Saturday, August 15, 2015

Who is a hero these days?

Recently, I've given much thought as to what defines a hero, or even heroic actions.  I suppose the subject has crossed into my mind due to the national trend of labeling popular culture figures as heroic or courageous.  The national interest in the discussion of courage began this summer when former Olympic champion and reality television star Bruce Jenner announced that he identified as a woman, and wished to be called Caitlyn. 

Many Americans were puzzled by Jenner's transformation, but the issue became controversial when the ESPN sports network decided to give Jenner their annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  The award is typically given to someone in the athletic world whose actions or contributions to society somehow transcend sports.  Critics of Jenner derided ESPN's decision to give a sports award to someone who hasn't actively participated in sports for decades.  The anger didn't stop there, however.  Critics were frustrated with the notion that Jenner's decision to become a woman was associated with courage.

The question before society:  what makes an act heroic or courageous?  What criteria exist for such a distinction?  

First, I believe that courage isn't limited to the same set of actions for every person.  Inexorably, courage requires overcoming fear.  The  fears of each individual vary greatly.  Our environment dictates many of our fears, and I would imagine that the evolution of mankind has also created some innate predispositions to fear.

A confrontation with fear is a fundamental component in courage.  To place oneself towards a trajectory with a terrifying situation defies our natural survival instincts.  Many fears stem from a sense of danger — whether real or perceived.  If any of us can override our sense of self-preservation to act in defiance of danger, that is an indicator of inner strength.  

But what can we really say about overriding our fears and acting against our instincts of self-preservation?  In many instances, acting against our instincts is foolish and borders on insanity.  Would we label a person as courageous if they jumped into a freezing lake in the middle of winter?  Of course not.  

Beyond the confrontation of fear, acts of courage must contain an element of selflessness.  When a person acts in such a way as to place their life in danger, it must be for someone other than themselves.  What does an action mean if it is only for selfish gain?  Such activity represents desperation, and not courage.  

The selflessness of a courageous act is inherently coupled with a purpose.   A person can't claim courage or bravery for acting in reckless manner to help someone without purpose.  In most instances, it is the greater purpose that drives us to act courageously.   Emotion and sentiment create the ability within us to place the well-being of others before ourselves.  But without purpose or direction in our deeds, then they ultimately become about ourselves and not about others.  This strips our actions of selflessness and there is no honor or courage in such things.

Moreover, real acts of courage will come at great personal cost.  It is one thing to act selflessly, which will benefit others.  But it is even greater when you know the net effect of your actions causes you pain.  What are you willing to lose for the sake of others?

I'm also convinced now that courage comes from a position of weakness.  Though the heroic act or deed involves a confrontation with fear, that often is, in part, a fear based on the unlikelihood of completing the task.  Maybe it would be more accurate of appropriate to state that danger isn't the only thing we must overcome.  The potential for failure must exist for an act to be courageous, for if anything could be achieved by a large portion of the people, then we would cease to see the awe in the courageous act.  Where would the courage be in overcoming fear if you were certain you would succeed?

The final element of courage requires acting in such a way that works toward moral goodness.  And I suppose many people would claim that goodness is relative.  I disagree.  There are absolutes in this world.  I have neither the time nor inclination to go into great detail about this issue at present, but before we go any further, let me state this:  if you claim there are no absolute truths, then you have just created an absolute truth.  

If one's actions are not rooted in some transcendent form of goodness, of what value are they?  Who is willing to give praise to someone acting in a capacity other than what is good?  I am willing to admit that it often can be difficult to distinguish between good and evil, but that doesn't change the fact that we inherently know that goodness is somehow inextricably linked to acts of courage.

Society wants its heroes.  Society needs heroes.  But are they as common as we would like to believe?  The notion of heroism and courage being so prevalent in society is both true and false at the same time.

The things that society often labels as heroic or courageous are rarely as glorious as we have been led to believe.  Look at the actions of celebrities and politicians.  When these individuals take any stance that places them in the minority, their followers believe that person is brave for "taking a stand."  I believe the reality is that these people are just adopting an unpopular position.  In some instances, they may even be taking an outmoded or unprincipled line of thought in an attempt to justify a personal belief, and someone will suggest that it takes courage to do so.

The Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner transformation is one such example.  The liberal segment of America applauds Jenner for "being who she really is."  However, I don't believe Jenner's actions rise to the level of courage.  While Jenner confronted a fear to change so radically, there are some unanswered questions about this situation.

Why was Jenner so intent on making a spectacle of this transition?  One could argue that an element of selflessness and purpose exists, though.  Maybe Jenner came our in this fashion as an example to others who face a similar struggle.  And if that is true, then a greater purpose exists.  Yet, I don't see these actions as selfless.  Jenner has drawn more attention to herself than necessary for the greater purpose and undoubtedly profited financially from the international media attention.  

The liberals in society are not alone in their false characterization of heroes.  Conservatives are quick to label all members of the military as heroes.  While the term hero applies to many individuals in the armed serves, it's not universal.  Unfortunately, some of our servicemen have been guilty of gross acts of injustice.  For instance, in 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, several members of our armed forces tortured and humiliated captives at the Abu Ghraib prison.  Would we characterize these actions as heroic?  Not at all.  Even if I were willing to admit these actions were necessary in conflict, that would not make them heroic or courageous.

Though instances of courage and heroism aren't as prevalent in the larger landscape of society, that doesn't mean they don't take place on a smaller scale.  The heroes of society cannot be found in the limelight.  They shun attention and live quietly among us, going about their daily routines.  They are the people who would never characterize themselves as heroes, and not solely because of their sense of modesty, but because they realize that true acts of courage are a necessity in this life.  

Heroes aren't trying to become heroes, as they are instead interests in fulfilling an obligation.  They are our friends, neighbors, and family.  We don't always see them working as courageous, because we have grown so accustomed to their selflessness and sacrifice.  It is only in their absence do we sense precisely how valuable they have been.  And hopefully, this will spur us to do for others what has been done for us.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Southern West Virginia is on life support ...

One of the defining characteristics of West Virginia is coal.  The extraction of our version of black gold created an economic center for the state.  An unbelievable amount of jobs and commerce connect to coal mining.  Mining requires shipment through river, rails, and roadways.  The transportation of coal provides numerous jobs, which necessitates a large number service industries to provide for the needs and consumer goods.  The state has profited greatly from coal production despite peaks and valleys in the business.
 
Now, coal is on the way out.  People of West Virginia point towards government regulation from the Obama administration as the primary cause for coal's decline.  There's far more to the downfall of coal than the current president.  Coal miners have been victimized by mechanization, changes in demand for coal, and ultimately new forms of energy production.  
The loss of coal as a staple for economic development in West Virginia is a problem for numerous counties, and changes must be made not only to ensure the citizens here can prosper, but to prevent the onset of widespread poverty.
 
Mining was once dependent upon having a significant number of manpower to extract coal.  Numerous people were required to create timber pieces and place them to stabilize mine.  Prior to 1950, coal was loaded almost entirely by hand.  Drills worked faster.  Not even John Henry could keep pace.  So, what happened to the production levels of coal?  They skyrocketed.  
In 1900, the United States produced approximately 200 million tons of coal.  By 1960, that number had doubled to 400 million tons.  The peak production of nearly 1.2 billion tons was reached circa 2010. 
For those same years, the mining industry has seen a significant loss in jobs.  
In 1900, the number of miners employed was approximately 450,000.  In 1960, that number shrunk to 188,000.  And in 2010, that number had dwindled to about 80,000.  Mines have been producing more coal with less human labor.
 
Of course, the industrialization of the coal industry isn't the only reason for loss of jobs.  The development of other forms of energy has changed the playing field.  Coal once was responsible for providing a majority of the nation's electricity.  Since the inception of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s, the nation has found different forms of generating electricity, including nuclear, solar and wind power, and more recently, natural gas.  These forms of energy continue to eat into coal's market share for the nation's electricity.  As of 2014, coal provided 40% of the nation's electricity, but if current trends continue, forecasts call for the number to drop to approximately 25% by the year 2030.
 
The shrinking demand for coal is not only an American issue.  The coal industry actually resurfaced in the mid-1990s due to a higher worldwide demand for coal, particularly in China.  But even the Chinese now have curtailed their use of coal because of the environmental impact.
 
Coal mining and its use as an energy source isn't going to disappear.  However, West Virginians must confront the fact that these problems, in combination with more restrictive policies adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are not going to improve.  The state has ignored a hard truth for far too long:  coal just ain't what it used to be.
 
So, what now?  How does West Virginia cope and how do we make up for lost economic opportunity?  The sense is that so many citizens here are going through the stages of grief over the loss of coal — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  No, that's not a joke.  From what I can see, most people connected with the coal industry seem to be somewhere in the first two stages.  It's not easy to move on from a line of work that's become not just a means of supporting a family, but a part of cultural and personal identity.  What does a coal miner do when his job is made obsolete or unworkable?
 
The great challenge of the next decade (or two) will be to transition the coal workforce into other economic opportunities and also stabilize regions of the state that have been financially reliant on coal for the last century. 
The state of West Virginia and the federal government already have a few options in place to offset losses in the mining industry.  West Virginia was one of a few states awarded millions of dollars dedicated towards training laid off miners.  The money will be dedicated towards technical training programs that require similar skills and attributes as mining.  
Some of the training received under these grants has allowed many men and women to successfully transition from the coal industry to other energy sectors, including the shale boom in the northern part of the state.  Others have trained in areas such as welding, diesel mechanics, and electrical work. While many of the miners are taking advantage of such opportunities, these types of jobs have forced people to relocate away from their homes.  Also, most of the jobs they now perform don't pay nearly as well as the mines.  Can you blame them for being frustrated?
 
I would be angry if my chosen profession was slowly be phased out, in part due to the government, and then they provided me with a job that paid significantly less money.  I love working in education, and I'm certain many of these people loved working as a miner.
 
It's also important to realize the level of devastation that takes root when the only major economic opportunities of an area leave.  It would be too easy to examine the plight of McDowell County, where mining jobs and population have been shrinking since the 1950s, while poverty and drug abuse are soaring.  The lack of opportunity and problems there have been highlighted in some of the nation's most prominent newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
 
Logan, Boone, Mingo, and Wayne counties are the most recent victims of the coal decline.  The ripple effect in these counties has already begun.  Severance taxes from the coal mining industry have long been a major source of revenue for these counties (this tax provides the county with 5% of the gross value of coal mined).  The shutdown of mines has created a gaping hole in many county budgets, leaving significantly less money for the necessary upkeep of infrastructure and valuable government services, such as police protection.
 
These four counties are experiencing loss in funding, which means government has more difficulty providing for their citizens.  Dilapidated infrastructure, less government services, and decreased economic opportunities will only decrease the population.  The shutdown of mines also bleeds over into the service industries.  An exodus from these counties also depletes the tax base, causing an even greater loss of revenue.  The housing market in these areas already suffers, and when people put their homes up for sale in these areas, no one will be able to afford them, or have reason to purchase them.
 
The rest of Southern West Virginia is in danger of becoming like McDowell County.  Here's some significant data to consider, comparing these four counties to the rest of West Virginia and McDowell:
 

Statistics were taken from U.S. Census at www.census.gov


The poverty rates of these four counties already exceed the state average.  Population decreases (reflecting 2010-2014) are alarming.  High school and college degrees are in short supply by comparison.  The value of homes in these counties are 20% below the state average and incomes already lag behind.  How much worse can the situation become?  Look at the far right column and that is a good indicator of what happens when coal leaves a region and nothing replaces it.
 
What does the state need to do to avoid such a fate for Southern West Virginia?  Here are some suggestions.
 
  • Drawing manufacturing or technology jobs to rural West Virginia is a challenge.  To bring in business, we should offer greatly reduced corporate tax rates for an extended amount of time, provided that a business promises to keep their facilities in the region beyond the tax break time frame.   
With land being fairly cheap in these areas, why not recruit businesses to come?   In many of these southern counties, access exists to waterways, railroads, interstate highways, and air traffic in Charleston and Huntington.
  • Develop specific programs that give students loans for either college or vocational training.  If these students agree to work in a designated county for a given amount of time, their loans would be forgiven, based upon the amount of time they work in one of these poverty stricken counties.  
  • Incorporate computer programming into public school curriculums. Though we would all like to see manufacturing jobs return in large quantities, we should face the reality that not all of them will come back.  If the state starts mandating computer programming, students would develop a skill throughout school that will benefit them personally, and create a pool of potential employees for technical jobs.   
  • Solicit help from businesses within West Virginia.  If businesses would commit a certain percentage of their profits to an investment into their community, imagine what might happen.  If businesses could even offer their services.  One of the greatest needs is to demolish condemned houses and buildings in communities.  Government grant money can't keep up with the need to eliminate these eyesores, which turn into hazards and potential criminal hotspots. What if construction companies and contractors volunteered to demolish one building every six months for free?  
Smaller businesses might struggle to meet the demands, and that's okay. But there are enough franchises and corporate entities in the area that could help absorb the costs.  Walmart would be an ideal corporation to approach, considering they are the largest private employer in the state.  Such philanthropic efforts would benefit corporations since these places are their workforce and customer base. 
  • Recruit churches and local organizations to volunteer their time.  Often, people are more apt to give money rather than time.  West Virginia needs people to give of their time, expertise, and resources.  Each of us should be asking, "How can I help?"  
These groups should reach out to the local schools and work with children to help them plan ahead for the future, and encourage them to be part of the community.  After school activities. Community cleanups.  Town fairs. Developing a sense of community pride.
  • Open up teaching opportunities to those who have a four year college degree in a particular field for counties with a designated need.  As someone with a background that includes a degree in education, I'm not one to normally advocate for such a measure, but these rural counties are absolutely desperate for teachers with the adequate knowledge base.
  
I'm aware that many other solutions and ideas could be out there, but West Virginia needs to act in a drastic fashion or a wide swath of counties will be looking more like McDowell County, which is the poorest in the nation.  
 
Additionally, McDowell County has higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and lack of physical activity than the state's average.  An even more frightening trend is the increase in drug abuse, both from prescription drugs and illegal narcotics.  This county also has increased rates of alcohol abuse and incidents of driving while under the influence.  
 
McDowell County will be the future of Southern West Virginia if we do not act immediately and decisively and this can't happen.  


  




Sunday, August 2, 2015

Chump: A political embarrassment for the United States

"Shamelessness is the nadir of the soul."  

— C.S. Lewis

The Election of 2016 is more than a year away and that hasn't stopped the race from enticing all sorts of candidates from announcing their intention to run.  By far, the most intriguing individual to announce their candidacy is billionaire Donald Trump.

As a businessman, Trump has a remarkably successful resume.  Through mostly real estate development and stock holdings, his net worth is estimated to be approximately $3 billion.  However, Trump has never held a political office at any level.  And success in one field doesn't necessarily mean that success will follow in government.  It's often difficult to even create a successful campaign without any political experience.  Ross Perot attempted the transition from businessman to president with no government background and in the Election of 1992, he gathered 19% of the popular vote but carried no states in the Electoral College. 

Donald Trump is poised to become a different sort of candidate.  In the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he's polling well ahead of almost all other Republican candidates.  And his popularity only seems to be increasing despite generating controversy with many of his comments about ethnic groups, foreign nations, and specific individuals.

A nationwide poll released today (conducted by Quinnipiac University) has Trump leading all candidates with 20% support.  The only other two candidates who are close are current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (at 13% and 10% respectively).  No other of the two dozen candidates reached the 10% barrier.   

So why is Trump this popular?  What is it that Trump is doing that resonates with Americans?  NBA owner Mark Cuban summed up his thoughts on that question, stating,
I don't care what his actual positions are. I don't care if he says the wrong thing. He says what's on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.
I believe that Cuban is correct in his assertion, but it reveals the problems with Cuban, Trump and the general public.

I don't care what his actual positions are.  Cuban's statements are indicative of a larger problem in the United States.  Despite having greater access to information than ever before, Americans still choose to ignore the positions and policies candidates have endorsed or enacted in the past and what they intend to to do in the future.  

Americans have so many offices to consider in any given election year that it's very difficult to genuinely research the candidates and make an informed decision.  The GOP has over 20 candidates seeking their nomination for president.  That decision alone for a voter requires looking up the information, watching debates, and carefully weighing those options.  That alone is a difficult task.

All 435 House seats are up for election every two years and one-third of the Senate will face re-election.  Add to this all the state and local offices that must be decided and voters feel overwhelmed.  

Consider also that voters are human beings with a personal lives and jobs.  When we come home from work, we want to rest.  We want to spend time with family.  We want to watch a movie, read a book, or go for a run.  The last thing most Americans want to do is research political candidates.  

Our attention is sharply divided and it is much easier to cast a vote based on party affiliation, loyalties because of ties to a labor union or other interest group, or because of the quick sound bites and advertisements on television and radio.  

Living in a democracy affords a citizen with a great number of rights and privileges, but there comes a price attached.  Because the power ultimately resides in the citizens, it is incumbent upon them to remain diligent in selecting the best possible candidates for public service.  When we stop caring about policy positions, we reduce elections to nothing more than a popularity contest.

I don't care if he says the wrong thing. He says what's on his mind.  I can't pretend to understand every motive Cuban had or currently has, but he gives the implication that saying what's on your mind is a good thing.  Throw political correctness out the door.  However, consider what Donald Trump has been saying lately.  They reveal intention and character.

Consider what Trump has stated about America's neighbor to the south:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Regardless of one's policy position on immigration reform, Trump was wrong to broadly characterize Mexicans as a group of criminals who are bent on spreading their evil ways to the United States.  But I suppose we should be grateful that Trump would be willing to go out on a limb and give the presumption that some good people actually exist in Mexico.  Since when do Americans find it acceptable to label an entire group based upon a stereotype?  

Trump has also made waves by questioning the military service of Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Trump disputed the fact that McCain was a war hero, claiming, "He's not a war hero. ... He's a war hero because he was captured.  I like people who weren't captured."  These statements and others pertaining to McCain's service record in the Vietnam War seem to be ignorant of the fact that McCain endured more than 5 years in a prisoner of war camp, where he passed up opportunities to leave in prisoner exchanges because of military tradition that the prisoners held longest should be released first.  

The antics didn't stop there.  Trump didn't back away from his comments and proceeded to criticize Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as an insignificant candidate in the presidential race, and then gave out Graham's personal cell phone number.  Why?  The only reason to do this would be to unleash a legion of trolls who called and texted Graham, to the point where the senator had to change phone numbers.  Trump also took a moment to denigrate Graham as a 'nobody.' 

During the announcement of his presidential bid, Trump tossed out more than a deli's worth of red meat to his supporters and the media.  One-liners, zingers, and insults were aplenty but like so many presidential candidates, his words lacked any substance.  Trump offered no real solutions to problems, no true agenda.  His words were insults.  Here's an example, when Trump opined about foreign diplomacy and the Iran Nuclear Talks:
I know the smartest negotiators in the world. I know the good ones, I know the bad ones, I know the overrated ones. You got a lot of them that are overrated. They’re not good, they think they are, they get good stories, cause the newspapers get buffaloed. But they’re not good. But I know the best negotiators in the world. I’d put them one for each country. Believe me, folks, we’d do very well.
Trump tells the American public that the United States do not negotiate well because he says we don't.  For someone running as a Washington outsider, he has already mastered the two most dangerous words any politician can utter:  believe me.  

The words a presidential candidate speaks and the way in which they say them do matter.  Trump's statements go beyond crossing the threshold of political correctness.  I think most people admire a person who speaks their mind, but Trump's comments serve only to inflame and intimidate.  The ability to speak one's mind isn't such a powerful trait in a person if their words are toxic. 

Moreover, why is it so appealing that a candidate speaks their mind so freely?  I know plenty of people who speak their mind and should never occupy an elected office.

He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers.  Honest answers are fairly refreshing in politics, but that doesn't make a person electable nor does it mean that a prepared answer is necessarily a bad thing.  

Honest answers really don't hold much meaning if the answer given is a terrible concept or completely unworkable.  Trump noted that he would have a wall built on the border with Mexico, and that the Mexicans would be the nation that would build it.  I'm certain this idea appeals to the GOP base, but could he provide any details about how this will be accomplished?  

Again, Trump may not have held an elected position, but he seems to be adept at adopting political tactics to get elected.  Set a lofty, vague goal and offer no details about how to achieve that goal.  The Trump Campaign's current slogan:  "Make America Great Again!"  The slogan itself attempts to plant the idea that America isn't great.

What exactly are Trump's positions on the issues that concern Americans?  Apparently, he has yet to articulate those because his campaign website, donaldjtrump.com, has yet to list his stances on issues or policy ideas about how to improve the nation.  Incidentally, Trump made it a point to announce how he was independently wealthy and did not need to rely on political contributions.  Yet, his campaign site did have a link encouraging visitors to donate to the campaign.  

When did society decide that being prepared is such a bad thing?  Winning an election to any political office bears a responsibility to the constituents.  A president must consider what policies will fix the problems of a society with more than 300 million citizens.  I expect a president to have ideas and solutions to ease those problems, if not outright eliminate them.  No, this should not be construed to mean that we should expect the president or any official to solve all the nation's problems.  But whomever should hold that position ought to be well-prepared for the task.  

Trump does tout his business acumen as a reason why he would be beneficial to the United States.  Yet, Americans should be cautious in taking this quality too far in the assessment of Trump.  There's a good reason that a businessman has never successfully transitioned to the presidency.  The two jobs aren't nearly as similar as people would like to believe.  Also, the economy is only one part of the presidency, and it isn't even constitutionally mandated to the chief executive as part of the job.  

Americans like a sense of bravado.  People seem to admire Trump because he's somewhat of a cowboy who shoots from the hip.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it fails to hit the target.  In any other profession, would we not desire to have a well-prepared individual?  If I'm undergoing heart surgery, I hope to have a surgeon who knows the procedure and has planned for every conceivable contingency. 

I would imagine that Trump has the best possible intentions in attempting to become the president.  Put those intentions aside, though, and weigh the individual.  Trump has no plan.  He's articulated no positions or concepts about how to improve the nation.  The message from his campaign is that the Obama administration has failed and all the other Republican candidates are bums.  He tells the public everything they want to hear.

The nature of the presidency (and most political positions) is that those in power must be accountable to the entire population.  After the campaign is over and a new president is elected, the task of governing begins.  The idealism of the campaign transitions to pragmatism.  

Trump should ask President Obama how easy it is to deliver on campaign promises.  The task of being president is not the same as a business executive.  The president's power is tempered by the Constitution and the other branches of government.  How would Donald Trump respond when he can't bully Congress or the Supreme Court?  He has already demonstrated his contempt for Democrats and has wrangled the GOP establishment to the point where he, if president, would have alienated both parties.  

Trump isn't good for politics, and it's only a matter of time before Americans see that.  The things you say and the way that you conduct yourself matter in life.  The level of expectation for these things matter more when you're seeking the highest office in the land.  Trump has no plans, no tact, and no shame.   

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Treaty with Iran? Deal me in!

The Middle East has undoubtedly been a central part of American foreign policy over the last 15 years.  One of the many problems for the region was Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Since 2013, the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, and China have been working with Iran to propose a deal that would end their development of such weapons.  

That deal has finally come to fruition, and here in the United States, there's no shortage of criticism for the Obama administration for this deal.  Republican opposition to this agreement hinges upon the notion that such a deal would actually destabilize the region and allow a pathway for Iran to develop weapons in secret.  

My contention is that this deal is the appropriate course of action, and contains enough provisions that will encourage Iran to avoid developing a nuclear weapon.  It represents a foreign policy success for all parties.

The agreement itself creates serious limitations on Iran for key elements in developing a nuclear weapon.  Iran is sacrificing quite a bit.  Here's what's at stake:

Tens of thousands of centrifuges are required for uranium enrichment.  Iran currently has about 20,000 and under this agreement, they will reduce that number to approximately 6,000.

The level of uranium enrichment is also another significant point of interest.  Uranium that occurs naturally contains less than 1% of the special uranium isotope needed for nuclear weapons.  To make weapons grade material, laboratories must take that uranium and "enrich" it to the point where the level of the special isotope is making up about 90% of the uranium.  Under this agreement, Iran will not enrich its uranium to a level greater than 3.67%.   

Additionally, under this agreement, Iran will agree to reduce the amount of uranium stockpile by 98%.  Even if they chose to attempt developing weapons, they would need over a year to accumulate and process the necessary stockpile of fissile material.  This agreement will still permit Iran to use uranium for energy purposes, with its spent fuel rods being shipped from the country, so they cannot be processed into plutonium.

To ensure that Iran is complying with the provisions of this agreement, they have agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect all sites, monitor the transport of fissile materials outside of the nation, and examine any sites that may arouse suspicion.  

Most of the provisions Iran agreed to occur for a minimum of 15 years, while some of them last for greater terms, including a few aspects that they agreed to on a permanent basis.  If Iran breaks any part of the agreement, the United Nations and the United States would be justified in implementing the same sanctions again.

In return, the United States and allies will agree to lift the economic sanctions that have crippled Iran.  Over the last 10 years, the United States, the European Union, and United Nations have all imposed serious sanctions.  Iran's ability to trade internationally has come to a near halt.  Travel restrictions have been imposed.  Banking institutions, weapons industries, shipping, the energy sector, etc. have been limited to the point where Iran's people are suffering because of the restrictions.

The effects of the sanctions have become apparent over the last three years.  Iran's gross domestic product (GDP) peaked in 2011, with a value of approximately $576 billion.  Over each of the last four years, the GDP of Iran has steadily decreased, with a reported $415 billion GDP from this past year.  That translates to a reduction of GDP by an astonishing 28%.

It's also significant to address that the Iranian economy is struggling with an unemployment rate that is conservatively estimated at 10%, but according to the World Bank, could be as high as 20%.  The youth of Iran are the demographic affected most by the high levels of unemployment.  Lifting these sanctions will allow for more trade and economic development, which will, in turn, less the chances of these youth becoming radicalized.  If people have jobs and economic opportunity, they are less likely to become involved in any terrorist activities.  

Trade and economic development not only benefits Iran, but the United States as well.  The reserves of oil Iran holds will allow more access and drive down the price, which assists American consumers.  The opening of trade allows for investment from foreign sources and allows American businesses the opportunity to grow and expand.  With a population of nearly 80 million, Iran also becomes a marketplace for American goods and services.

While there are plenty of good reasons to move forward with this deal, many Americans raise objections to crafting a deal with Iran, and those deserve consideration.  One of the major concerns is that Iran, free from economic sanctions, will be flush with cash and have access to convention weapons and arms that will allow it to advance its own agenda in the Middle East.  I can understand why people are concerned about Iran, because they are so antithetical to what the United States represents.  But they, as a sovereign nation, have a right to pursue their goals and objectives just as any other nation.  Their attempts at dominance in the region will be checked by a nuclear armed and American backed Israel and an already strong Saudi Arabia.  

The objection has also been raised that Iran has historically not been very trustworthy, and any negotiations with them would be suspect.  I can understand this critique, but this does not excuse completely removing ourselves from diplomacy.  The allegations of mistrust also cut two ways.  Iranians have plenty of reasons not to trust the United States, including the CIA coup d'├ętat of the Iranian government in 1953.  The United States and Great Britain have a long history of exploiting the oil resources of Iran, and they haven't forgotten.  Part of breaking through that mistrust is sitting down and discussing problems.  That's precisely what both sides have done.  

Critics of this deal also point to the fact that the State Department lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.  They have either directly or indirectly supported terrorist groups, and this does represent a problem.  But should this preclude us from working out a deal that will keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon?  Absolutely not.  The United States has negotiated with far worse and more dangerous regimes than Iran.  

During both the Bush and Obama administrations, we have reached out to North Korea to extend opportunities for dismantling their nuclear programs.  North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and is the world's leader in human rights violations.  

The presidency of Ronald Reagan helped to create a diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union, the same nation he labeled as the "Evil Empire."  Diplomacy eased tensions with a threat that rivaled the United States in terms of their nuclear arsenal. 

President Richard Nixon responded to overtures from China and Mao Zedong in the 1970s.  His efforts allowed the United States to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union.  The diplomatic efforts didn't change Mao's terrible policies of the past, but it did create a stepping stone for the future.

This diplomatic solution allows for economic development for everyone and it will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  It also has the potential for preventing the radicalization of future terrorists in the long term.  While Iran has other problems and shortcomings that we want to change, we cannot broach those problems today. 

Many of the critics of this agreement falsely believe the United States can project power by being one-sided in its approach to diplomacy.  This is no diplomacy at all, but the same line of thinking that created tension with Iran in the first place.

In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy delivered a significant statement about diplomacy.  He noted, "So let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

The negotiations and agreement with Iran are not a sign of weakness, but of strength.  The sanctions imposed upon Iran were put in place because they began developing nuclear weapons.  Now, they have agreed to stop pursuing that goal.  This is the right move at the right time.  

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why is everybody picking on the Supreme Court?!

"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

 —  Chief Justice John Marshall

Political parties and politicians love to point fingers for what's wrong with the America, and in the last 15 years, perhaps no other institution received as much verbal abuse as the United States Supreme Court. When the nation's highest judicial authority rules on the constitutionality of laws and settles some of the most important disputes, one side praises the Court for their wisdom while the other derides the justices as if they're the most inept, unintelligent group to don black robes.

Since the turn of the millennium, the Court has ruled in a large number of landmark decisions that have dramatically altered the political and social landscapes of the United States. Yet, this is precisely what these justices are supposed to do. 

The job of the Supreme Court is to act as a court of final authority and make assessments about controversies involving precisely what the law means. The nature of the selection of the justices, their tenure, and the near finality of their decisions frustrates the losing side of any particular case. Their only response is to criticize the decision making as somehow unjust or undemocratic. Because of the fact that both liberals and conservatives have suffered serious blows to their political agendas through the decisions of the Supreme Court, both sides have attempted to politicize the judicial process to the best of their abilities.

The Supreme Court has become more politicized than what Americans would like, but it's not entirely possible to divorce the Court from the political process. The president has the power and responsibility of appointing justices to the Court, while the Senate must confirm these selections. As such, elected officials will attempt to influence the makeup and the decisions of the Court.  We must remember that each justice is a willful, flawed human being who must struggle to decide cases objectively.  Though the Supreme Court is more politicized, there's no reason to change the way we select justices, their tenure, or the current lineup of justices.

The Criticisms of the Supreme Court

Americans criticize the Court for making decisions that subvert the will of the majority. This criticism makes a few false presumptions. The Framers of the Constitution did not intend on the majority of the population to dictate policy in every instance. The nation held a great fear of the potential tyranny of a majority and James Madison noted as much in his oft referenced Federalist #10. One of the more pivotal questions he addressed was how to deal with a tyrannical group in the United States. When the dangerous group was in the minority, dealing with them was handled by merely outvoting them. However, what are we to do when the tyranny comes from the majority?

One of the reasons that we implemented a republic with elected representatives was to prevent the dangers associated with a more direct form of democracy. Madison believed that a small body of individuals would be more apt to make a good decision rather than a large group. We have a natural distrust for the masses because of how quickly they can be inflamed.

The will of the majority wasn't intended to lord over the nation's every policy and position, and these are evident in the Constitution. International treaties must be confirmed by two-thirds of the Senate. The president's vetoes can only be overridden by two-thirds of both houses of Congress.

The Constitution also contains an established set of rights held by all citizens, and their enumeration in the Constitution means that a majority cannot simply vote these rights out of existence. The will of the majority is restrained by the Constitution's difficult amendment process. It takes an overwhelming number of elected leaders to alter the foundation of our government and the rights of Americans.

Politicians bemoan the the Court's authority to interpret the Constitution, but what institution would they prefer handle that task? They overlook the fact that someone must resolve disputes about the law. Handing over the keys to the kingdom to the majority runs counter to what the Framers of the Constitution wanted.

Critics also point to the Court as out of touch with reality because they are elitist in nature. The current Court has five members who graduated from Harvard Law School, three from Yale, and one from Columbia. No one would doubt that these are three of the finest schools American has to offer, but I don't think it's fair to characterize the Court as elitist because of their respective alma maters. Would we not want the Supreme Court to have some of the most well-educated minds in the nation? Who would really tell their own children to turn down an Ivy League institutions for fear of being branded as elitist? 

The Court's internal policy of no camera coverage of proceedings has also brought criticism from various circles. A large number of Americans believe the Court should televise its proceedings, but the net effect from such a change would be a negative. The nature of television would augment the way in which cases were argued, whereby the attorneys arguing (and perhaps the justices) would be tempted to grandstand and make a spectacle rather than focusing on the issues at hand.

The lack of camera coverage also ignores the fact that the Supreme Court creates audio recordings of every case they hear and provides a transcript as well. Moreover, the Court is the only one of the three branches that explains its decision making in writing on every single issue. If anything, the other branches of government should be as transparent as the Supreme Court. Perhaps that's a reason why the Supreme Court has a higher approval rating than either the president or Congress.

The fact that justices on the Court do not receive their position through an election presents another problem for Americans. Critics want the justices held accountable to the people for their decision making. People quickly forget, however, that of the various levels of federal government, only the House of Representatives was originally meant to be elected by the people. Senators were chosen by their respective state legislatures, the president is chosen by the Electoral College, and members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president. 

The federal judiciary was meant to have a layer of insulation from public opinion so that they could make decisions based on the law rather than popular sentiment. This also overlooks that a system of accountability already exists.  The justices can be impeached and removed from their post in the same process by which we can remove a president.

The Court's decisions also are subject to being superseded by amending the Constitution. That's precisely why the 11th Amendment came into existence. After the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Chisholm v. Georgia (1796), the states were bothered by the ruling that a state could be sued by a citizen from another state. Their response was to work together to amend the Constitution, which changed the scope of the judiciary's authority.

What happens when politicians do not achieve their objectives through the judicial system? They cry foul and resemble a child throwing a tantrum because they didn't get their way. Their response is to use political power to pressure the Court, which is precisely what our system was designed to resist.

The Politicization of the Court

Politicians have launched an offensive at the Supreme Court and they use every weapon at their disposal. Perhaps the most powerful weapon a politician holds is their access to the media.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Robert Bork to a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Bork's resume was more than adequate, having been a law professor at Yale, a stint as Solicitor General, and then serving as a federal court of appeals judge. However, his conservative nature and his candid answers during his hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee prompted many Democrats to become fierce opponents of Bork's confirmation.

Senator Ted Kennedy spearheaded a campaign to stop Bork's nomination. He strongly condemned Bork, stating,

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy ... President Reagan is still our president. But he should not be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and the next generation of Americans. No justice would be better than this injustice.
Kennedy's statement in front of the Senate made its way into every major media outlet, despite the protestations of Bork and his supporters that none of the statements were true (they weren't).

Additionally, a series of television ads, narrated by famous actor Gregory Peck, attacked Bork as unfit for the high court. The wave of anger directed at Bork was so intense, newspapers somehow obtained a history of his video rentals in the hopes of finding some sensational piece of information.

The crusade against Bork was effective. His confirmation vote yielded only 42 votes for, and a surprising 58 against. The strong nature of the media feeding frenzy produced results for Democrats, and this was in 1987, before 24 hour news cycles were the norm and social media could spread a rumor across the world instantaneously. 

After the decisions by the Court to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and require all states to permit same-sex marriages, conservatives quickly weighed in about the poor decision making of the Court. They noted that "five unelected judges" uprooted the will of the people. A few critics called for impeachment of the justices.

Former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee put the Court on blast, stating, "I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat."

Senator Ted Cruz was willing to go even further, claiming the two decisions represented "some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation's history." He suggested a radical plan that would have called for Supreme Court justices to face re-election every 8 years, whereby they would need a majority of the nation to vote for them, and at least half the states would have to approve of the justice or he or she would be barred from ever returning. 

Cruz's demagoguery is disgusting and it's more than fair to ask if he and fellow conservatives were this critical of the Supreme Court when it's ruling in Bush v. Gore, which allowed for a Republican to take the White House in 2000. Flash back to 2010, when conservatives were overjoyed at the ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed for corporations to engage in nearly unlimited spending on campaign activities. Republicans were also pleased last summer when the Court overturned certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Of course, the reverse of this trend is also true. Democrats are just as hypocritical about the Court's decision making. After the Citizens United decision, President Obama fired shots at the Court during his State of the Union address in 2010 — while the justices were in attendance.

Current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi derided the Court last year after a decision that loosened campaign finance rules, claiming, "Nothing again is more disillusioning to the public than the vast display of money spent in campaigns. ... Our founders sacrificed everything — their lives, their liberty, their sacred honor — for a democracy. A government of the many, not a government of the money."

The comments from party leadership on both sides bring about a simple truth. When the Supreme Court doesn't rule in the manner consistent with your liking, they're elitist bums out of touch with reality. When your party wins, you applaud them for upholding the cause of freedom and democracy.

The resentment from Court decision making can also be gleaned from the confirmation process itself. Prior to Bork's failed nomination, the process of selection and confirmation of a justice was far less political. The selection of a Supreme Court justice was considered to be a choice that rested primarily with the president. The Senate's role in confirming a nomination appears to have been almost a formality unless a serious objection existed. Prior to 1965, most Supreme Court justices were confirmed with only a voice vote in the Senate. 

When looking at the confirmation votes of the current justices, the number of 'nay' votes is startling when you examine the four most recent appointees compared to the four senior most justices (I've excluded Clarence Thomas because his high number of nay votes was predicated upon accusations of sexual harassment).

How is it possible that Antonin Scalia was confirmed by the Senate with not a single vote in opposition? Scalia is arguably one of the most conservative justices in the last 100 years and no one stood against this appointment made by President Ronald Reagan? Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were liberal appointees under the Clinton administration and Republicans only mustered 12 no votes? Hardly any opposition to these four justices existed.

Contrast that with the four most recent appointees, all of whom were appointed by two polarizing presidents. The mere correlation of increased no votes doesn't necessarily mean the process has become politicized, but when you examine the no votes in each of these four cases, it becomes more difficult to deny a political slant to the process.

In Elena Kagan's confirmation vote, 36 of the 37 no votes came from Republicans. All 31 of the no votes for Sonia Sotomayor came from Republicans. Party lines were apparent in Samuel Alito's confirmation also, as 40 of his 42 no votes came from Democrats (one Republican 'no' came from Lincoln Chafee, who has since defected to the Democrats and the other 'no' was a left-leaning independent). Finally, all 22 no votes against Chief Justice John Roberts were from Democrats.
  
What does it say about the process of selection Supreme Court justices when it appears the confirmation process is polluted by partisanship?


The Supreme Court's decision making during the Roberts Court is worth examining because of the ideological makeup of the membership, which includes four liberals, four conservatives, and one Anthony Kennedy, who is considered 'the swing vote.'

Since the current Court was set in 2010, the Supreme Court has heard 393 cases. Of these cases, 71 of them were 5-4 split decisions. These decisions are of interest because they frequently deal with some of the more divisive policy issues in the nation. In these 71 instances, the four conservative justices sided together and the four liberal justices did the same in an amazing 58 instances. How is this possible that the same eight justices were divided the same way in so many controversial cases? 

I suppose it's possible that those eight justices were divided in exactly the same manner due to coincidence or similar judicial interpretations of the law, but it's far more likely these justices were influenced by their own ideological thoughts and beliefs (which match their votes in each of the 58 cases). The justices themselves have politicized the process by having a preconceived idea of what the outcome ought to be, and then manipulating the information and facts to suit that conclusion.

The politicization of the Court has also granted an immense amount of power to Anthony Kennedy. Because Kennedy is the wild card among the justices, he ends up being the decisive vote. Kennedy has literally decided the outcome of American policy in 14.7% of the cases during the last five years. No other official in the nation, not even the president, has enjoyed such unilateral decision making authority.

Keeping things as they are

Despite the politicization of the Supreme Court, the current system we have actually is the best defense against an even greater danger to society. The media blitz from members of Congress and the president has not corrupted the system to the point where the Court isn't capable of carrying out their duties and interpreting law correctly.

While the justices are divided in many cases, there's another trend in their decision making of which we overlook. During the last five years, 171 of 393 the cases heard by the Court, the decision was unanimous. This accounts for an astonishing 43.5% of the time where there is no dissent among the nine justices. Though the justices are divided on controversial policy cases, they speak with a unified voice nearly half of the time. This points to the Court's ability to adjudicate with accuracy, considering the liberal and conservative justices are typically in agreement.

The attacks on the Court from the other branches of government was anticipated by the Framers, who saw the Court as an "excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body.  And it is the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws." This excerpt, from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist #78, is noting that the judiciary is not a flawless remedy, but the best option that we have.

Moreover, the Court has weaknesses just as the other two branches. The justices are kept in check by the threat of impeachment, and the public exercises influence over the president and the Senate, who bear the responsibility for choosing and confirming the members of the Court. 

Congress holds the power of the purse, deciding how to raise and allocate tax dollars. The president possesses the power of the sword, as the commander-in-chief of armed forces. These branches were given their vital authority explicitly by the Constitution, but the Court is given no such enumeration in our founding document. The Court, "... may be said to have neither force nor will but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments." The Court has a political twinge that must disappear. Yet, the effects of a politicized Court are limited.

The Supreme Court will always have some semblance of political nature within its membership, but it was never intended on being perfect. The system in place has allowed for the politicization of the Court, but not its corruption. We should be working toward a "more perfect union," but don't believe the hype. Changing the Court would only damage the republic, and I doubt American politicians want the change they seem to advocate.

Members of Congress and the president may publicly denigrate the judiciary, but that's about as far as they're willing to go. A Supreme Court justice hasn't been impeached in more than 200 years, and no justices has ever been removed. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have made any serious effort to put together a Constitutional amendment, and the executive branch hasn't been threatening to not enforce the decisions of the Supreme Court.

So why all the anger directed at the Court? Because the Court is an easy target. Sitting justices typically shun cameras in all settings and rarely give interviews. They do not publicly rebuke those who attack them, nor do they attempt to persuade citizens with grandiose speeches or false promises of reform. The Supreme Court is stoic in nature, always keeping a stiff upper lip. Politicians count on the Court to behave in this manner. 

When politicians can point to the Court as "the problem" in America, it deflects the attention away from themselves and their own failures. If any of these politicians had any serious qualms about the decision making of the Court, they would have taken steps towards changing the system. The Supreme Court provides other members of the government with a convenient whipping boy, and they're happy to keep things as they are, lest these politicians might have to take responsibility.

If we want to hold people accountable for bad policy or poor decision making in this nation, look to the other two branches of government. We have a history of giving poor presidents a second term. Incumbents in Congress tend to be re-elected at more than a rate of 90%. And they want us to believe the Supreme Court is the problem?