgiving tale version she points out that Mack was not her first, she knew what she was doing, and she was determined to look her best when they finally met.

Mom took classes at night while working days at a Mad Men – era advertising agency until she earned a fellowship to do graduate work.  About the time I turned ten she packed us up for a move to Ole Miss as a single mom with no job and little money.  Mom edited and typed papers for other students to pay the bills and saved on babysitters by taking us with her to the library. I still love to read.  In only three years she earned a doctorate in English Literature after writing a computer program that compiled data on syntax in William Blake poems for her dissertation – in 1973.  

Mom never showed any give-up of any kind.  She did what had to be done and never quit. Every day she demonstrated an inner strength and moral courage unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever met.  She taught us to respect women – and with a Mom like her we could come away with no other lesson. She taught us to believe in ourselves and by her own actions showed us that we could often grasp things that looked beyond our reach.  And she taught us to love unconditionally and without reservation by loving us unconditionally and without reservation.

Yes, Mom, you certainly knew what you were doing.  Thanks for everything, and Happy Mother’s Day.

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The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Designed by Livia Polise using NOAA and USGS data.

Virginia should join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This is a straightforward agreement among northeastern states to create a market for carbon emissions.  Member states cap generating plant emissions and issue permits to emit a defined amount of carbon dioxide.  Firms can trade these permits, which allows more efficient firms to profit on that efficiency.  This creates incentives to reduce emissions so firms have excess permits they can sell at a profit.  From Wikipedia:

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced ‘Reggie’) is the first mandatory market based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI is a cooperative effort among the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont to cap and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector. RGGI compliance obligations apply to fossil-fueled power plants 25MW and larger within the ten-state region.

RGGI establishes a regional cap on the amount of CO2 pollution that power plants can emit by issuing a limited number of tradable CO2 allowances. Each allowance represents an authorization for a regulated power plant to emit one short ton of CO2. Individual CO2 budget trading programs in each RGGI state together create a regional market for CO2 allowances.

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Saturday Morning Coffee

A few links to things I was reading over coffee this morning:

Climate Change and Migration

A lot of people make the connection between American imperialism and migration to the US. Others lay part of the blame on globalization and NAFTA. This article at The New Yorker suggests that climate change now drives migration from Central and South America to the US.

‘It was about six years ago that things started to change,’ he said. Climentoro had always been poor. Residents depended on the few crops that could survive at an elevation of more than nine thousand feet, harvesting maize to feed their families and selling potatoes for a small profit. But, Pérez said, the changing climate was wiping out the region’s crops. ‘In the higher part of town, there have been more frosts than there used to be, and they kill an entire harvest in one fell swoop,’ he said. ‘In the lower part of Climentoro, there’s been much less rain and new sorts of pests.’ He added, ‘Farmers have been abandoning their land.’

Climate change is real and changing the way we do things, especially in agriculture. And if you think people fought over oil, wait until they’re fighting over food and water.

Virginia and Carbon Emissions

We have to reduce carbon emissions if we want to do something about this, and Virginia has a chance to take a market-based approach by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Unfortunately, Republicans in the General Assembly keep blocking this.

Instead of celebrating this modest progress on climate action, Virginia Republicans have been fighting it every step of the way. Their latest effort takes the form of two amendments to the state budget that would effectively prevent Virginia from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state platform for trading carbon emission allowances. It would also stop the Commonwealth from participating in a new compact focused on reducing carbon emissions in transportation.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network called on Governor Northam to “veto the budget language that blocks the Commonwealth from joining RGGI and to move forward on climate action, to protect the future of all Virginians.” I agree.

A Conservative Defense of the Electoral College

Elsewhere in Virginia politics, Stephen Brodie Tucker writes in defense of the Electoral College at Bearing Drift.

My point is that the federal government does not exist to represent us individually or in mobs. The Federal Government exists to represent the 50 States and to arbitrate amongst them. The State Governments are our governments and the Federal Government is theirs. The worst mistake the United States ever made was ratifying the 17th Amendment, which turned the Senate over to the popular vote of the people. The House of Representatives is The People’s House. The Senate was meant to represent the will of the State governments.

I left a lengthy comment on the post, so here I’ll just point out that this is an anachronistic new of the American Republic made effectively obsolete by the Civil War. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the Electoral College and left election of Senators to state legislators to protect elite interests, among them slavery, in the States that existed at the time. The Electoral College is anti-democratic and needs to go.

Finally, I had a lot of fun this week listening to Rick Reilly plug his new book, Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Donald Trump. John Cassidy reviews the book in the New Yorker.

Reilly recounts a time when Trump was declared the senior club champion at Trump National Bedminster, in New Jersey, even though he was in Pennsylvania on the day that the event was played. ‘He’d declared that the club should start having senior club championships for those 50 and up, but he forgot that one of the best players at the club had just turned 50,’ Reilly writes. ‘Having zero chance of beating the guy, he went up to his Trump Philadelphia course on the day of the tournament and played with a friend there. Afterward, according to a source inside the Bedminster club, he called the Bedminster pro shop and announced he’d shot 73 and should be declared the winner. The pro, wanting to stay employed, agreed. His name went up on the plaque.’

I’ll resist the urge to elaborate on what I think this says about Donald Trump. Reilly, Cassidy, and others have articulated this far better than I could. But I will say that it surprises me not at all that a man who would refuse to pay people for the work they did for him would pull shenanigans like this. Read the review, buy the book, and judge for yourself.

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Straw Man Socialism

Ileana Johnsongrew up in Romania under the Nicolae Ceaușescuregime and immigrated to the US in 1978.  By 1982 she had become a citizen and went on to earn two advanced degrees.  Johnson has written several books, including one on her experiences under Communism in Romaniaand anotheron the United Nations sustainable development plan known as Agenda 21.

On Monday she posted “We are Serving the Working People” at The Bull Elephant.  This essay amounted to a fascinating strawman definition of “socialism.”  A sample: 

Do they understand that socialism suppresses individuality, forces collectivism, causes mass starvation, imprisons people with divergent ideas in labor camps, herds them off their properties into high rise cinder block apartments, nationalizes all industries, and confiscates all private property and wealth?

This accurately describes East European and Russian political economies up to the end of the Cold War, so in a way Johnson comes by this view honestly.  She experienced it this way.  And because everyone called this kind of political and economic system “socialism” or “communism” back in the day, this is pretty standard-issue conservative rhetoric about the dangers of making sure the economy and political system work for everyone.  I wonder though how much this has to do with protecting corporations and the wealthy from calls for a more equitable distribution of economic productivity than it does with any real concern over liberty.  It’s not as if our system protects citizens from voter suppression and gerrymandering in a way that restricts elite power.  In the end the conservative project looks a lot like a defense of corporate rights to profits while showing little concern for what liberty looks like to people who have to work two jobs so they can pay the rent and keep dinner on the table.  

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It’s the Robot Economy, Folks

David Atkins made a good point yesterday at The Washington Monthly after former Clinton staffer Nick Merrill shot back at Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for suggesting that economic anxiety indeed played a role in Donald Trump’s 2016 win:

So, in the argument between Merrill and Buttigieg, who is right? They both are. And the fact that Merrill doesn’t understand that point is part of the problem; and it’s a sign of what the 2020 Democratic nominee must fix.

One cannot even begin to talk about this issue without acknowledging that the white working class is quite literally dying. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have been ticking upwards for nearly 20 years, led primarily by a sharp rise in “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse—among those without college degrees. According to research, these deaths are primarily driven by a lack of good jobs and the dysfunction that economic anxiety creates in the social fabric.

Buttigieg is right that Trump pretended to offer solutions for these voters specifically, and that certain aspects of Clinton’s messaging did not convey the urgency that people in these communities feel about their circumstances. It’s no accident that “learn to code” has become a scornful joke on both the right and the progressive left.

Merrill is also right that the solutions Trump offered were racist, vitriolic, and full of false promises. Trump blamed economic and social problems on immigrants, promised to use his supposed skill as a negotiator to fix trade deals and bring jobs back, and promised to use his bully pulpit to strongarm companies into keeping existing factories open and getting new ones built.

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The Bank of Virginia Act

A few weeks ago, a group called Protect USannounced the launch of an effortto create the Bank of Virginia, a “socially responsible public bank” modeled on the Bank of North Dakotathat “would provide low-cost public financing to municipal governments and state agencies.”  The Bank would lend money only to “companies and organizations that Virginians support.” (Hat Tip: Blue Virginia).

This makes me think of efforts at the federal level to bring banking to post offices.  Gillibrandand others seem to be proposing the kind of retail Post Office banking I remember from my time in the Army stationed in Germany. People could start basic interest-bearing savings accounts at local post offices with paychecks from any employer (Americans could do this at US Post Offices until 1967).

Government payments like Kindergeld (every parent in Germany gets a small stipend for…being a parent) went automatically to these accounts. For a time, I used such an account to handle household bills.  In the US context a system like this would help working people who earn a paycheck but only qualify for commercial bank accounts that carry fees and conditions (e.g., monthly fees without direct deposit, minimum balances).  These fees eat into their already small budgets.  Many people have to pay a fee to WalMart or a grocery store, or a check cashing service every Friday when they get paid by check for their construction or other gig labor that week.  So a state bank where low-wage workers could open simple passbook accounts with no fees would improve the lives of working people.

As far as I can tell from the Protect US site, the Bank of Virginia proposal does not address this issue. Without a look at specific legislation it’s hard to know, but it appears to focus more on making sure that Virginia Retirement System and Commonwealth tax revenue, which must be parked somewhere until spent, don’t find their way into fossil fuel investments or big bank accounts subject to fees.  I support this goal, but it’s not clear how Protect US locks in which Virginians just what “causes” the Commonwealth should support.  Without seeing the details, I’m also wondering whether a Bank of Virginia ensures socially conscious investment over the long term. Political winds change.

The Protect US proposal has another potential problem: it would form the Bank of Virginia by combining the functions of the Virginia Housing Development Authority( VHDA), Assistive Technology Loan Fund Authority (ATLFA), Virginia College Savings Program, and the Virginia State Employee Loan Program.  This could perhaps make sense from an efficiency standpoint given that these agencies have at least some of the experience and infrastructure needed to create a bank.  

But unless the Bank of Virginia created under this plan would continue – and expand – the services provided by these organizations, it would not make the Commonwealth of Virginia materially more socially responsible. Shifting funds to more environmentally friendly investments has value, but state government exists to create opportunities for and improve the lives of working people, not supporting corporations whether socially conscious or not.  I’m especially concerned about the employee loan program – ending it would send low-wage state employees to payday loan companies.  

This proposal could be a good idea – but needs more work.

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