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Your Tax Dollars

Your Tax Dollars

One of the crux differences between the left and the right is how our taxes are spent. The left believes taxes should not only be used for the needs of government – defense, statecraft, infrastructure and so on but also for social programs as well. The right believes that taxes should be as small as possible and pay for the bare minimum to keep the United States strong and prosperous. Social programs should be left to charities.

Often when I get into discussions with my friends on the right about things like Obamacare, food stamps and welfare, eventually they will inevitably say something along the lines of “not with my tax dollars.” All right, then. That leaves the question; what should we spend our tax dollars on?

Of course, there are those who say we should not pay taxes at all but that simply isn’t realistic. It takes money to pay for necessities, such as embassies and ambassadors, for the military and their equipment, and simply for making sure things run properly, or at least relatively properly. So let’s assume for the moment that we all want a military protecting us, diplomats negotiating trade agreements for us, roads to drive on from place to place and air and rail traffic transporting people and goods across the country.

For my part, I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on free healthcare for all. I’d like a European-style health care system that treats everyone regardless of their economic status. I’d love to cut out the insurance middlemen who serve no function at all except to make money for themselves. I’d like to see a healthier population, one who visit doctors instead of Emergency Rooms for basic care. I don’t want to see people dying because they couldn’t afford treatment. There is something so basically, disturbingly wrong with that last that it can’t even be expressed.

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on eradicating hunger, particularly among children. No child should have to go to bed hungry. No parent should have to hear their children cry themselves to sleep because they haven’t eaten anything all day. No retiree should have to face a choice between paying for their medication and their food. This is a land of plenty; why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it?

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on educating the young. Our future depends on having our next generations prepared to compete globally. Our children should be learning to think innovatively, to be inspired to learn particularly in science and mathematics. Our children should aspire to create things that will make the world a better place. We need to improve our schools and their facilities. Our teachers shouldn’t have to be paying for school supplies out of their own pockets. They should be compensated for the additional time they put in. They should also be held accountable for their performances as our students should be held accountable for theirs. We need to market education as a means out of poverty, a means to elevate not just individuals but entire communities. We need to involve parents directly in the education process but not just parents; the entire community. Businesses should be made to understand that they’ll only benefit from having a superior education system in their communities as it will turn out superior employees for them further on down the line.

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on space exploration. As Robert A. Heinlein once said, the Earth is far too fragile a basket to put all our eggs into, especially when you consider what we’re doing to despoil it. We should be exploring the local solar system and sending probes into the furthest reaches of space as we’re doing but we should be doing more of it. The technologies that have developed from the space program have fueled our economy for the past half a century; imagine what we come up with in the next fifty years.

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on rebuilding the infrastructure. I want to see good-paying jobs created to repair bridges and highways as well as constructing new ones. I want to see AMTRAK converted to a high-speed rail system that links the entire continent. And while we’re talking about jobs, I want to put some of my tax dollars in re-training the work force so that they are more computer savvy and able to do the jobs that are in demand. Those who have the abilities and the desire to change their lives should be given those opportunities, even the education to go into much-needed fields like engineering and medicine. I’d also like to see my tax dollars spent on helping students get college loans at reasonable rates that won’t put them into enormous debt before they’ve graduated that will take them decades to repay.

My tax dollars should go to a more sane military spending program. We are spending money on tanks and battleships we don’t need. I’d rather see that tax money go to the Veterans Administration that takes care of our soldiers, sailors and airmen after they’ve defended this country. I want our veterans to have the best medical facilities administrating the best care possible; I want them to have college programs to help them re-start their lives and give them a chance to prosper after their time in the military has ended. I want my tax dollars to go to the actual people putting their lives on the line for our country, not to the makers of helicopters and tanks who have oversold their products to our military and now want to keep their factories running even though their products aren’t needed anymore. The dynamics of the marketplace should apply to them too.

In short, I don’t mind paying for things that benefit people that actually need them. I have an issue with paying taxes that support people who are already rich by making them richer, by giving corporations making record profits tax incentives and loopholes to the point where they’re getting refunds while the deficit continues to be an issue. I want my tax dollars to mean something besides a dollar sign. How about you? How do you want to spend your tax dollars?

Free the Internet

Free the Internet

The Internet can be a pain in the ass. I tend to think of it as an adolescent, like a six year old who is still trying to figure things out. Making it profitable was one of the big things in the last decade when revenues were scarce and mainly came from advertisements which over the years have become more intrusive and more obnoxious. These days, we use the Internet for a significant amount of our purchasing, enough so that it has become a viable tool for most of us. In fact, a real argument can be made that the Internet is driving our economy these days.

We also use it for recreation and information gathering. We use it for socializing. We use it for expressing our opinion, and for posting selfies. We figure out what restaurants in town are getting the best reviews on Yelp, where the best hotel and airfares are on Kayak, what deadly diseases our symptoms best fit on WebMD. We look for discounts on Groupon, stream movies on Netflix, arrange get-togethers on Facebook. We figure out what our friends are up to on Pinterest, do our shoe shopping on Zappos, look up our family trees on Ancestry and check out what our favorite celebrities are saying on Twitter. All of these actions have varying degrees of importance. The most important thing when it comes to the Internet however is Net Neutrality.

You’ve probably heard the term bandied about and some may wonder what it means. The term originated in 2003 with Columbia University professor Tim Wu as an extension to the existing concept of a common carrier. Essentially it means that Internet Service Providers or governments treat all data equally without discriminating against user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment and/or modes of communication. It is considered a crucial component of an open internet in which all users have equal and unfettered access to all sites.

This past April 23, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a reversal of their previous position supporting net neutrality had been reported to be considering to allow new regulations that will allow content providers to use a faster track to send content which will in essence create a two-tiered system of access. What this would mean to users is that sites that use this faster track will only be available at an additional charge. That means that you will not only pay your ISP for Internet access, you’ll also pay additional charges if you want to use the more popular sites.

This will undoubtedly lead to tier pricing much like cable and satellite television services use, with a “basic Net” access but if you want to access to, say, news sites like The New York Times, Digg, MSNBC, Fox News and CNN, you pay an additional $5 a month, while if you want to use video-streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO you’ll pay an additional $20 per month. Interested in social networking on Facebook, Twitter or Match.com? That’ll be $15 every month.

I have no objection to allowing ISPs to be profitable, nor do I think it’s necessarily a bad thing to allow the most popular content providers to allow their services to be directed at people most likely to use them. After all, there was no hue and cry when cable operators began the current pricing structure that is pretty much universal these days.

But cable and satellite systems are a different animal than the Internet. Giving the content providers who can afford it more speed and clearer pathways is preferential treatment. It creates a situation similar to that in the early 20th century when large companies who needed to transport their goods via railway managed to negotiate favorable rates, allowing them to charge much less for their product and price the competition out of the market. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was notorious for this; eventually his trust got broken up because of his tactics which didn’t allow for fair competition.

So why is this important? Other than raising prices and limiting access to certain sites, why should we care? Well, look at who is going to profit from this – the cable providers who these days control most of the access to the Internet. Folks like Time Warner, Cox Cable, Verizon and Bright House. While to this point they have claimed loudly that they have no intention of charging customers extra for these faster access sites, that doesn’t ring true. Why would any company deny itself an opportunity for additional profit? What makes this shadier is that the Chairman of the FCC is Tom Wheeler – who previously ran the lobby for the Cable Industry. Think he’s looking out for the consumer, or for those who used to pay his salary? Even those large companies who would have that faster access – folks like Netflix and Amazon – have objected to this scheme.

In that sense, the Internet is similar; what net neutrality proponents are fighting for is fair access.  As a content provider myself, I don’t want to see anyone charged for the right to access my blog and I wouldn’t accept money from such charges even if that were an option; after all, the whole point of expressing myself in this manner is that anyone can read it and then either agree or disagree. Blogs like this are the editorial columns of the global newspaper that the Internet is..

And the Internet does fulfill the function that the newspapers once did; we get most of our information from the Net. We find sales and print out coupons from the Net. We check out the classified ads (i.e. Craigslist) and read net comics. Sure, you couldn’t play video games in newspapers nor watch video clips of news events or of cute kittens. There are no selfies in newspapers nor have we ever done any chatting through our newspaper (although we did because of our newspaper – different era) but the basic comparison is sound.

How much freedom we have on the Net in the coming decades is going to be decided in the next couple of years. We have the responsibility to be vigilant and make sure that bureaucrats and corporate and political interests don’t muddy up the waters of the clean and cool stream of information that is the Internet. We don’t want a Net like China’s which is heavily censored, nor do we want one that is controlled strictly by money and political influence. This is OUR Internet and the fight to keep it ours is just beginning. The good news is that you can contribute your voice right now. The FCC is seeking public opinion about this issue and you can state yours here through June 27. However, be patient; a recent comedy sketch by John Oliver on his HBO show Last Night Tonight inviting people to troll the FCC comments site has resulted in a slow down in service. Nonetheless if you can get in, get in. It’s important that your voice be heard.

Red Flags

Red Flags

At some point “socialist” became a dirty word in this country. You get tarred with it and you’re regarded with some suspicion and downright hostility. I suppose there are some mitigating circumstances for this; after all, it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was the National Socialist German Workers Party whose German name became shortened to Nazi. Neither one of them distinguished themselves for their humanitarianism.

A lot of Americans think of socialism as being the next step to communism in the same way marijuana leads to, in their minds, harder drugs. Yes, it’s a gateway economic philosophy. The next thing you’re calling everyone comrade and abolishing religion.

The truth is that there are all sorts of types of socialism just like there are many different types of capitalism. There’s hardcore socialism in which the state owns all businesses (which is essentially the last step before full-blown communism) and then there’s social democracy in which the state provides social services (i.e. health care, postal and phone services, television networks and so on) while business remains privatized. This seems to be the most successful socialist system to my mind with Sweden and Canada both practicing it and having robust economies. It is also the direction China is trying to move in to a large degree albeit without the democracy portion.

I have rapidly begun to move in that direction myself. And yes I was like a lot of you who grew up thinking socialism was a bad thing. My father preached it to me. As a refugee from Cuba, he had particular reason not to have any love for a system that to his mind had betrayed his homeland and exchanged one dictatorship for another. He married a woman whose grandfather had fled Russia (or more accurately, the Ukraine which was part of Russia at the time) because of a communist takeover there. I grew up in a household in which there was personal experience with countries that had suffered through a conversion from capitalism to communism (or more to the point from a despotic monarchy to something more despotic). Needless to say my attitude towards anything socialistic was to say the least hostile.

But as I grew up, it soon became apparent that capitalism is far from perfect. There are far too many opportunities for abuse. While I agree it is the least objectionable to most economic philosophies, I don’t worship at its altar the way some do. I also don’t believe it can’t be improved upon.

I have come to change my philosophy about government as well. My dad had always had tendencies towards anarchy – no government whatsoever. He also understood that there were certain basic services that only a government could provide – an infrastructure for business to be conducted, education so that the country could remain competitive and innovative, a military to protect the citizenry from foreign and domestic threats – and that those services needed to be paid for through taxation. My father didn’t object to paying taxes, but he thought taxes should be lower because the services a government should provide should be less. My father didn’t believe in safety nets.

It wasn’t until after he passed away that I began to question my long-held beliefs. I’d always felt that there had been a discrepancy in them. I’d always felt vaguely uncomfortable that backing conservative precepts and the Republican party was potentially wrong. I always wondered if it was the liberals and the Democrats who weren’t exercising the compassion I longed to see in government.

It was the second Bush administration that finally woke me up. I saw a conservative government that was trampling on the constitutional rights of its people willy-nilly and using terrorism as an excuse to do that very thing. I saw an administration that believed in torture as a legitimate means of fighting its war on terror. I saw a government whose allegiance was to the wealthy and whose attitude towards the poor was that they existed to provide cheap labor for businesses whose sole existence was to provide wealth for their owners. I watched business, whose watchdogs were systematically dismantled and deregulated, take an economy that had been leading the world and bring it down into the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

I realized then that government had different responsibilities than I had always believed. While yes, I still believe that government should interfere in the lives of its citizens as little as possible, it has the responsibility to provide its citizens with the opportunities to pursue success as well. It has always been our common belief that in America, anyone can achieve success if they are willing to work hard and be innovative. The truth is that success now is mostly inherited; small companies face a terrible uphill climb to become successful and the people who create and invent are rarely the people who profit from their creations and inventions no matter how hard they work – often it is the financiers who reap the benefits. Legal recourse shouldn’t be the sole domain of the wealthy.

Neither should health care be. We define the basic rights of every individual of this country as those quoted in the Declaration of Independence – the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what defines those things? To me, good health is a necessary component. Nobody should be forced to endure sickness and disease because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

That doesn’t mean I believe in Obamacare. Actually I believe in something far more radical – socialized medicine. I believe America should have a system like France, Canada, Denmark – heck what most of the world enjoys. There are those who point at long waits for physician visits in those countries to which I say that they are no longer than those who wait for months to see a specialist here. I also don’t think medicine should be a for-profit business and that medical insurance should be rendered unnecessary.

There are those who will disagree. There are those who think that medicine like everything else should be on the free market system. You’re wrong. Your health care should not be based on how profitable your care is or is not. You deserve better than the lowest common denominator of health care. If you’re going to pay your entire life into a system, that system should not then deny you the care your physician prescribes based on expense.

I find it ludicrous that the people who complain that government is too inept and bureaucratic to administrate your health care don’t seem to find it too inept and bureaucratic to administer your defense. I also find it that those people who complain about social welfare programs aren’t above obtaining government grants to help them go to college, or start a business or aid their business when it needs it. Apparently the government should only give aid to those who deserve it.

I believe the government should give aid to those who need it. Are there abuses in the social welfare system? You bet. There are also abuses in the military, in religious institutions, educational facilities basically anywhere you find humans. That’s what we do. We find loopholes and take advantage of them.

That doesn’t mean we should deny the millions of people who need help – the single moms, the disabled who are unable to work, the children who have been abandoned by their parents – and who don’t take undue advantage of the system. Those who take advantage should be punished on an individual basis. An entire social strata shouldn’t be punished because they need help.

Yes, I am a socialist in many respects. I believe that a government should behave with compassion towards the less fortunate. I believe that a government should encourage innovation and excellence and give those people the opportunity through low-interest small business loans to grow their businesses which can then become economic engines for that country – investments into that government’s own future prosperity, you might say. I believe that the role of government is to defend its people but not just from foreign governments and terrorists – but from rapacious businesses who choose to use their wealth to intimidate and defraud those who can’t afford to fight back. From health crises that would incapacitate a productive member of society. From hunger and want. Nobody in a country as prosperous as ours should ever go hungry.

I no longer care if I’m labeled a radical for believing in those things. So be it. I am tired of people being more concerned with their wallets than the welfare of others. I am tired of greed trumping compassion. It’s time to raise the red flag and say there’s something wrong here. It needs to change. We need to change. We deserve to have the best lives possible. We deserve opportunity and safety. In short, we deserve the American dream that the founding fathers always saw this country providing. And it’s time to stop saying we believe in Christian values and start acting on them. IF Jesus were alive today, he’d be a socialist. Don’t think so? He shared everything among his disciples. They lived in a socialist system, one far more extreme than the one I’m advocating. He healed the sick without requiring them to pay anything. He fed the hungry and helped the poor. Quite the radical, this Jesus.

Working Through

Finding a job is a tricky thing these days. For the first time in a long while, there seems to be more people looking for work than there are jobs available. While the situation looks to be getting somewhat better (and in an election year, you can bet that job creation is going to be happening left and right), it’s still no joke trying to find employment, particularly if you are out of work.

People have become desperate in some cases, panicking or worse, giving up completely. The thing to remember is that even though the economy is still less than what we’d all like it to be, that doesn’t mean you don’t approach job hunting any differently than you would when jobs are plentiful.

Finding  a job is its own job. If the extent of your job search is checking an online want ad or two (like Monster) or spend 30 minutes in your local Internet cafe looking for places that are hiring, you aren’t going to find anything soon. You need to spend at least as much time each day looking for work as you do working. That’s eight hours scouring the ads, working on your resume, signing up for outreach services and networking.

Prioritizing is a must. Start out with the jobs you want. If there aren’t any available, or you lack qualifications then move on to the next tier – jobs similar to what you’ve already done. Don’t panic and start hitting the local fast food joints unless that is seriously all you’re qualified to do – save that for desperation time which starts coming when your unemployment benefits run out and so are your savings. Even then, lean on friends and family. You may need to move back home until you get back on your feet (if that option is available to you) or room with families or friends. The first thing you need to do is cut back on your lifestyle. Eat out less. Brown bag more. Budget yourself for necessities first, job search second. Entertainment and luxuries can wait – the more you save on not going out and not buying things you don’t need, the longer you can hold out.

There may come a time where you may have to swallow your pride a bit. Ask your folks for help. Take jobs that you would consider “beneath you.” There’s no shame in starting over – millions are doing it (and not all of them voluntarily). If the job you’re applying for isn’t ideal, remember that you can continue to look for work while you’re working.

The thing to remember is that you owe nobody any allegiance but you and those who depend on you. Big corporations view you as a number, something that is disposable, replaceable and expensive. If they can figure out a way to replace you with a computer program or better still, with a third world worker who is willing to do what you do for pennies on the dollar, they will and congratulate themselves on their vision and leadership skills for doing it. Big corporations barely consider you as human. Nobody in corporate will shed a tear if you are rendered obsolete.

So keep in mind that you are providing them something that they need – your skills, your expertise and the ability to do the work that they need done. You need to give yourself value before anyone is going to value you. You are important and necessary and even though you won’t be treated like that too often, it is to your advantage to remember that when opportunity comes along. You’re not employed by United Health Care, AT&T, Bank of America or Pfizer – you are employed by your family incorporated and it is to them that you are responsible. You are the CEO of that company (or at least the co-CEO) and it is vital that you keep that in mind when making any employment decisions. Always negotiate upwards – ask for more than you think they’ll give you and hopefully you can settle for something in the middle.

Value yourself and show it – don’t come to work or to interviews dressed like a slob, unshaven or without make-up. Present yourself as capable and serious by dressing appropriately (suit and tie for fellas, business attire for ladies) even if you’re applying for assistant fry cook. Representing yourself as a professional shows your interviewer that you take their position seriously and is more likely to get yourself considered for the position.

When in an interview answer as honestly as you can, taking care to accentuate the things that are positive about yourself and your work experience; if they ask you questions for which the answers might paint you in a negative light, it is permissible to dodge the question. “Why is there an 18-month gap on your work history?” shouldn’t be answered with “I was too busy partying on my severance package to job hunt seriously” but rather with “I was using that time to take a break, reassess my options and improve my skill sets to make me more marketable.”

Answer only the questions that are asked and don’t volunteer anything that isn’t germane. However, it is a good idea to allow your personality to shine through – you need to make an impression, after all. If you see a photo on your interviewer’s desk of a puppy, ask about it. Show interest in them as people and they are more likely to show interest in you as a potential new hire. Make eye contact as much as possible and when a handshake is offered, make it a firm one (preferably one without sweaty palms if at all possible).

Many firms use the internet as a means of screening resumes; be sure yours is spectacular. Accentuate every possible skill imaginable, even if you think it isn’t important. For example, instead of listing “answered phones” as part of your job description, list it as “superior communication skills.” Knowing Excel or Word isn’t enough; you have to be an Expert in those useful software programs.

Your resume and interview are means for you to sell yourself. Be confident in who you are and don’t be afraid to show who you are. Give yourself a pep talk before going in and project confidence and expertise. Laugh politely at their jokes but keep your own joking to a minimum if you can – while it isn’t bad to necessarily crack a joke or two as a means of being memorable, no interviewer is going to take someone seriously who is constantly cracking wise. Restrain your inner stand-up comedian.

Don’t forget that sex sells. That doesn’t mean go out there and throw yourself at your interviewer or come on to them but don’t be above using whatever means necessary to capture their attention. Be subtle about it but if you have the looks to pull it off, look your best. While most recruiters will deny it, sexual attraction can play a very large role in who gets hired and who doesn’t get a second interview. Don’t be overt however because if you make your interviewer uncomfortable you can kiss any chance of being hired goodbye.

Above all, don’t give up hope. You may have to accept a job you’re horribly overqualified for, you may not get the job you want right away but never give up trying. If you want something badly enough, it’s worth working hard for to get it – and that  includes working hard and getting hired in the first place. If the only job you can get is selling tires at Sears, take it. There’s no shame in bringing in money; the only shame there is in my opinion is for letting your dream slip away because you chose not to do anything about it. It may not be glamorous or the words you want to hear but it is always important to remember that any interview could be the one that results in employment, so treat each one like it’s the seventh game of the World Series. Sometimes in order to get to the place you want to be, you have to work through some hard times. Persistently try to better yourself and eventually you will succeed.

Compromises

I’m not sure when it happened but compromise has become a dirty word. Somewhere along the line our political leaders have decided that working together is tantamount to giving up on their ideology and that winning elections was more important than governing this country. But it isn’t only in politics that we see the change in attitude.

It is in our own lives as well. We have become geared to a “my way or the highway” attitude. More and more people seem to have the impression that the world exists so that they can life the way they choose to.

You can see that in their ideologies. More and more these days, people adopt a political, religious or philosophical stance and from the time it’s developed until they die, there is no changing it, no reasoning with it, no arguing with it. You can, for example, argue persuasively that climate change is occurring on this planet, show them the raw data, tell them that the great majority of scientists on the planet agree with it – and they’ll still refuse to believe it because Rush Limbaugh told them that it was a bunch of hoo-hah.

When did we grow so inflexible? Why is it that we have become so sure that we are right that there is no other option? I can’t figure it out, but that seems to be more and more the case. People actually listening and debating, discoursing on the various topics of the day, that doesn’t happen very much anymore. People are more prone to sloganeering (“The Bible said Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) rather than stating a position with any sort of reason or rhyme. We’ve become our own sound bites, and we’ve actually begun communicating in them.

Part of this is a by-product of our shorter attention spans. We can’t be bothered to think – it requires too much effort – so having our opinions handed to us in short, easily digestible sentences is preferable to developing one of our own. We are content to take the easiest course of action in nearly every case – a course of action that allows us to sit at home and surf the net or watch cable. I shudder to think what would happen if a Nazi-like menace would appear now – I doubt this generation would have the stones to sacrifice the way our parents and grandparents did back in the 30s and 40s.

But then, those were children of a Depression, used to making do with less. We are children of prosperity and plenty, used to instant gratification. The idea of sacrificing for the common good has become as archaic as rotary telephones. We are the Me Generation with a vengeance; We’re Generation RFN and God help anyone who takes away our cell phones.

We have become culturally unable to balance our own personal needs with those of society as a whole. We are unwilling to compromise and accept things that are uncomfortable to us for the sake of others. That is the kind of thinking that the executives who thought it was OK to milk every dime out of this nation’s economy so that it could all go to the super-rich have had for years. It is that kind of thought that allows them to accomplish what has been the economic rape of this nation.

We live in the time of Louis XIV; we just don’t know it. The balance of personal wealth hasn’t been so skewed towards the wealthy since that era. Even the robber barons had the sense to preserve the middle class; the super-rich of our era are relentlessly making dinosaurs of that social stratum. It is conceivable that our current wage slavery will become so severe that we become literal slaves, making only enough to survive and unable to leave our jobs or do anything for fear of being fired.

The riots in Britain are symptomatic of the growing unrest in the lower classes. People are feeling pushed against the wall; people who are desperate and have nothing to lose will turn to violence. That happened in Egypt and Libya and in Britain. The writing is definitely on the wall. If things continue to deteriorate here, I can’t imagine that we won’t start to see rioting here and bloodshed.

Those who have power and wealth live in fear of losing it. Those who are greedy with both face the consequence that if they push the people too far, the people will eventually push back. It is a lesson that the rich haven’t learned in 2,000 years and happens in nearly every society periodically – it just hasn’t happened here. Yet.

But it will if we’re not careful. Those who sit at the top of the ladder have the furthest to fall. If they aren’t willing to compromise, if they aren’t willing to allow the rest of us to live our lives in peace. The lesson of history is one that those who only have room in their heads and their hearts for greed seldom learn.

Cruise Control

I do get it. Honestly, I do. I understand why people are so apathetic about what’s going on around them. We are under assault from every direction; from employers who marginalize their workforce and send jobs overseas, or eliminate them altogether for the sake of the bottom line to bankers who want every penny we own and will find ways of taking them from us, using credit cards and mortgages as tools.

Life is indeed a bitch, and getting bitchier by the day. What news we get is usually bad as unemployment rises, war rages and murder and mayhem rule the streets. Even our kids are not only targets of predators they’ve become predators themselves, shooting up their schools or beating up and bullying their classmates.

It’s easy to put yourself on cruise control and find ways to numb yourself out. You don’t have to think about the unpleasant things that way. Watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing games on Wii, texting your friends…these things are nice and certainly necessary to keeping our sanity but in the end they are distractions which is what they were meant to be all along.

The Romans provided their citizens with bread and circuses to keep the mob happy and docile; without those distractions they might have realized that their government was totally corrupt and the divide between the haves and have-nots was widening and the haves were few in number. Hmmm, does that sound familiar?

Governments live in perpetual fear that their citizens will find out what they’re up to and get REALLY steamed. Nearly every civilized country as had some kind of uprising in which the sitting government was overthrown by an angry mob, often with the most egregious and visible members of the government being shortened by a head as a result.

Revolutions are a lot harder to undertake these days, with electronic surveillance, satellite imaging and the ability for law enforcement to essentially suspend the constitution by naming anyone who disagrees with government policy a terrorist (not that it’s happened here, but the potential is there). However, a revolution even in an industrialized country isn’t beyond the realm of possibility if the citizens got angry enough and if the armed forces that are mostly made up of the working class chose to support them. The sheer numbers are not in favor of the very rich and powerful.

What is in favor of the rich and powerful are a couple of things – fear and apathy. People are scared to lose what they have, as little as it may be. However, apathy can be far more powerful; allow people a certain amount of comforts and they’re pretty much satisfied as long as the Internet is up and the TV still works. If the media makes the issues of the day so confusing and difficult to keep tabs on, so much the better; people will tend to ignore things that they don’t understand.

In general, the average citizen of most countries is woefully ignorant of current events. I would be surprised if one person in ten could name their local, state and federal representatives. Fewer still are aware of the voting records of those representatives. Chances are once an election with all its soundbite rhetoric is over most people become blissfully unaware of what their elected officials are doing, or the ramifications of their actions. We only hear the big button-pushing phrases; “raise taxes,” “abortion,” “gay marriage” and whatever else is making the rounds on the talk shows. What our officials actually do about even these issues generally passes unnoticed. However, people are generally very aware when a congressman, MP or representative gets caught with their hand (or penis) in the cookie jar. People are even more aware when an actor, pop star or celebrity gets into trouble. Murder cases and sex scandals also grab our attention.

The news media plays into that. The old “if it bleeds, it leads” adage was never more true than it is today. The media has always had a vested interest in selling advertising, but the bottom line is way more important now. Newspapers and broadcast stations are owned by large corporations now rather than men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Their allegiance is more to the bottom line than it is to keeping the public informed. The days of the media acting as a watchdog are essentially over; that function has been taken over by Internet blogs and political sites.

It’s not impossible to stay informed and there are plenty of places to find out what’s happening in the world on the Internet. The trouble with that is that a very high percentage of the information on the Internet is bogus; while there are libel laws that can be enforced, quite frankly there is literally no way to police the truth about what is published here. Internet journalism isn’t held to the same standards that print and broadcast journalism is held to; bloggers and internet journalists will report rumor and/or opinion as fact. That’s why you’ll hear people spouting the most ridiculous drivel and cry “I read it on the Internet.” Even respected news agencies have picked up information from the Internet that turned out to be without basis.

So take things you read on the Internet with a grain of salt. Most of what you read is either opinion (as it is on this blog) or blathering (which it often is on this blog) or simply someone with an agenda who will say anything to promote it, even if it’s something patently false (not on this blog).

So we operate on cruise control, staring straight ahead while things go on to either side of us and behind us that affect our daily lives but that we are completely unaware of. The mechanisms that caused this economic downturn were painfully evident; industry watchdogs were predicting disaster and chaos years before the meltdown occurred but nobody listened because it was easier not to. Anything having to do with finance is confusing and boring; it’s much easier to watch the latest episode of “The Office” than to watch the news. People are far more aware of what Dwight Schrute is up to than what their political representatives are doing.

I do understand why this is. Believe me, I spend a lot of time doing the same sorts of things and until recently I was just as ignorant about my representatives as everyone else is. However, as things began to fall apart, I began to take an interest. Why weren’t politicians protecting their constituents? Why were things allowed to get so far? Why are our tax dollars being spent to bail out corporations who then give that money to their executives as bonuses? Why are my taxes so high? Why are services being cut back? Why do I know more about the sex life of our politicians than their voting record?

All legitimate questions that I’m still trying to answer. However, taking an interest can be very draining and very frustrating. It takes a lot of time and energy to stay informed; after working hard all day, the last thing I want to do is work more simply to find information about what my congressman is up to. A lot of times, I just retire to my movie websites or turn on the boob tube. It’s so much easier on the psyche.

The problem with cruise control is that sooner or later you run into a traffic jam and then you need to hit the brakes. If you aren’t paying attention, you’re going to crash into something. I’m not advocating that you give up blowing off steam entirely – we’ll have a nation of stressed out zombies having coronaries and aneurisms left and right that way. I’m just saying that rather than spending all your free time doing it that you spend at least a small percentage – say, 10% – keeping track of what your elected officials are up to. We can’t count on the media to keep an eye on them any longer, so we’ll have to do it ourselves.

For my part, I much prefer flirting to fact-finding but both have to get done. The greedy and the power-hungry want us to be uninformed. That way they can continue to erode the constitution and abridge our freedoms. Information is power and the more we have of one, the more we get of the other. It is in our own best self-interest to keep an eye on things and at least have some idea of what’s happening in the world around us, even if it is boring and confusing. That’s the only way we’re going to retain the things we have – and the freedoms we cherish.

Fixing a Hole

For weeks now the news has been dominated by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The ramifications for life on the Gulf Coast – and beyond – are simply staggering. We’re looking at massive amounts of fragile wetlands contaminated beyond repair. We’re looking at massive die-offs of marine species, some perhaps to the point of extinction. We’re looking at the fishing and tourism industries, already hard hit by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, tanking once again, putting thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people out of work.

And yet the consequences could be even farther reaching than we can imagine. Once the toxic crude oil gets into the water and food supply, what will the long-term effects be in the Southeastern United States? How far will the oil spill actually flow? Some say it will remain localized in the gulf, but there are models that have the oil encircling the Florida peninsula and heading north to the Carolinas and Maryland, while heading west into Mexico and even Northeast to the UK. Something tells me that the best case scenario, which seems to have not occurred at any time during this disaster, is probably the least likely to occur now.

There needs to be accountability and so far British Petroleum seems to only be accepting it on the surface. Let’s recap their role in this; on the day of the explosion, a corporate representative of BP ordered that the heavy mud holding the pressure down on the drill, be displaced with seawater in order to speed up the drilling process, which was behind schedule. This was done despite the objections of the rig’s toolpusher (effectively the operations manager of the rig) who felt it was too dangerous. This caused an eruption of mud, seawater and methane gas. When the gas ignited, the rig was bathed in a firestorm.

The safety measure, a blowout preventer was then employed but it failed. The backup that was supposed to have been on the rig had not been installed as a cost-cutting measure. The costs that ultimately got cut were the lives of the men on that rig – eleven workers on the Deepwater Horizon died in the explosion and its aftermath. Workers were unable to stop the oil from flowing from the pipe, and so when the rig capsized and sank, the oil continued to flow from the ruptured pipe.

Since then, BP has consistently shown an unwillingness to come clean (no pun intended) about the extent of the spill, their ability to cap it or mitigate it or their ability to clean up the mess. The extent of BP’s lack of integrity, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was so severe that President Obama has now ordered the attorney general to investigate the entire affair.

The longer this goes on, the worse it looks for BP. Half of the company’s value has evaporated on the market, and the cleanup costs escalate with each passing day. Certainly the company will pay fines in the billions; the lawsuits that come from this will in all likelihood total billions more. In recent days, the New York Times uncovered evidence that the Mineral Management Service – the federal agency regulating oil drilling – allowed oil companies to fill out their own inspection reports rather than conduct their own inspections, while officials of the MMS were given tickets to football games and taken on hunting trips by oil and gas companies. It’s not surprising, but during the Bush Administration the MMS was stacked with officials sympathetic to the oil industry. In the wake of these allegations, the Obama administration is quietly overhauling the MMS.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Some are criticizing the government for not reacting quickly enough, nor sending enough help to embattled officials in towns on the Gulf Coast who are gearing up for a major ecological and economic disaster. Some are looking askance at Haliburton, whose blowout preventer failed. Some say that the Coast Guard is relying far too much on BP to lead the cleanup and well capping efforts. Of course, most people are looking squarely at BP.

Much of the responsibility indeed lies with BP and much of the accountability should rest with them. What form that accountability takes remains to be seen. Certainly there will be a financial component, as I alluded to earlier. The question is, should there be a criminal component? Given some of the facts that are coming to light, that’s not out of the question. The attorney general’s task force, led in part by former Florida governor (and Senator) Bob Graham and EPA administrator William K. Reilly, will have to make that determination.

Given BP’s overstatement of the safety of their drilling operation, as well as their ability to clean up after it, I’m kind of hoping to see some of their executives receive jail sentences and not minimum security country club jail terms – I’m talking about deep-in-the-South hard time amongst murderers, thieves and rapists. They should feel right at home.

Big business needs a wake-up call that putting profits ahead of people is not acceptable and I don’t think that message is going to be received until we start seeing executives in the Big House, paying for their crimes. I agree with Rep. Pelosi that the cap on liability should be lifted on this occasion. BP needs to pay not only the cost of the clean-up but also compensate those whose livelihoods have been wiped out and should the cost of doing that cause British Petroleum to sink, well so be it. I understand that BP employees tens of thousands of people, and that these people’s livelihood would be just as effected as the shrimp fishermen in Louisiana but the difference is that the shrimp fishermen didn’t explode a ultra deep sea rig in BP headquarters.

We must also shoulder a portion of the blame for our own dependence on petroleum. It is past time to seek out safer, greener fuel sources. It is time to reduce our dependency on oil and plastic. It is going to take time for us to do this – it has taken more than a century to get to where we are – but it is something all of us are going to need to do.

What can we do now to reduce our dependence on oil? Drive less. Use public transit when possible, walk or bicycles when possible and when affordable, drive fuel-efficient or hybrid vehicles. Recycle everything, from paper to plastic to glass to aluminum. Use paper instead of plastic at the grocery store. When buying things, buy them in containers that are eco-friendly, rather than plastic.

It is up to us to demand better. We can’t expect that big corporations are going to look out for the best interests of the people and this planet – they have already demonstrated without a doubt that they could care less about our future. They are only interested in one thing – profit – and until we start hitting them where they understand the pain they won’t change. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as responsible consumers to change first.

We also need to start using our voices. Write your elected official and let them know you’d like to see them vote for regulations restricting deep water drilling and demanding stricter safety precautions on the drilling that is going on. Ask them to vote for tax cuts for alternative energy use, as well as for incentives for developing the same. Support politicians who show a willingness to vote on green legislation; deny that support for politicians who would rather vote on the interests of big business. Whatever happens, don’t just sit on your ass and moan about how big the problems are and how you can do nothing about them. Get out of your comfortable rut – after all, if you aren’t part of the solution then you’re part of the problem and we’ve all been part of the problem for too damn long.