Monday, February 25, 2013

Financial Frankenstein

Here we go again:  We find ourselves on the brink of an economic catastrophe and once again, it's of our own making.  How is this even remotely possible?

The clock is ticking on the Sequestration Bomb, a breathtaking little bit of insanity that was created not by some vengeful, pissed-off god, nor by some diabolical cabal of fundamentalist Islamists, nor by a gaggle of Chinese cyber-terrorists, but by our very own Congress.  Back in 2011 when Congress was bickering over the debt-ceiling crisis, our very rational, courageous and forward-thinking representatives decided it would be a good idea to force themselves into taking some action on deficit reduction by coming up with a poison pill so onerous that enacting it would be unthinkable.

Congress has become so good at deferring action on critical issues.  Their philosophy seems to be, let's kick the can down the road and worry about it some other day.  Out of sight - out of mind, they think, but their short-sightedness cannot comprehend the fact that someday the piper will have to be paid and they will have to face the issue again, after it's had a chance to fester and grow and metastasize into something truly scary.

On Friday, March 1st, some $85 billion in budget cuts will be imposed across the board.  Everything is going to be hit, even the sacred cow of defense spending.  There are many dire, horrific, sky-is-falling predictions of all the teachers who will be laid off and the hours-long lines at airport security when TSA agents are sent packing.  $85 billion is quite a chunk of change, but it's less than 3% of the national budget.  How so much pain and disruption could happen at such a relatively small bump in the budget is hard to understand.

The Democrats and the Obama administration have been fanning the flames and doing whatever they can to put pressure on Republicans to get a grip and compromise on a debt reduction deal.  Republicans are refusing to consider any increased tax revenues, thinking instead that the President has gotten all the new taxes he's going to get, and are holding out for big-time spending cuts.  Both sides have dug in their heels and the rest of us have to sit on our hands and slide helplessly into Friday when the Frankenstein monster Congress created comes to life, goes on a rampage and eats the economy for lunch.

It's astonishing how myopic Congress can be, and how it can separate itself from the monster it created and disavow any responsibility for it.  They're acting like they had nothing to do with the impending apocalypse, and throw up their hands as if they are completely powerless to do anything to solve the problem THEY created.

All this is eerily reminiscent of another faux-crisis we all endured, the so-called "fiscal cliff" back on December 31st of last year.  This also was a manufactured event, created not by economic forces but by design, by intention.  I suppose we could glean some comfort in the fact that we survived the fiscal cliff, and we will survive the upcoming sequestration.  Leading economists, such as the always erudite Robert Reich, say that most people probably won't directly feel the results of sequestration for weeks or months or maybe never.

But the economy always seems to be teetering on the brink of "another recession."  The recovery from the financial collapse of 2009-2010 has been anemic at best, and even though the stock market has been flirting with record high levels, there's the very real feeling that it's all a house of cards that can come crashing down any minute.  It wasn't that long ago that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was in the 6,000 range, instead of occasionally peeking over the 14,000 mark as it does these days.

Congress seems to have effectively isolated itself from the effects of these cliffs and crises, and somehow deflects the blame away from itself.  More ominiously, there's the chance that this has become the new "normal" - already the next two "crises" are being teed up:  another possible government shutdown coming on March 27th and more debt-ceiling churn in April.  Instead of governing for the long term, it appears Congress has chosen to merely jump from crisis to manufactured crisis, like a flat rock skipping over the surface of the water, accomplishing very little, and pushing as much as they can down the road, over and over again.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Digital Melting-Pot

Digital technology has sped up the reaction time of everyone, and nowadays it's very common for something to happen in the world and almost instantaneously, reactions and comments pop up on Facebook.

Twenty years ago, none of this was even imagined, let alone remotely possible.  And back in the day, when I was young, news came from either the newspaper, the radio or national televised news shows.  We got our news basically twice a day, when the newspaper was thrown on the front porch, or when the evening news programs came on.

Today, we are immersed in news from the second we awake to when the nights go out at night.  Instead of a couple of places to get news, we have many dozens.  The internet has brought an astonishing, incomprehensible amount of information to our fingertips, pretty much for free, day and night.  But so much of this information comes not from independent, credible news sources, but from thinly-disguised echo chambers of political entities for whom journalistic truth is the enemy, not an ideal to which to aspire.

In the vast, global, digital melting-pot that is Facebook, there is always something cooking.  The media stew it serves up can be a smorgasbord of interesting, funny and enlightening photos and comments from my Facebook friends - whom I genuinely appreciate and enjoy reading - to a witches' brew of insanity, paranoia and batshit-craziness from the darkest gutters and cesspools of the American psyche.

Politically-inclined FB pages are public pages, and that opens up the floodgates for all the virulent strains of craziness that seem to be running rampant in this country.  In particular, conservative trolls are ever-ready to inflict their narrow-minded, pointless slander and undisguised racism into any and all discussions, even if they are not even slightly political.  No insult is too cheap, no snide remark too juvenile to make when it comes to denigrating our President.

Disclaimer:  I have certainly put in my time as a liberal troll, and I spent a fun-filled two weeks after the elections last November carpet-bombing political pages and websites with all the eat-shit-and-die liberal gloating I could muster.  I gleefully and mercilessly rubbed as many conservatives noses as I could into the messy bowel movement that was the Romney campaign, with completely predictable results.  Heads exploded everywhere, and the bile and hatred I elicited was quite impressive.  I felt that if I could raise conservative blood pressures to stroke-inducing levels and ruin as many of their days as possible, I was doing my job and life indeed was wonderful. It was almost too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel, but eventually it ran its course and I don't do it anymore.  At least not as much.

The Sandy Hook elementary school shootings in mid-December brought a whole new array of crazy conservatives to the forefront, and these were the extra-paranoid, gun-nut variety.  It really is something when you find out how many of our fellow citizens spend their lives gripped by an intense, irrational fear that someday, vast armies of criminals, armed to the tits with AK-47s, are going to march down every street in every town and city in this country and storm the doorway of their home in a enormous Armageddon-type apocalypse, and the only way they can hope to survive is to make sure everyone in their family, from little two-year-old Nutley to ninety-year old Grandma, has a couple of automatic rifles at their disposal to dispatch all these bloodthirsty felons to the lower depths of hell where they belong.

I was surprised to find out that a lot of people take seriously the notion that their individual liberty and freedom are in constant, grave peril, either from armed, highly-organized criminals or from our own government.  Paranoia and conspiracy theories go hand-in-hand, and these people can see heinous, nefarious plots in every single thing that happens.  Evil socialist Muslim Kenyans are behind everything, and they are well on their way to converting every Starbucks in this nation into Islamic indoctrination centers, and Walmart will start selling burkas any minute.  Actually, it would really be a good idea if some of Walmart's customers wore burkas.

These pathetic, disturbed individuals have a doomsday scenario playing in an endless loop in their heads, that they will someday have to engage in mortal combat with a mysterious Fascist movement which will suddenly rise to power and all the U.S. military forces will fight blindly for the prophet Mohammed, despite nearly 250 years of Judeo-Christian culture and government influence.  How little faith these people have in their fellow citizens, and in the form of government which has produced the wealthiest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen, and has gotten us through a bloody Civil War and two World Wars as well as numerous other skirmishes.  To these hopeless paranoids, it's just a tiny step to go from an established, representative democracy to Sharia law.

The Republican party, along with their mangy, yappy little attack dog the NRA, is expert at cultivating and empowering such mindless paranoid fantasies, and there seems to be no limit to the number of gullible dupes and stooges out there who are ever-so-eager to swallow this claptrap.  Personally I feel it's indicative of the extreme intellectual laziness that has taken hold in his country.  Why make the effort to learn about the world and the things that are happening in our culture, when you can sit comfortably on your couch with your TV and a giant bag of Doritos, and let blowhards like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or the dimwitted hacks of Fox News fill your head with whatever garbage they choose, because somehow it sounds like they might be right, or at the very least their drivel seems to fit into your personal delusions and biases? They are the professionals when it comes to providing very simple-minded, ineffective, populist solutions to complex problems. Why bother thinking about stuff on your own when you can let someone else do the thinking for you?

There is a herd-mentality aspect in people that makes them want to be a part of something bigger, which seems counter to the famed American "independence of spirit."  People want to align themselves with other like-minded people, because there is safety in numbers and comfort in shared attitudes.  Going out on a limb and actually deconstructing problems in order to understand them is scary and way too much work, and many people just do not have the mental capacity, experience or inclination for critical analysis, thanks to our failing educational system.  They instead opt for the demagogues who speak in terms that sound familiar, or at least non-threatening, and engender an us-and-them separation that puts their followers clearly on the "us" side, and anyone who doesn't agree with them or maybe challenges their long-established biases and prejudices are the "them" that they have to be afraid of.

What people don't understand they fear, and that's been true throughout history.  Overcoming fear requires courage, fortitude and persistence. Sadly, sometimes it seems all too clear that people are not being enlightened by reason and understanding, but instead are turning their backs and marching into the darkness.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Excellent Lobbying Adventure

Last Wednesday I went to the AZ state capitol here in Phoenix to participate in the AZ Humane Lobby Day, sponsored by the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the US.

Despite living in Phoenix for nearly 20 years, it was my first trip to the state capitol, actually located only about 10 miles from where I live.  It was an interesting, eye-opening experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Arizona State Capitol building
(Click on the pictures to view them full size)

There were about 120 people attending, representing 23 of the 30 state legislative districts.  We met in the Old Senate chambers and discussed the three bills we were there to lobby.  They are:

1) Animal Fighting as Racketeering - would classify any kind of animal fighting as a racketeering activity, opening the door to easier prosecution and stiffer penalties.
2) Prohibiting the Roadside Sale of animals - Already banned in Maricopa and Pinal counties, this law would prohibit animals being sold on the side of the road statewide
3) Prohibiting Live Animals being given away as prizes - this law would prohibit statewide the heinous, loathsome activity of giving away live baby bunnies and other animals as prizes at carnivals, events, etc. to idiots who have no clue or desire to care for them properly.

All 3 bills are working their way through committees, and we are hopeful they all will be passed through.  Then of course they have to be voted on by both legislative bodies and signed by the Governor, and there are many ways the measures can be derailed and killed, but we are hopeful they will become law.

Arizona House of Representatives, meeting in session

All us lobbyists were scheduled to meet with our three legislators, 2 representatives and 1 senator.  Our two representatives were busy running all over the place doing other things, but we did meet with our state senator, Ms. Katie Hobbs, and she was extremely nice and supportive of our efforts and the causes we were advocating.

Needless to say, I took each and every opportunity to mention the plight of rabbits in the context of all three bills, especially the carnival prize one, because it's so easy just to focus on dogs and cats.  While that is indeed worthy and necessary, I was not about to let bunnies get pushed into the background and given the short shrift.

There was a lot of legwork, running between the state House and Senate buildings, and a little bit of chaos as we tried valiantly to meet with our representatives, but in the end we met with one rep's staffer, and for the other one we only dropped off materials for them to review, but I believe we got our message to them.

While lobbying, I got a chance to visit the Arizona Capitol Museum in the Capitol building, with its graceful, colorful dome:

Also, there was a model of a very interesting design by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a new capitol area, created in the 1950's but never built:

I had a really good time at my first try at political lobbying, and I think I may have somewhat of a knack for it.  I would love to do more and I'm sure I'll be participating in the next Humane Lobby Day.  I will use each and every opportunity to bring awareness and raise consciousness of the treatment of rabbits in this state.  I consider it an honor to raise my voice for those who can't speak.