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“A Warning For Republicans In 2014”: Francis Proves Fighting Yesterday’s Culture War Is Folly

What a difference a year makes. And what a difference a pope makes. At Christmas services this year, the priest at our local church told the families gathered for the children’s pageant that Jesus loves and is represented in everyone, including gays and lesbians. Our local church isn’t Jesuit, nor particularly liberal, but before Pope Francis stepped up with a new message of inclusivity, none of us had ever expected to hear anything like that at church, let alone at Christmas Eve mass. The congregation cheered.

The priest also pressed his core Christmas theme that the greatest joy we will experience is the joy we feel when serving others. Serving the poor is another significant shift in focus that Francis has brought to reinvigorate the church. Surely, there is no message more central to Jesus’ teaching and the Christian tradition than serving others and loving humanity, and, yet, prior to Francis’ ascent, it was a message eclipsed by a Catholic Church bent on fighting culture wars and chastising those who stray from its teachings. All too often, serving the poor had taken a backseat to the Church’s war on abortion and gay marriage.

Francis called an end to those culture wars, urging bishops to spend more time healing their flock and less time fighting political battles. He started a revolution by answering a reporter’s question about gay priests with the question, “who am I to judge?” and then later, elaborating, urged bishops to drop their “obsession” with gays, abortion and contraception and to create a welcoming church that is a “home for all.” Recently, Pope Francis removed a conservative American cardinal from a key Vatican committee after the cardinal said, “One gets the impression … that [the Pope] thinks we’re talking too much about abortion [and gay marriage.] But we can never talk enough about that.”

Instead of focusing on political fights, Francis is urging a renewed focus on serving the poor, pushing his cardinals to abandon their “psychology of princes” and get out of the lavish Vatican. He, himself, has rejected the posh apartment, cars and wardrobe of previous popes to live, travel and dress simply and humbly. He celebrated his recent birthday with homeless men, and has drawn attention for kissing and embracing a severely disfigured man and washing the feet of girls in a juvenile jail. Surely, there is no Catholic leader this Christmas who is closer in his own practices to the teachings and life of Jesus. In retrospect, his selection of his papal name seems perfectly apt: Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century patron saint of the poor.

Where the previous Catholic Church hierarchy had denied communion to elected officials who voted to give poor women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, the current pope exhorts that communion is open to all and not to be treated as “a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

What a difference a year makes. Actually, it’s been a mere nine months.

There are some lessons here for Washington. And for the Republican party in particular.

The first lesson is how quickly things can change. Republicans starting 2014 giddy about the coming elections for Congress may not want to count their chickens before they’ve hatched. Much of their giddiness rides on the poorly handled roll-out of Obamacare and resulting negative public opinion about both health care reform and the president. But the federal website – healthcare.gov – is rapidly improving. Although only about 30,000 people were able to enroll in the launch month of October, the same number was able to enroll in the first two days of December, alone, with nearly 1 million people enrolling in December overall.

Americans are starting to find out for themselves what affordable, high-quality health care looks like without pre-existing conditions, lifetime limits and caps on coverage, now that insurance companies no longer call the shots. And they like it. Over this year, word will spread around America about people too young for Medicare – but too old and sick to find a new job or to buy individual insurance – who finally have insurance, or kids with cancer who finally get care, or women who don’t lose their insurance simply because they become pregnant or get breast cancer. And, as that word spreads, minds will change. Republicans who gloat today over projected victories in November based on their presumption of public distaste for Obamacare are vulnerable to a quickly changing future.

The second lesson to take to heart is that culture wars may not be as popular as those waging them think. No doubt many American bishops leading the war against gay marriage and contraception believed the majority of their flock, as well as their fellow Catholic leadership, was behind them. Today, they are shocked to hear words of chastisement from the Vatican and surprised at how Francis’ message of inclusivity and economic justice is garnering sky high public approval ratings – from 88 percent of American Catholics and three-quarters of non-Catholic Americans, in a CNN poll shortly before Christmas – and landing him on the cover of Time and other magazines as person of the year.

Just like their political allies among conservative American bishops, Republican obsessed with social issues are somewhat out of touch with the general public, yet they remain unaware of this critical fact. And this is their Achilles heel. They were surprised on election night this year to find their extremism rejected at the polls in Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere, and they continued to believe they lost because they had not pushed their extremist agenda harder – out of touch with the polling that showed American voters rejected extremism and favored leaders willing to work across the aisle to forge compromise and get results.

Republican leaders obsessed with so-called family values while simultaneously breaking up undocumented families, slashing food stamps and cutting off unemployment insurance will be as disappointed in November as conservative American bishops were this fall when they discovered they were out on a limb in their culture wars without sufficient backing among either their flock or their colleagues in Rome.

 

By: Carrie Wofford, U. S. News and World Report, December 30, 2013

December 31, 2013 Posted by | Pope Francis, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Thank A Postal Worker”: The Assault On This Constitutionally-Mandated Service Service Must End

Postal workers are giving it their all this holiday season, as cards and packages and returns must be collected and delivered amidst ice storms, snowstorms and wild temperature drops.

They deserve our thanks in 2013.

And our support in 2014.

Postal workers are still under assault from political slackers in Washington—like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, and the wrecking crew he has assembled to diminish the United States Postal Service to such an extent that it can be bartered off to the highest bidder.

That assault has made this holiday season even tougher. Under pressure from USPS executives and privatization-prone members of Congress, the service has implemented closures and forced reductions in hours. That’s led to delays in some regions. “Much of the delayed mail is in areas where plants and post offices have been consolidated or closed or where hours at post offices have been reduced,” explains Debby Szeredy, the executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union.

True, the Postal Service had a significantly better Holiday season than FedEx and UPS, both of which were on the naughty list amid reports on how “packages that were supposed to be delivered in time for Christmas didn’t make it to their destinations.”

But the Postal Service can’t maintain universal, high quality service if closures, consolidations and cuts continue.

The assault on this Constitutionally-mandated service service must end in 2014.

It is true that the Postal Service faces challenges. But is wrong—and, frankly, absurd—to suggest that the only fix is downsizing. That’s precisely the wrong route. Schemes to cut services and sell off parts of the service begin with the false premise that its current financial challenges are evidence of fundamental flaws.

In fact, the Postal Service reported an operating profit of $600 million for the 2013 fiscal year.

Unfortunately, despite the operating profit, the Postal Service balance sheet showed a $5 billion “loss” for the 2013 fiscal year.

Why? “Only because of an unprecedented and onerous requirement imposed by Congress that it pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits in just 10 years,” as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notes. “No other business or government agency is burdened with this mandate.”

Ending the mandate and requiring the Postal Service to operate along the lines of the most responsible private businesses would make the USPS viable.

Indeed, the service could thrive if members of the House and Senate were to embrace the proposals of Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

Sanders recognizes what the rest of Congress should: “The way to save the Postal Service is not to dismantle it piece by piece, but to allow it to generate more revenue by offering new and innovative products and services that the American people want.”

Those reforms embrace many of the proposals advanced by National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando in a July letter to Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. In it, Rolando writes that comprehensive postal reform must:

1. Stabilize the Postal Service’s finances by reforming or eliminating unwise and unfair pension and retiree health financing policies that have crippled the Postal Service’s finances since 2006.

2. Strengthen and protect the Postal Service’s invaluable first-mile and last-mile networks that together comprise a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure.

3. Overhaul the basic governance structure of the agency to attract first-class executive talent and a private-sector style board of directors with the demonstrated business expertise needed to implement a strategy that will allow the Postal Service to innovate and take advantage of growth opportunities even as it adjusts to declining traditional mail volume.

4. Free the Postal Service to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and to set its prices in a way that reflects the cost structure of the delivery industry while assuring affordable universal service and protecting against anti-competitive abuses.

There is a future for the United States Postal Service. And for the letter carriers and other postal workers who are hustling to deliver cards and packages this week.

In this holiday season, thank a postal worker. In 2014, tell Congress that it is not just possible but necessary for the United States to have a strong Postal Service.

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, December 27, 2013

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Congress, United States Postal Service | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“America’s Greediest”: The Koch Brothers, The ‘Libertarians’ Who Hate The Free Market

Among the most venerable Yuletide traditions is the annual appeal on behalf of the “neediest cases,” which has spread nationwide since it first appeared in the New York Times so long ago.

More than a century later we still have the poor with us, of course, and the rich, not to mention the unspeakably super-duper-rich – many of whom comport themselves in ways that likewise provoke public concern, especially in an era of growing inequality and impoverishment.

National Memo editor-in-chief Joe Conason believes the time has come to revive a somewhat less charitable tradition that he and his late colleague, the great progressive journalist Jack Newfield, established at The Village Voice during an earlier era of avarice:  “The Greediest Cases.”

This holiday season we will feature a series of profiles of America’s Greediest Cases, and we encourage readers to nominate deserving public figures in the worlds of business, government, media, entertainment, and sports who exemplify the grasping materialism and rank hypocrisy of our time.

Imagine this.

You and your brother are tied as the fourth richest person in America with $36 billion in assets each, the fruits of owning the second largest privately owned corporation in the world. How would you spend your spare time and money?

Perhaps you’d donate millions to medical research, public television and the arts. Or maybe you’d dabble in politics and try to expose the “Science of Liberty” and economic freedom to help “the most vulnerable.”

That’s what the Koch Brothers do. And how are they helping the most vulnerable?

By attempting to rid the public of programs like Social Security, which has kept more Americans out of poverty than anything the government has ever done.

While the Kochs insist that their goal is freedom, their agenda seems entirely based on policies that increase economic inequality and make it easy for carbon polluters like Koch Industries to continue their unfettered domination of energy markets.

Perhaps the best example of the Kochs’ hypocrisy comes in their war on solar power.

While the Kochs spent millions to try to put politicians in office who have vowed to never raise taxes on the rich or anyone, the billionaires are aiding efforts to “tax the sun” in an effort to squash the nascent solar industry.

One of the main benefits of powering your home or business via solar cells, especially in a state like Arizona, is a process known as “net metering,” which allows you to sell excess wattage back to the utility. While the virtue of using a renewable resource that is essentially carbon-neutral is a decent selling point, it’s the economic value of net metering that has fueled Arizona’s solar boom and made it the top solar state per capita.

This boom hasn’t pleased Arizona Public Service (APS), which stands to lose as much as $2 billion over the next 20 years if solar adoption continues at the current pace. That’s why the state’s largest electricity provider has been fighting for new regulations that would raise the cost of solar by $50-$100 a month, effectively killing the benefits of net metering. And APS has been waging this battle with some very powerful allies.

Why would the Koch brothers be interested in a small regulatory battle in Arizona?

Because it isn’t just about Arizonans reaping the unique benefit of living in a desert. It’s about freedom! The freedom of carbon polluters everywhere to make massive profits at the expense of the environment.

As the decision of the Arizona Corporation Commission neared, the state was hit with a series of ads ironically decrying the solar industry’s dependence on “corporate welfare” and comparing the solar businesses in the state to Solyndra, which is conservative for “something that makes me mad for some reason.”

An APS spokesman denied that they were funding the ads because they were funding them indirectly, through a consultant. The Kochs could also deny that they were funding the effort to tax the sun, because they weren’t funding the effort directly. Instead, the dirty work was being done by The 60 Plus Association, which models itself as the conservative alternative to AARP.

The brothers help fund The 60 Plus Association through another shadowy organization known as Freedom Partners, which gave $15.7 million to the group last year. And that wasn’t the only way they were involved in the fight in Arizona.

“APS appears to be leading the first assault of a national campaign by the utility industry trade association, Edison Electric Institute (EEI), and fossil fuel interests like APS, to weaken net metering policies,” notes the Energy & Policy Institute’s Gabe Elsner. The EEI is trying to push “model legislation” that saps the benefits of solar in several states through the American Legislative Exchange Council, another Koch-supported group. The State Policy Network, another Koch-supported “nonprofit,” is trying to roll back renewable energy credits in several states.

The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer helped popularize the term “Kochtopus” to define the Kochs’ ideological network. It’s so vast and cloaked in vagaries of election law that we truly have no idea how vast their influence is.

But we do know that again and again, these titans of industry are trying to crush renewable energy, even when it has Tea Party support, and it’s rare if they have to get a Koch Industries lobbyist directly involved. Often they’re trying to roll back breaks for non-carbon-based energy companies, while taking no such stand against the billions in government help the oil industry benefits from, but they’re even willing to pursue new regulations if it suits their needs, which led The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur to say, “…the Koch brothers hate the free market.”

The good news is that in Arizona they lost, mostly. Regulators voted to impose a $5 monthly fee on net metering, a fraction of what APS and The 60 Plus Association wanted.

The solar industry in Arizona survived this time, despite the Kochs’ best efforts.

 

By: Jason Sattler, the National Memo, December 27, 2013

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Koch Brothers | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Income Inequality Creates Huge Gaps In Opportunity”: The Class Divide Is One Of The Biggest Problems Now Facing The Country

By now, you’ve surely heard of the Texas drunken-driving case that has sparked national outrage — angering victims, upsetting psychologists and sending Twitter into overdrive. A 16-year-old who killed four people while intoxicated was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and treatment in a tony rehab facility.

As unusual as that example of mercy may be, it was the rationale offered by a defense expert that drove observers into a frenzy. A psychologist hired by defense attorneys told the court that the young man’s tragically irresponsible actions were the fault of his rich parents, who didn’t rear him with sufficient discipline. As a consequence, G. Dick Miller said, the teenager suffered from “affluenza” and didn’t know right from wrong. (Many other psychologists have disagreed vociferously, saying there is no such diagnosis.)

It’s hard to stomach that notion, especially since Judge Jean Boyd of the Fort Worth Juvenile Court seems to have swallowed it whole. I can’t imagine how bitter and resentful — not to mention mystified — the victims’ families must be.

But Boyd might have unintentionally done us a favor by opening the door to a dank, dark room that we have worked too hard to keep closed. She has let out the putrid aromas of economic inequality, which we have long ignored. Wealthy people, the judge’s sentence reminds us, have huge advantages over ordinary folk, despite an American mythology about equal opportunity. And the opportunity gap is growing as inequality cleaves the country into haves and have-nots.

The very terms “wage gap” and “disappearing middle class” have become clichés in Washington, often muttered by pandering politicians and comfortable journalists who have little real understanding of the effect that income inequality has had on the lives of ordinary Americans. But the fallout is real enough.

Since the 1970s, the wages of working-class Americans — those without college degrees — have stagnated and fallen further and further behind. Meanwhile, the wealthy have only become more prosperous.

Despite what you may believe to be true, the individual’s work ethic has little to do with those results. No matter how hardworking you are, a job at Walmart won’t give you much in the way of financial security. And if you are born to parents who can give you a trust fund, it doesn’t matter how little you work; you’ll still have plenty of security.

The trends that have eaten away at the great American middle — including globalization and technological gains — have been evident for decades, but the Great Recession accelerated the consequences. Even as economic data show huge gains in productivity, the jobless rate remains high, stuck at around 7 percent. (Translation: Companies have found ways to get more and more work done with technology, whether it’s through eliminating bank tellers and installing more ATMs, or using more robots in factories.)

This is a complex problem with no easy answers, but we could make a start toward solutions by looking squarely at the issue and refusing to call it by other names. Here are a few things it’s not: indolence, racism, the failure of the welfare state.

Mitt Romney became appropriately infamous for his condescending dismissal of the “47 percent” who he claimed don’t want to work, but that wrong-headed idea doesn’t stop with Romney. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, has proposed that poor children sweep school cafeteria floors in exchange for free or reduced lunches, a deal that would get the “myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch,” he said.

But liberals often get it wrong, too — confusing rampant income inequality with racism. The legacy of racism has certainly contributed to the wealth gap between black and white Americans, but class is now a bigger factor in a child’s future than race. President Obama’s children are virtually assured a bright future, while millions of their cohort among the working classes are not.

The class divide is one of the biggest problems now facing the country, and it’s time we started to confront it. Judge Boyd’s unjust sentence is just the provocation to force us to take it on.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, December 28, 2013

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Greeting The New Year”: A Time Of Lightness And Optimism In A World Full Of Darkness

This is the season of lists: roundups and recaps, forecasts and resolutions.

What was the biggest story of the year? Snowden.

The best movie? “12 Years a Slave.”

The splashiest pop culture moment? Twerk, Miley!

Will the health care rollout roll over the president’s second-term agenda? Who’ll win in 2016? Who are the people to watch? Can Pope Francis top his 2013 cool points?

We resolve to go back to the gym and lose a few pounds, to pay off that credit card debt and up our savings, and to tell that overbearing boss to “chill out!”

I must say that as corny as it all is, I’m always entertained by it. In fact, “entertained” may be too mild a word. I’m enthralled by it, mostly because I connect with the more profound undercurrent of the moment: the idea of marking endings and beginnings, the ideas of commemoration and anticipation.

For that reason, the new year has always been my favorite time of the year.

When I was growing up, we had our own rural, Southern ways to mark it. Some folks spent New Year’s Eve at watch night church services, singing and praying and testifying. My brothers and I spent ours in front of the television waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. Then, as the clock struck midnight and folks on television kissed and cheered and celebrated in a blizzard of confetti, we stepped outside to listen as old men blasted shotguns into the perfect darkness of the Louisiana night sky. Finally, we ate black-eyed peas (for good luck) and cooked greens (for good fortune). As the saying went, “Eat poor on New Year’s, and eat fat the rest of the year.” Things didn’t always work out that way, but hope was always heavy in the bowls of those old spoons.

To me, New Year’s was always a time of lightness and optimism in a world full of darkness. Anything could be, no matter what had been.

I never really made resolutions when I was young. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve felt that resolutions are necessary, as much for the forced articulation of goals as for the setting of them.

So this year, these are my resolutions:

1. To stop treating politicians like sports stars, political parties like teams and our national debate like sport.

Politics is not a game. There are real lives hanging in the balance of the decisions made — or not made — by those in power. Often, those with the most to lose as a result of a poor policy move are the most vulnerable and most marginalized. Those folks need a voice, and I will endeavor to be that voice.

2. To force politicians to remember, with as much force and fervor as my pen can muster, that they are servants, not rulers.

A democracy is a government by the people, for the people. Politicians too often bend in the presence of power. They believe that it is they who possess power, rather than the people who elected them. And power and money are kissing cousins; you will rarely find one not cozied up to the other. Money is corruptive, and power addictive. Together they work against the greater good. That cannot stand.

3. To remember that justice is a natural aching of human morality.

In the core of most people is an overwhelming desire to see others treated fairly and dealt with honestly. That is not a party-line impulse but a universal one. I will do my best to highlight that basic quality. For instance, I believe that there will come a time when we will all look back at the brouhaha over same-sex marriage in disbelief and disgrace, and ask: Why was that even a debate?

4. To focus more fully on the power and beauty of the human spirit.

Regardless of their politics, the vast majority of the people I meet, when they can speak and listen and act of their own accord and not in concert with a group, are good, decent and caring people. Most work hard or want to. They love their families and like their neighbors. They will give until it hurts. They fall down, but they bounce back. They are just real people, struggling to get a bit and get by, and hoping to share a laugh and a hug with an honest heart or two along the way. That is no small observation and not one of little consequence. I believe that I can write more about those traits.

Those are my resolutions, ones I will strive to keep, ones I’ll reflect on even if I fall short. What are yours?

Happy New Year.

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 27, 2013

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, New Years | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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