Monday, December 27, 2010

No death penalty for Wisconsin

The year 2010 will be remembered for a lot of things, most of them not so great. Tragedies, anger, and disappointment dominated the headlines for much of the year. It helps sometimes, in years like these, to look for silver linings, to see the positives that came out of the year rather than focus on the negatives.

The issue of capital punishment in America is one such issue, though for many it's still a depressing issue to consider. In 2010, the trend of death sentences declining continued, with the number of sentences nearly mirroring numbers in 2009 -- 114 in 2010 compared to 112 the year before.

The number of executions conducted in 2010 also went down a significant margin, down 12 percent from 2009 levels and a full fifty percent from 1990. Even Texas is seeing a decline, with juries in that state handing out only eight death sentences in 2010, an all-time low since capital punishment was reinstated in the U.S.

In our neck of the woods, not much has changed: Wisconsin is among the twelve states in the U.S. that doesn't have a death penalty. In 1851, following the gruesome 15-minute hanging of John McCaffary before thousands of witnesses, the state reassessed its stance on the death penalty, subsequently abolishing it. Among those twelve states, Wisconsin has been without a death penalty the third longest, behind only Michigan and Rhode Island.

But many in our state would like to see that change. In 2006, Republican lawmakers sought to get the death penalty back in our state, though they recognized there was no chance of that even after an advisory referendum turned out in their favor. In that same election year, Democrats took over the State Senate, making it impossible for Republicans to push for the measure.

With Republicans back in power, it's only a matter of time before they bring the issue back up (Gov.-elect Scott Walker, for example, supports the idea). But reinstating the death penalty in Wisconsin would take our state in the wrong direction.

Firstly, the death penalty just plain costs too much -- many experts consider this one of the reasons why prosecutors are seeking capital punishment less. With Wisconsin's multi-billion dollar budget deficit, reinstating the death penalty would be fiscally irresponsible.

More important than that, however, are the moral dilemmas facing the death penalty. Other states implementing the practice haven't exactly had a perfect track record, either sentencing innocent criminals to death or through carrying out the execution of innocents.

Furthermore, the state doesn't have the right to punish people in this manner. By conducting an action the state itself deems illegal, the government acts in a hypocritical way, telling the people it governs as "do as we say, not as we do." If we're to say that murder -- all forms of it -- are wrong, except in cases of self-defense, then it's wrong for the state to partake in the practice as well.

Wisconsin should take a cue from other states, both those that don't have the death penalty as well as those who have reduced their numbers over the years (only 12 states actually carried out death sentences in 2010). Bringing the death penalty back to our state, after nearly 150 years of it being abolished, would be a grave mistake. Besides being a financial disaster, it'd be morally wrong, too. We should reject the calls for reinstating the death penalty, should they come up again during the next legislative session.

Monday, December 20, 2010

FOX News makes you less informed, study finds

Does watching FOX News make you dumber? A new study shows that prolonged exposure to the conservatively biased news network causes you to have a skewed view of the world, more often than not being misinformed on issues of the day rather than having an actual understanding of them.

On a plethora of issues, FOX News misled its viewers more than any other media outlet. More believed that most scientists disagreed with the science behind climate change (untrue); more mistakenly believed that taxes on income were raised by the Obama administration (except for smokers, they actually went down); and more questioned whether the president himself was even born in the U.S. (he was).

FOX viewers were even more likely to believe, by significant margins, that certain historical events happened under Obama's tenure, when in fact they occurred while George W. Bush was president -- things like TARP and parts of the auto bailout.

These are troubling observations, especially when you consider the severity of the "information" being dispensed. One has to wonder whether FOX is simply a terrible news outlet or if they're blatantly hoping to misinform the public in a deliberate attempt to change things politically in this country. As time goes on, one has to assume the latter is the case, especially given how wrong the anchors and the pundits are on "more-than-daily" occurrences.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why Obama comes out on top after tax deal

Following extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, it's apparent that many are frustrated with President Barack Obama, particularly those that he considers his base. Many are upset that the extension includes preservation of the tax rates for the wealthy. Most Americans, in fact, support raising taxes on the rich back to Clinton-era levels, when our economy wasn't in the terrible mess it's in now and our government was able to post a surplus.

But polls on Americans overall indicate that the president made the right move, that Americans can support this deal, especially since it will mean that they will get extended tax breaks as well as a cut in their Social Security income tax.

In two years' time, that cut may come to haunt Obama -- Republicans will pressure him to extend the cuts once again, causing the program to lose a significant amount of funding. It's clear what the Republicans' strategy is: defund the program as it stands now, and privatize it when they take over the government outright sometime down the road.

That's a concern that should be addressed in the near future, with one possible remedy being keeping the tax rate for Social Security at this new, 4.2 percent level but lifting the cap that only taxes the first $106,000 of income.

Until that time comes, Obama is set to benefit from this deal. In 2012, his administration will be credited with getting more cash in the pockets of more Americans. He should remind the public that the Republican Party -- and likely, his opponent in the presidential election -- supported holding the middle class hostage, and that the deal overall was his best option to preserve and protect wage earners across the country. He should also point out his willingness, from day one, to work with Republicans, who chose instead to hold their breath and hold the government captive from day one, using the filibuster a record number of times (interesting note: as of August of this year, the number of filibusters used in the past three years by Republicans totaled almost 20 percent of the number used in the past ninety).

It's a strategy that has worked before -- in 1996, Bill Clinton won re-election despite the fact that Republicans held the government hostage then, too, shutting down government for months before a compromise was reached. Clinton won out in the end, coasting to an easy re-election victory over Republican candidate Bob Dole.

Obama has an added advantage: he's got at least one of the houses of Congress behind his back. With the Senate still controlled by Democrats, the president is still able to get treaties signed, appoint executive officials, and perhaps most importantly, getting Supreme Court nominees confirmed with relative ease.

If this event has taught us one thing, it's that Obama can get things done, can make deals with the GOP when he absolutely needs to in order to get meaningful legislation passed that benefits the American people. The deal wasn't perfect -- the tax subsidy for the richest two percent and the tax holiday for Social Security will add to the deficit, with both issues being hot topics in December of 2012, when both will be set to expire.

But that won't matter much for the president, seeing as his re-election will come one month earlier -- and with polls leaning in his favor against GOP presidential prospects, that re-election vision is turning into more of a reality every day. The deal he has made, in order to help the middle class even more during this recovery, helps solidify his being president for another term.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Senate votes to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The U.S. Senate voted today to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the Clinton-era compromise that restricted gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly in our military. The vote means that the bill, which has already passed in the House, will go to President Obama's desk, where he will sign it into law next week.

By removing the ban, Democrats -- and yes, some Republicans, too -- have acknowledged that a person's sexual orientation shouldn't matter if one wants to become a member of our armed forces.

President Obama hailed the move for homosexual rights, stating that it was "time to close this chapter in our nation's history."

It is indeed a victory for those that consider themselves gay or lesbian. It's a step in a positive direction, an acknowledgment from the government that restrictions on homosexuality needn't be made, usually have zero basis, and that such restrictions are an unfair discriminatory act against those whose lifestyle does no harm to the nation at-large, militarily or otherwise.

The change in military policy, in fact, changes only one aspect of our military's treatment of gays and lesbians -- homosexuals have indeed been allowed to serve since DADT was implemented. What changes is that the government can no longer discharge soldiers who are openly gay, which was the right move to make. But our military won't be weaker for having ended this ban, as some have suggested -- indeed, we have had gays and lesbians serve for almost twenty years now, without any problems!

The future looks bright for gays and lesbians in our country. More Americans support gay marriage, a majority supported lifting this ban, and schools across the country are putting into place anti-bullying rules meant to protect homosexual students.

Total equality is a long way off, and there are many fights yet to be won. I'm optimistic, however, that in my lifetime I may attend a wedding of a gay or lesbian friend -- one that won't only be full of happiness for their union, but that will also receive recognition from the state as valid, along with all of the rights and privileges that straight married couples receive.

Today's victory doesn’t mean that things are going to change overnight for the same-sex equality movement. But it IS a step in that direction, towards a more equal society.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keeping church and state separate -- an excerpt

The following may become a part of the book I am working on. I'm currently writing a "defense of liberalism"/"primer for young liberals" book that is a basic outline of what the movement stands for. It should be ready for print sometime early next year.

The passage below is part of the chapter on religious freedom. I wish to offer this disclaimer before you read on: I consider myself a religious individual. I am a Christian, and believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. But I don't support the idea that my belief, nor any other belief, should be legislated (read: forced) unto others. There is no place for religion in our government -- hopefully what I've written below will explain why I feel that way.

I don't despise religion, rather I celebrate it; but I also don't feel it belongs in the laws we enact.

Thomas Paine once wrote that the only church that mattered to him was the one in his own mind. No church (or any other religious body) should ever weigh its will or dogma unto any individual, unless that person voluntarily chooses to adhere to the principles and procedures that their belief employs.

It's a noble idea that was discussed at great lengths by one of the most important (though often forgotten) founding fathers. Sadly, his sentiments are often ignored by too many in our society, both today as well as in his own time.

Zealous, overbearing religious leaders, convinced of their divine authority, often try (to this day even) interjecting their views into government policy, thereby legislating a piece of doctrine that is based on faith, not on distinguishable fact.

If an individual chooses to adhere to the rules of a specific belief, they may submit to them as they please. But requiring everyone to submit to your rules (or, heaven forbid, someone else requiring you to submit to theirs) is a clear violation of the liberties we all consider sacred.

Religious zealouts will argue that their beliefs are meant to be treated as truth -- Jesus IS the son of God, as one example, and you can't argue against that "fact." Though it's a "fact" that I myself don't care to contend (I consider myself a Christian, and thus believe this as well), it's not anyone's place to force that belief -- or any other -- on anyone else.

You may ask, "Why is it a violation of a person's liberties to base law on religious beliefs?" To answer that, I ask that you consider a different belief for a moment, one not based on religion, and what it would mean to force it upon others.

If a person contends that the world is flat, he may be ridiculed, laughed at, or mocked; if he continues to make that contention, he may be shunned, belittled, or ignored. But he shouldn't be forced, legislatively, to believe the world is indeed round, even if policy is formed around the assumption that it is. If empirical evidence exists that suggests his beliefs are unsound, it is his decision to choose how to interpret that data presented to him -- no one should require him to hold those views.

Now consider a different example: what if a person were instead forced to believe in something that WASN'T empirically sound? What if people were coerced to believe the world was indeed flat, and that those believing otherwise had to accept rules and legislation surrounding that belief? It'd be unjust to say the least because people's lives would be legislated not just on an opinion, but on an opinion they knew was inaccurate.

Creating law based on religious principles is similar to basing it on flawed opinion: the religious zealot and the ignorant fool both put their trust in a belief that cannot be proven true. The only difference is that, with religion it's equally impossible to prove the belief false. That there is an inability to falsify someone's religious belief seems reason enough for many to justify enforcing it, for failure to prove something false in many people's minds means that it must be true.

But much like the invented religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just because we can't prove something false doesn't make it valid. Basing our laws on so simple a premise could spell disaster in so many ways, not to mention oppress entire groups of people that don't adhere to certain belief structures.

For an individual who voluntarily chooses to be a part of a religious organization, and who purposefully chooses to take part in their dogma, faith can be a beautiful thing; nothing that I've said here should take away from the happiness and joy that religion can provide for many millions of people worldwide. As I've already mentioned, very few beliefs can actually be proven false; though that doesn't mean we shouldn't question them as individuals, we should do our best to embrace the many different belief structures present in our society, ensuring that individuals are free to choose the path that's the best fit for them. It'd be no better to force everyone into secularism than it'd be to force everyone into evangelism.

Still, when it comes to governance, the state must remain neutral. It must not legislate any belief (even the absence of belief), but instead provide a framework of laws that treat each and every one as equal. It must base laws on observable facts, not on the opinions of certain groups of people.

The individual must remain sovereign when it comes to religion, must be free to determine for themselves what course or path their life must take. Whatever force in our universe that did indeed create us never made it clear enough that this way or that way was the one TRUE way to live -- but they did bless us with free will, with the ability to come up with our own answers to life's greatest questions. What a disservice it would be for a man-made instrument like government to compel others to adhere to specific doctrines, to throw away the one true gift we know for sure our Creator gave to us: free choice to worship him/her/it/they (or no one) as we please.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Campaign finance reform preserves your right to be heard

Free speech is a wonderful, universal right that everyone the world over ought to enjoy. We Americans despise any attempts at abridging or circumventing this right; we consider it a "sacred cow," a privilege granted to us not through the benevolence of our government, but rather guaranteed to us by whatever force in this world terms itself our Creator.

We are all equals, regardless of where we may think we stand in society -- none of us, through name or privilege, is "better" than all the rest, nor deserves greater political rights because of who we are (or aren't).

It is that last sentiment especially that most of all embodies the liberal belief on campaign finance reform. While conservatives wrongly associate the term with a restriction of liberties, liberals look to reforms of how campaigns are financed as a righteous battle towards ensuring every voice, from people of modest means and living standards to those with insurmountable income, is treated equally.

Sadly, over the past couple of decades, conservative lawmakers (and their wealthy benefactors) have increased the influence and "speech rights" for the wealthy elite. Taking a skewed view that campaign donations are a form of speech, the right has perfectly and deliberately orchestrated a coup on the electoral process in America, allowing mega-corporations the right to take part in the influencing of campaigns with absolutely no spending limits.

If the right truly cared about speech rights, they would understand that spending limits are necessary in order to ensure the speech rights of ALL remain protected. With limits in place, everyone who can can donate whatever cash they can expresses their speech rights in a fair and decent way. But without those limits, the working-class family that somehow manages to scrape up $50 in support of their candidate pales in comparison, with regards to speech rights, to the mega-corporate elitists that are more than able to finance and produce multiple 30-second commercials on their own over national airwaves.

Lifting the restrictions on spending isn't enabling greater free speech rights -- it's diluting them, making it impossible for everyday Americans to have a voice. It's giving a bullhorn to the corporations while telling the rest of society that they're only allowed to whisper, and then telling everyone to engage in a shouting match under those terrible conditions.

Who will yield the greater influence, the person who can hardly be heard, or the corporate interests that are near-impossible to ignore?

In the marketplace of ideas, every voice deserves to be heard, with the democratically popular ideas gaining the most influence, eventually coming to fruition through the election of representatives that recognize them as popular and desirable. That formula fails to work when elected officials are unable to recognize popular ideas of the people at-large. When a multimillion dollar ad campaign is waged by corporate interests, and when the electorate makes misinformed decisions based on that flawed campaign, the people's true sentiments get clouded, and our lawmakers instead base their policy decisions on what's best for the corporate elite, not the people themselves.

Under a model of campaign finance reform, spending limits ensure that everyone's voice is treated equally, that no one's ideas are treated better or worse based on their class or level of income. Political rights, including the right to express your beliefs and opinions, should transcend forces that require a person to have a leg-up on everyone else within society to really matter.

A good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from Wall Street or Main Street. Don't let conservative beliefs on "free speech" ruin YOUR right to speak your mind, destroy your right to be heard. Campaign finance reform enables everyone to have an equal voice in our elections.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My begrudging support of the tax deal with Republicans

I don't like tax subsidies for the wealthiest two percent of Americans. It's an idea that sickens me. If Republicans are so concerned about the budget deficit, then they ought to think twice about appeasing this small segment of the population, and consider how much the deficit is going to grow thanks to the billions of dollars this tax deal is going to give back to the ultra-rich.

And yet...I cannot fault the president for choosing this route, for taking the less-than-popular view that a deal had to be made. I'm going to get a lot of "boos" for this, I'm sure. But the facts are the facts -- without this deal, tax rates for the remaining 98 percent of the population are going to expire.

Real, working-class Americans cannot afford a tax hike; wealthy Americans can. But because the GOP decided to hold this country hostage in order to ensure that the wealthiest of the wealthy could buy another yacht or vacation home (when everyone else is struggling to buy a home or to keep the one they've got), it's crucial that a compromise be met. The Republicans have shown that they're not going to budge on this issue -- and considering the issues they've refused to budge on in the past two years alone, this is probably as good a deal as we're going to get.

Austan Goolsbee explains it better, in his latest video message, viewable here after the jump:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scott Walker chases high speed rail, thousands of jobs, out of Wisconsin

Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker has killed high speed rail in Wisconsin, dimming any chances of our state gaining thousands of jobs and becoming a leader in what's fast becoming the future of transportation both nationally and globally.

His refusal to cooperate with federal plans to create a line between Madison and Milwaukee means the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the Badger state.

It's also a clear signal to the rest of the state, as well as the country, that Wisconsin is not interested in innovative job growth (especially if it goes against the interests of Scott Walker's top campaign donors [1][2]).

It's troubling that Walker, not even in office yet, can do so much damage to the state's image as well as it's job growth. Imagine what will happen when Walker, along with a Republican-led Assembly and Senate, yield real control in Wisconsin. The results could be catastrophic.

The next four years are set to be long, painful, and frustrating for Wisconsin families -- especially if the effects of the recession continue to linger.

Can we count on Scott Walker and his Republican allies to help those in need? I won't be holding my breath.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Today is the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. Remember him and his legacy by working for Peace.

(Also, take time to remember Elizabeth Edwards...)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pearl Harbor Anniversary

Van Hollen to sue over health care law

Wisconsin State Attorney General JB Van Hollen is going to sue.

The top lawyer for the state, Van Hollen has made it clear that he intends to file suit against the federal health care law that was enacted earlier this year. Van Hollen had previously tried to press for a lawsuit following the law's passage, but without either house of the state legislature expressing a desire to do so, and without Gov. Jim Doyle's consent, he was unable to formally support the actions of other states filing suit or filing one himself.

With a new Republican legislature taking control in January, as well as Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker endorsing the idea, it seems Van Hollen will get his lawsuit after all.

But do Wisconsinites want Van Hollen to move forward with his suit? Probably not. Though recent polls on the subject are hard to come by (especially at the state level), polls conducted in the winter of 2009 reflect strong support for some government action on the issue of health care.

Fifty-six percent of Wisconsinites favored the "creation of a health insurance plan that would be available to most Americans and administered by the federal government," similar to the public option, that would compete with private plans. A whopping 86 percent felt that "the federal government bares at least some responsibility" for ensuring the people of Wisconsin had adequate and affordable health insurance. And 72 percent felt that the state of health care across the nation was in a "crisis."

Assuming these attitudes haven't changed much over the past year, it seems appropriate to conclude that most Wisconsinites support the overall goal of the health reform bill that passed. It may be true that the people of Wisconsin disapprove of a mandate for coverage by 2014, but that doesn't mean that they want a complete repeal of the law either.

Despite these attitudes, it's highly likely that JB Van Hollen, along with other state attorneys general, would like to throw the baby out with the bathwater -- that is, they'd like to eliminate the entire law altogether, rather than simply remove the part on mandates.

While not perfect, the bill that was passed into law still does many great things. It forbids insurance companies from denying its clients coverage based on pre-existing conditions (starting in 2014 -- for children, the law ends this immediately). It allows consumers more choices for health insurance, creating greater competition in communities where only one or two insurance providers may exist. It requires insurance companies to spend eighty cents out of every dollar on actual health care costs (with reimbursements being sent to customers when companies collect above that amount). And it grants millions of Americans tax credits to help alleviate the costs of health care.

If this lawsuit were simply about removing the requirement to have insurance, it would have my support (at least in terms of being a legitimate suit to carry out). But the lawsuits that are being filed across the country are hoping to do more than that, hoping instead for a complete eradication of the law for political gain. Americans, despite what conservatives will argue, wanted health reform, with most approving of what was passed or wanting even more.

The lawsuit that JB Van Hollen is hoping to put forth will do more political destruction, will cause more harm to Wisconsin families, and will be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Van Hollen should reconsider his position on filing a lawsuit against the federal health care law, and think for just a moment what harm could come about thorugh such litigation.

The future of BadgerCare

Originally posted at

The Wisconsin State Journal last week discussed in no uncertain terms the danger that the state's Medicaid program, BadgerCare, is in. Newly-elected Republican lawmakers -- including Gov.-elect Scott Walker -- have expressed strong aversions to the program, which provides financial medical assistance to one-in-five Wisconsinites who can't afford coverage on their own. Nine percent of the state's budget is dedicated towards fulfilling the promise of providing everyone who needs it decent health care.

The program is touted as one of the better examples of Medicaid programs being dispensed in the country, providing every child in the state access to health care regardless of income levels as well as helping low-income families get the adequate medical assistance they need.

Friday, December 3, 2010

GOP holds government, people's futures, hostage

The Republican party made an interesting vow to the American people this week: they are promising to stall any legislation that may come forward until the issue of the Bush-era tax subsidies for the rich has been resolved.

A resolution to the issue seems near, with Democrats and Republicans signaling that they're likely to be extended, at least temporarily.

But until a deal is met, nothing else is going to get through. No resolution on ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell; no nuclear arms treaty with Russia; and no extension of unemployment assistance to those facing difficult times during the holiday season.

Merry Christmas, courtesy of the GOP.