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“Endangering Health And Lives”: How Hobby Lobby Undermines All Americans’ Freedom

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case demonstrates that the court, at least the five justices who voted in favor of Hobby Lobby, has little concern for, and probably little understanding of, women’s health care. By ruling that corporations, on the grounds of the alleged religious views of their owners, can deny women access to some forms of contraception, the court set a horrible precedent that if followed will endanger the health and lives of many American women.

The Hobby Lobby ruling may at first seem like a victory for the minority of Americans who think that both abortion and contraception should be illegal, and for those who believe that the US should operate more as a theocracy than a country where state and church are separate. However, the ruling not only is terrible news for women seeking a guarantee of good healthcare through their employer, but also for anybody who believes in personal freedom.

In the US, where health insurance is linked to employment, health insurance is part of the compensation package. When most Americans are about to start a new job, or choosing between two or more jobs, one of the first questions they ask is about the quality of the health insurance they will get. In most cases, health insurance varies because some companies offer plans with lower co-pays, better dental care or things like that. Firms that deny dental care are doing it because of concerns about costs, not because they have an ethical or religious problem with healthy teeth. Hobby Lobby is doing something different, denying women access to some forms of health care because of the personal beliefs of the people who run the company.

This decision raises the question of whether the Supreme Court will next rule that employers can tell workers how to spend the money they earn at their jobs. This sounds a bit extreme, but in a very real way that is precisely what the court just did. By limiting how workers can use some of their compensation, the court, despite its own assertions that it was not setting a precedent, opened the door for further limitations. If Hobby Lobby can tell people how they can or cannot use their health care benefits, why can’t they also tell people they can’t, for example, use their salaries to donate to pro-choice political candidates or pro-marriage equality causes? The answer, one would think, would be obvious, but the recent court decision makes it considerably less clear.

The Republican Party has long, if not always sincerely, repeated a mantra of individual freedom, but the Hobby Lobby decision, in which all five justices who formed the majority were appointed by Republican presidents, undermines that. A central belief of all Republican politicians is that Americans should have a right to do what they want with, and keep as much as possible of, their hard-earned money. The Supreme Court made a big move against that idea this week, but the outrage from the Republican side has been absent.

Conservative opposition to healthcare have consistently argued that decisions about health care should be made by patients and doctors, not by the government. The death panel hysteria that Sarah Palin unleashed on the American people a few years ago took that point to a nutty extreme. After last week, conservatives who support Hobby Lobby should probably change their position and argue that health care decisions should be made not by a patient’s doctor, but by a patient’s employer. Similarly, for supporters of the Hobby Lobby decision, the new mantra of individual freedom should now be that Americans should be allowed to do whatever they want with their hard earned money, as long as their boss approves, but somehow that seems an unlikely campaign slogan for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

The Hobby Lobby decision is about women’s health care and individual freedom, but it also is another sign of the consolidation of power by big corporations in the US. It is now legal for corporations to deny workers important medical services, and redefine their compensation packages, simply because, religious claims aside, they want to. During a very tenuous recovery in which real wages have not recovered, unemployment remains high and economic uncertainty on the part of working Americans is an enormous problem, the Supreme Court just gave more rights to corporations while taking wealth, as health care benefits are a form of wealth, out of the hands of working Americans.

 

By: Lincoln Mitchell, The Huffington Post Blog, July 6, 2014

 

 

 

July 7, 2014 Posted by | Hobby Lobby, Supreme Court, Women's Health | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“High Plains Moochers”: They’re Actually Welfare Queens Of The Purple Sage

It is, in a way, too bad that Cliven Bundy — the rancher who became a right-wing hero after refusing to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land, and bringing in armed men to support his defiance — has turned out to be a crude racist. Why? Because his ranting has given conservatives an easy out, a way to dissociate themselves from his actions without facing up to the terrible wrong turn their movement has taken.

For at the heart of the standoff was a perversion of the concept of freedom, which for too much of the right has come to mean the freedom of the wealthy to do whatever they want, without regard to the consequences for others.

Start with the narrow issue of land use. For historical reasons, the federal government owns a lot of land in the West; some of that land is open to ranching, mining and so on. Like any landowner, the Bureau of Land Management charges fees for the use of its property. The only difference from private ownership is that by all accounts the government charges too little — that is, it doesn’t collect as much money as it could, and in many cases doesn’t even charge enough to cover the costs that these private activities impose. In effect, the government is using its ownership of land to subsidize ranchers and mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.

It’s true that some of the people profiting from implicit taxpayer subsidies manage, all the same, to convince themselves and others that they are rugged individualists. But they’re actually welfare queens of the purple sage.

And this in turn means that treating Mr. Bundy as some kind of libertarian hero is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. Suppose he had been grazing his cattle on land belonging to one of his neighbors, and had refused to pay for the privilege. That would clearly have been theft — and brandishing guns when someone tried to stop the theft would have turned it into armed robbery. The fact that in this case the public owns the land shouldn’t make any difference.

So what were people like Sean Hannity of Fox News, who went all in on Mr. Bundy’s behalf, thinking? Partly, no doubt, it was the general demonization of government — if someone looks as if he is defying Washington, he’s a hero, never mind the details. Partly, one suspects, it was also about race — not Mr. Bundy’s blatant racism, but the general notion that government takes money from hard-working Americans and gives it to Those People. White people who wear cowboy hats while profiting from government subsidies just don’t fit the stereotype.

Most of all, however — or at least that’s how it seems to me — the Bundy fiasco was a byproduct of the dumbing down that seems ever more central to the way America’s right operates.

American conservatism used to have room for fairly sophisticated views about the role of government. Its economic patron saint used to be Milton Friedman, who advocated aggressive money-printing, if necessary, to avoid depressions. It used to include environmentalists who took pollution seriously but advocated market-based solutions like cap-and-trade or emissions taxes rather than rigid rules.

But today’s conservative leaders were raised on Ayn Rand’s novels and Ronald Reagan’s speeches (as opposed to his actual governance, which was a lot more flexible than the legend). They insist that the rights of private property are absolute, and that government is always the problem, never the solution.

The trouble is that such beliefs are fundamentally indefensible in the modern world, which is rife with what economists call externalities — costs that private actions impose on others, but which people have no financial incentive to avoid. You might want, for example, to declare that what a farmer does on his own land is entirely his own business; but what if he uses pesticides that contaminate the water supply, or antibiotics that speed the evolution of drug-resistant microbes? You might want to declare that government intervention never helps; but who else can deal with such problems?

Well, one answer is denial — insistence that such problems aren’t real, that they’re invented by elitists who want to take away our freedom. And along with this anti-intellectualism goes a general dumbing-down, an exaltation of supposedly ordinary folks who don’t hold with this kind of stuff. Think of it as the right’s duck-dynastic moment.

You can see how Mr. Bundy, who came across as a straight-talking Marlboro Man, fit right into that mind-set. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a bit more straight-talking than expected.

I’d like to think that the whole Bundy affair will cause at least some of the people who backed him to engage in self-reflection, and ask how they ended up lending support, even briefly, to someone like that. But I don’t expect it to happen.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, April 27, 2014

April 28, 2014 Posted by | Cliven Bundy, Racism | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Breed Apart”: So This Is What “Individual Liberty” Looks Like

I was minding my own business channel surfing when I stumbled upon a disturbing scene carried on (where else?) Fox News. More than 1,500 students from all over the world were gathered in Washington to attend what was billed as the Students for Liberty Conference, whose advertised aim was to “celebrate freedom.”

The part I saw had Fox Business host John Stossel, author of No They Can’t: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed, moderating a panel in which he asked students this bit of political trivia: How often is the word “democracy” used in the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence for that matter?

What came next was chilling. When students were given the correct answer – none – they cheered.

Stossel later explained why. These students, like the Founding Fathers, “understood that democracy may bring mob rule – tyranny of a majority. So the Constitution focuses on restricting government – to secure individual liberty.”

Thanks go to Chris Hayes of MSNBC for showing what this so called “individual liberty” sometimes looks like in real life.

Hayes profiled ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. As the head of the largest natural gas producer in the US, Tillerson is a vocal proponent of a controversial process known as hydraulic fracking.

It is so controversial, in fact, that many municipalities have begun passing local ordinances to place a moratorium on the practice until more is known about its long-term consequences. Exxon, for its part, has been just as active suing these cities and towns to have the ordinances overturned.

Then along comes another gas company with plans to construct one of these water towers needed for fracking — but this one near Exxon Rex’s 83-acre, $5 million horse ranch near Bartonville, Texas. Tillerson, of course, welcomes the new gas company to the neighborhood with open arms. Right?

Not on your life. Instead, Tillerson and his super-wealthy neighbors file a lawsuit which states that the fracking tower must be stopped since it might “devalue their properties and adversely impact the rural lifestyle they sought to enjoy.”

Further, as the Wall Street Journal disapprovingly reports, Tillerson and his neighbors filed suit, claiming that what the gas company wanted to do was illegal since it would create “a noise nuisance and traffic hazards” due to the heavy trucks hauling and pumping the massive amounts of water needed to unlock oil and gas from dense rock.

As Hayes succinctly put it: “Rex Tillerson is leading the fracking revolution — just not in his backyard.”

Adds Rich Unger writing in Forbes: “Sometimes, the hypocrisy expressed in real life is so sublimely rich that one could never hope to construct a similar scenario out of pure imagination.”

Being a vocal advocate for fracking is “a key and critical function” of Mr. Tillerson’s day job, says Unger. It is all he can do when he wakes up in the morning to “protect and nurture the process of hydraulic fracturing so that his company can continue to rack in billions via the production and sale of natural gas.”

So committed is Rex to the process of fracking, says Unger, “that he has loudly lashed out at those who criticize and seek to regulate hydraulic fracturing, suggesting that such efforts are a very bad idea, indeed.”

Except when the fracking is in Tillerson’s backyard.

The odium directed at Tillerson practically writes itself. But critics are wrong to call him a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who subscribes to the notion that people are basically equal, who agrees that rules should apply equally to everyone, but who nonetheless insists on special privileges or exemptions for themselves.

Tillerson, and those of his kind throughout history, do not subscribe to such egalitarian — dare we say democratic — ideals as justice or fairness. They really do believe their wealth makes them a breed apart. And they really do think that rules which apply to everyone else do not apply to them, though they rarely admit that in public.

To Tillerson and his caste, double standards are the only ones worth having. Consequently, it is perfectly legitimate, in their view, to make billions of dollars supporting a fracking process they say is a danger to no one — except people who  own multi-million horse ranches in rural Texas.

I wonder if Stossel’s Students for Liberty cheered just as loudly once they learned the Constitution does not use the world oligarchy either?

 

By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, February 27, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Fracking, Oil Industry | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Why Russians Aren’t Smiling At You In Sochi”: The First Rule About Smiling Is You Do Not Smile At Russians

When Ed Leigh arrived in Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics, something struck him as odd: None of the Russians there returned his smiles.

When Leigh asked a native why that was, the man told him, “In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people—and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

For Russians, a smile in public is not the polite expression that Americans reflexively offer strangers on the street. A smiling person must have a good reason for doing it, and it should be obvious what that reason is. When people smile without hesitation—for no reason—Russians find those grins artificial or insincere. And they think those people have a few screws loose.

Americans, on the other hand, seem to smile for any reason at all. The “American smile” has a long-standing bad reputation in Russia, explained Michael Bohm, the opinion-page editor of The Moscow Times, in an in-depth 2011 story on the matter.

National distrust of the Westernized grin dates back to the early Soviet era, when anti-U.S. propaganda abounded. Later, in the 1980s, Soviet media regularly blasted reports called “Their Customs,” explaining that Americans, a power-hungry people, smiled to deceive others. Behind that smile was an “imperialist wolf revealing its ferocious teeth.” One prime example of that, Bohm writes, came in 1990, when then-Secretary of State James Baker used his “charming, cunning Texas smile” to trick former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev into agreeing to a unified Germany in exchange for the U.S. halting NATO’s eastward expansion.

“There’s so much to be happy about here!” the Soviet government told its people—guaranteed jobs and housing, free education, a nuclear war chest to protect the empire. The people, frowning as they waited in line to buy bread or milk, respectfully disagreed.

Russia’s poker face “has little to do with Dostoevsky or the cold climate,” Bohm says, and much more to do with centuries of government oppression and corruption. The very form of government can dictate how its people control their expression of emotions, according to David Matsumoto, an expert on micro-expressions, gesture, and nonverbal behavior. In collectivist nations, like Russia and China, people tend to neutralize happy expressions, blending in with the rest of the population. In contrast, members of individualist societies, like the United States, crack smiles freely and often, reflecting the openness of their political climate. The 2008 World Values Survey found that freedom of choice strongly affects people’s happiness.

Everyday life for Russian people has historically been grueling, a fight for existence. Their hardships were reflected in their expressiveness, and deep concern, along with a tangle of worry lines, became entrenched on their faces. Russia ranked 167th out of 178 countries on a “World Map of Happiness,” a 2007 survey of 80,000 people worldwide that measured a nation’s level of happiness by factors most closely associated with the emotions, such as health, wealth, and education.

All this research makes it sound like Russians are perpetually unhappy people, doomed for depressing lives. They’re not. Take it from this native Russian reporter.

Russians smile for genuine happiness—fair health, a pleasant mood, prosperity. All good reasons.

When two Americans make eye contact in a crowded restaurant, they smile out of habit. Russians look away instead, since smiling at strangers is a cultural taboo. The Russian cashier ringing you up at the grocery store won’t offer a smile because he doesn’t know you, and he won’t mimic your pleasant expression.

That cashier is also working, and Russians stay especially tight-lipped while on the job. Work, simply put, should not be fun or taken lightly. Russian President Vladimir Putin may look markedly sullen while standing next to his American counterpart, but it’s usually not because he is angry or upset—he’s just doing his job.

When Russians do crack a smile in public, it’s usually directed at someone they know. Still, they tend to smile only with their lips, revealing only a hint of the upper row of their teeth if the grin widens. Any more, and that smile comes off as unpleasant or even vulgar.

The biggest and most natural smiles come out at home, where Russians laugh and joke like any American would, with close friends and family members. But when someone brings out a camera, the corners of their mouths turn down again. The permanence of photographs makes the images somehow less personal and more public; they reflect how Russians appear to everybody else, including strangers on the street. Entire family photo albums capture not one smile. My Russian parents appear stone-faced in black-and-photos from their young adulthood, during beach trips and barbecues, at weddings and parties. They are not the same people who today, after 16 years in the United States, smile widely, flashing their white teeth, in front of the camera.

Russian culture is full of quirks many Americans would find strange, from making long and complicated toasts to never, ever throwing away a plastic bag. In 2011, singer Alina Simone offered a terrific explanation for why Russians hate ice cubes. This week, BuzzFeed‘s Ellie Hall documented their love of dill.

So, smiling in Sochi is a surefire way to reveal you’re an outsider—and probably annoy a native Russian—but, in modern times, it’s relatively harmless. Whatever you do, don’t play the “got your nose” game with a Russian. That hand gesture, a fist with a thumb between the middle and index fingers, is a lot less playful and a lot more offensive over there.

 

By: Marina Koren, The National Journal, February 7, 2014

February 10, 2014 Posted by | Olympics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Name Of Freedom”: How To Spot A Paranoid Libertarian

In a recent essay in the New Republic, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz contends that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange reflect a political impulse he calls “paranoid libertarianism.” Wilentz claims that far from being “truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors,” they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Wilentz gives credit to Richard Hofstadter for the term “paranoid libertarianism,” but he is being generous. Although Hofstadter wrote an influential essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he didn’t call special attention to its libertarian manifestation. Wilentz has performed an important public service in doing exactly that.

Most of Wilentz’s essay focuses on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, and he offers a lot of details in an effort to support his conclusions about each of them. But let’s put the particular individuals to one side. Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism. Whether on the right or the left, paranoid libertarianism (which should of course be distinguished from libertarianism as such) is marked by five defining characteristics.

The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks — a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.

The second characteristic is a presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials — a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the “real” reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

The third characteristic is a sense of past, present or future victimization. Paranoid libertarians tend to believe that as individuals or as members of specified groups, they are being targeted by the government, or will be targeted imminently, or will be targeted as soon as officials have the opportunity to target them. Any evidence of victimization, however speculative or remote, is taken as vindication, and is sometimes even welcome. (Of course, some people, such as Snowden, are being targeted, because they appear to have committed crimes.)

The fourth characteristic is an indifference to tradeoffs — a belief that liberty, as paranoid libertarians understand it, is the overriding if not the only value, and that it is unreasonable and weak to see relevant considerations on both sides. Wilentz emphasizes what he regards as the national- security benefits of some forms of surveillance; paranoid libertarians tend to see such arguments as a sham. Similarly, paranoid libertarians tend to dismiss the benefits of other measures that they despise, including gun control and environmental regulation.

The fifth and final characteristic is passionate enthusiasm for slippery-slope arguments. The fear is that if government is allowed to take an apparently modest step today, it will take far less modest steps tomorrow, and on the next day, freedom itself will be in terrible trouble. Modest and apparently reasonable steps must be resisted as if they were the incarnation of tyranny itself.

In some times and places, the threats are real, and paranoid libertarians turn out to be right. As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Societies can benefit a lot from paranoid libertarians. Even if their apocalyptic warnings are wildly overstated, they might draw attention to genuine risks, or at least improve public discussion. But as a general rule, paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy, even if it operates in freedom’s name.

 

By: Cass Sunstein, The National Memo, January 30, 2014

January 31, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Government | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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