Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Camp Quest on Geeks Without God!

So if any of you have read my contribution to the Atheist Voices of Minnesota anthology published earlier this year (makes a great holiday gift, by the way!) you know what a great influence volunteering for Camp Quest of Minnesota has had on my life. Recently I sat down with fellow contributor Tim Wick and his co-hosts at the Geeks Without God podcast to talk with them about camp and kick off their holiday fund drive. Listen to the episode (be advised, that while all the subject matter is clean, the hosts do use some colorful language) then help the crew meet their goal to raise $500 by the end of the year. This will be enough to provide one scholarship at current rates. You will also learn a few interesting things about me as I answer the hosts' standard Five Questions. Geeks Without God is also part of a new Twin Cities collective called Fearless Comedy Productions. They are having a launch party early next year, so you should go and "like" them on Facebook or something to keep up with all the latest happenings.

And seriously folks, go donate. You'll be glad you did. I know I was.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Great Space Gospel, A Meditation for Carl Sagan Day

As many of you know, especially if you were a reader around this time last year, today is the birthday of Carl Sagan, one of the most influential and well-known scientists of the 20th century. He would have been 78, but, as one more piece of evidence that we live in an undirected, uncaring Universe he succumbed to a rare blood disease in late 1996 at the relatively young age of 62. You can read last year's entry to learn more about the influence he had on me as a boy and teenager as I struggled to figure out the world. During the ages of about 10-16, I was engaged in a long process of questioning and research, and one of the results of this was a gradual letting go of the religious beliefs that my parents and others had tried to instill in me. It was also during this time, largely due to the influence of Sagan's writings as well as how he engaged with the world, that I adopted an outlook on the Universe that I have since come to call the Cosmic Perspective. Here, as a little refresher, are the six tenets:

1. The Universe is incomprehensibly huge.
2. Humanity occupies no privileged place within it.
3. Our existence is the result of a convergence between a number of random processes, one that may or may not have occurred elsewhere.*
4. The continuance of that existence is not guaranteed.
5. The development and settlement of outer space and other worlds is the best strategy for continued existence.
6. All else being equal, existence is preferable to non-existence.

*Of course one of the processes we owe our existence to is evolution, which contains the decidedly non-random feature of natural selection. But since natural selection only acts on what random mutation produces in the context of environmental variation, one cannot ascribe any purpose or goal to it, which to me preserves the random element.

All of these conclusions are pretty easy to arrive at after even the most rudimentary dabbling in astrophysics, biology, and geology; and once you finally grasp the reality that there is no supreme being holding the reins (or at least not any that is evident) any barriers to accepting and incorporating them into your worldview swiftly crumble. At least they did in my experience. But once you have fully integrated these conclusions, what comes next? Last year I expounded somewhat on each of the six tenets, and to me the answer to what one does with this information is that you become an advocate for bringing about the goal presented in #5. That, my friends, bring us to the Great Space Gospel.

Over the years since I began living openly as an atheist, many religious people have asked me how I have dealt with what they perceive to be this sort of existential dread they think should come with accepting the reality that there is no afterlife to look forward to and that death is the final end of your tenure as a sentient being. Sometimes they phrase it as "How can you still get up in the morning when you think that this (emphasis mine) is all there is?" Well, see #1. The brute fact expressed there is that, even when just talking about normal matter (which to the best of our knowledge only makes up about 5% of it), there is actually quite a lot of this. So much this that it is nigh impossible to really wrap our heads around it. Thus I find there is more than enough of this to satisfy even my own outsize curiosity about it. I also know that I am part of this, and even though my consciousness will be around for barely a blip in the life of the Universe, due to the conservation laws everything that has, is, and will be part of me will never be completely destroyed, which is an immortality of sorts. And if I happen to do something that gets remembered by consciousness that comes after me, then so much the better. It is true that the comings and goings of my daily life are completely confined to the relatively narrow sphere that is the surface of the Earth, but just knowing that there is so much more beyond and that there is the strong possibility that at some point humanity will step out into it fills me with a great deal of hope, even if I may never get the opportunity myself.

Against all of this, religion doesn't really stand a chance with me, because the people who ask me variations on that question always assume that I am operating under the same limited scope that they are, and which prompts them to ask it in the first place. Their perspectives are small, and therefore their gods are too. The vastness of the Universe was not revealed to us by any religion, and as such no religion that I know of has truly absorbed that reality and adjusted its teachings accordingly. Some people may talk about how big and unknowable their god is, but they betray their arrogance and selfishness when they talk about having a personal relationship with it. Sure, I love the Universe, and want to understand more about it, but I don't expect it to be my therapist.

One of my favorite quotes of Sagan's is "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." (The Demon Haunted World, pg. 12) To me this sums up why religion as it is now no longer appeals to me. Its petty concerns are as nothing when compared to the grandeur of the Universe, and they have to this point been only distractions from what needs to be humanity's overarching goal: getting off this damn planet. Now, I have nothing against Earth, and actually happen to like it quite a bit, but everything indicates that its days as a suitable environment for our species (and most of the other ones, frankly) are numbered. Even if we suddenly become the most responsible ecosystem managers tomorrow, gradually increasing Solar output will have Earth looking like Venus outside of a billion years or so, and that's if something else doesn't finish it off first. And when you realize that humanity as a species is a lot more fragile than the Earth as a whole, the need to spread ourselves around becomes even more urgent. Yet religion's priorities appear to be a) what's going on in your bedroom, b) headgear, and c) some stuff about maybe treating your neighbor like a human being, but only if they conform to arbitrary and often contradictory rules in some collection or other of ancient writings. None of these actually contribute to us leaving orbit, and in many instances religions hinder it, first by not recognizing the need exists, and second by actively working to inhibit the research and development necessary to accomplish the goal. And that is a shame, really, especially when you consider that if the evangelistic ones were really serious about it (evangelism, that is), they'd be the ones most chomping at the bit to leave, because who knows how many trillions or quadrillions of other intelligent beings are out there in need of salvation?

Religion may have the Gospels, but I have the Great Space Gospel, and it wins hands down in providing true hope and freedom for humanity, not to mention it being based on actual evidence. That is why I do not despair, that is why I get up in the morning (assuming a crying child doesn't do it first), and that is why I spread the word. Now I'm going to go stream me some Cosmos.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Election post-mortem

I admit I am still basking in the glow of this Tuesday's election results. After several months of vitriol, hate-mongering, and a near constant stream of statements from Republican candidates that made me seriously question what century they were in, the American electorate for the most part rejected their desperate attempts to sow fear and division. And that makes me feel pretty darned good, especially with how things turned out in Minnesota. Continuing our tradition of having among the best voter turnout in the nation (something like 75%, meaning there is still plenty of room for improvement) we soundly rejected both the badly written Voter ID amendment and the spiteful Marriage Amendment, and threw out the Republican bums in the state House and Senate that wasted our time and money by putting them on the ballot in the first place.While true marriage equality will still require legislative action to change existing law, with the DFL controlling both chambers and the governor's office the hurdles to this are now much lower than they might otherwise have been. Indeed by putting the Marriage Amendment on the ballot the Republicans not only badly hobbled their own electoral chances, they may hasten the exact thing they were (in theory) trying to prevent. The irony is quite delicious. And while I am pretty sure Minnesota will not turn into a progressive paradise overnight, the next two years present a golden opportunity to put the state's fiscal policy back on sound footing and make badly overdue investments in infrastructure and education.

Nationally, there were also many great strides made. Obama will get the chance to fully implement many of the reforms he set in motion, as well as potentially pick a couple more Supreme Court justices. The GOP Rape Brigade was sent home with their tails between their legs in a trouncing that will hopefully make sure attacks on reproductive freedom are never again a winning proposition. The Senate will be getting a true financial cop on the beat in Elizabeth Warren, where she can use her bully pulpit to make Wall Street play by the rules and ensure that the fraudsters get iron handcuffs instead of golden parachutes. And while the House remains in GOP control, which given the advantages of incumbency and the relative safety of gerrymandered districts was not surprising, they now have fewer Senate allies and will face an emboldened president who knows he no longer has to take their shit.

Most important of all though, is that the writing is now clearly on the wall for the White, conservative, fundamentalist brand of politics that has dominated the Republican party for the past decade. Race-baiting, fact-denying, rights-restricting, and inequality-exacerbating are no longer going to win them statewide (except in the old Confederacy) or presidential races, so in order to remain relevant the GOP will need to, in classic Darwinian fashion, adapt or die out.

I have seen a fair number of election cycles, some of which have left me satisfied and others dejected, but this is the first time I am coming out of one with true elation. Politics, they say, is the art of the possible, but after Tuesday's results those possibilities have become much more hopeful, and make me proud to be both an American and a Minnesotan.   

Monday, October 29, 2012

Something for "small government" conservatives to ponder

So as Frankenstorm Sandy pounds the east coast I am once again facepalming as our nation continues to bury its head in the sand regarding climate change. Some people may explain this as a "freak occurence", but I've seen way too many freak occurences in the past decade to accept these things as just black swans. Pretty much every rigorous climate model predicts that the warming we are causing will lead to severer and more frequent storms, more instances of extreme weather (like this summer's drought, for instance), melting of sea ice and glaciers, and eventually large changes in ecosystems and species distribution. While the last of these items has not had enough time to get underway, everything else we are seeing today. Not 20 years from now. Not 10 years from now. Today. Storms like Sandy are no longer outliers from the general pattern, they are the new normal, and anyone who says different has a financial interest in making sure our practices do not change.

The one thing that continues to puzzle me, however, is the relative lack of silence from those who have a financial interest in actually addressing climate change, namely insurance companies. Their risk models are being thrown all out of whack, they are paying both a higher volume of claims and greater dollar amounts on them (or else paying more lawyers to fight them in court and underwriters to create ever more bare-bones policies), and while premiums are going up, especially in high risk areas, there is a practical ceiling to that beyond which people will be priced out of the market. Last I checked, the business model for most types of insurance was based on a large amount of people paying affordable premiums so that they could make the occasional claim when necessary, and that only a few people would be making claims at any one time. Charging higher premiums to compensate for increased chances of risk is a reasonable short-term decision, but taking in ever-higher premiums from ever-fewer customers, while at the same time reducing what sorts of events and damages those premiums cover is a death spiral for that model. This leaves ever-greater numbers of people who will either need to foot the bill themselves to rebuild their lives when disaster strikes (something few will be able to do), and eventually the government will need to step in to provide insurance (as it already does in the case of floods) and associated relief programs since the private market will no longer be able to. Will big insurance finally wake up and grow a spine to take on the fossil fuel industry? I hope so, since if not they will be shooting themselves in the foot.

In one sense I love the irony: people who believe the government should be smaller and vote for candidates who have similar goals, but who will because of that belief will not enact any meaningful checks on the forces that cause climate change, actually will end up causing government to be larger in order to deal with the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, as with pretty much every tenet of conservative ideology, it is the masses that get screwed. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reminder: Reading tomorrow

Just a quick reminder to you all that tomorrow evening at 7:00 PM I will be appearing with five of my fellow contributors to Atheist Voices of Minnesota at the Barnes & Noble in the Har Mar mall in Roseville. We will each be reading excerpts from our essays and participating in a panel discussion about the book. There will also be time for questions from the audience, and an afterparty at the Chianti Grill, which is a short walk across the parking lot. The other authors on the panel will be August Berkshire, Kori Hennessy, Robin Raiainiemi, Tim Wick, and Stephanie Zvan. Fellow author Eric Jayne will be moderating and there may be a few more in the audience. This is the perfect chance to meet and talk with several people featured in this wonderful book, and, let's face it, what else do you have to do on a Wednesday night? Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Space Week 2012: On Hiatus

55 years ago today, the Space Age began with the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union. Today there are thousands of satellites in orbit, an International Space Station, rovers on Mars, robotic probes in orbit around Mars and Saturn, and others on their way to Pluto, Jupiter, Ceres, and the far reaches of the Solar System. 45 years ago next Wednesday, the United Nations Outer Space Treaty went into effect. This agreement helped lay the groundwork for the peaceful use of space and the growing level of cooperation among nations in space related activities. While national rivalries are not going away anytime soon, the theater of space remains non-militarized and powers that cooperate on little else (Russia and the U.S. come to mind) will often work together on space issues. These two events book-end one of my favorite annual celebrations, World Space Week.

Starting in 2000, the second year Space Week was recognized, I started an article series in honor of it which has continued with some modifications every year since. This year, however, I'm going to have to put it on hiatus since there is just too much else going on in my life right now to devote that amount of time to research and writing. The one exception to that will be my meditation on what I call the Cosmic Perspective, which will appear sometime during Space Week proper. But even tough the article series is on hiatus Space Week remains and we can all do fun things to acknowledge and celebrate how space activities effect our lives as well as the great promise space exploration and development holds for the human species.

The official theme this year is Space for Human Safety and Security, and highlights the role that satellites play in emergency response, weather forecasting, law enforcement, and other pursuits where having eyes in orbit helps to protect lives and property. So next time you notice a spy satellite passing overhead, make sure to smile and wave for the cameras; the intelligence analysts huddled in their underground bunkers will appreciate the gesture of goodwill.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Another something for your calendars

It has been just over a month since Atheist Voices of Minnesota hit the bookshelves, and in that time my 35 fellow authors and I have been pounding the pavement to get the word out about this groundbreaking and eye-opening anthology. A couple of weeks ago nearly half of us were the main event at the Minnesota Atheists' September public meeting, reading excerpts from our essays and signing books for those in attendance. But if you happened to miss that, never fear. In just under two weeks I will again be reading from my piece "The Best Thing I Do All Year" and be part of a panel discussion with five other contributors at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble in Roseville. The event is on Wednesday, Oct. 10th and starts at 7 PM. Since there are only six of us, we will be able to talk more in depth about the experiences that inspired our essays as well as answer questions from the audience, so it will be well worth your while to attend. Click here for more info, and I hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It's not the man (ok, some of it is), it's the ideas.

Like most people, I was thoroughly disgusted by the video leaked earlier this week by Mother Jones which showed Mitt Romney speaking at a private fundraiser and disparaging nearly half of the American population as "dependent on government" and "think they're entitled to food, housing, and health care". Specifically, he referred to the 47% of Americans who did not pay any federal income tax last year. As many have pointed out, this 47% is a pretty diverse group, and most of them, whether they are seniors collecting Social Security payments, disabled veterans who need health care and other support after serving our country with distinction, or working families that are paid such a pittance by their employers that they qualify for the EITC and other credits so they can at least put food on the table, are neither dependent nor entitled and actually exemplify the American work ethic much more than Romney and his silver-spoon contributors.

But for better or worse, much of American domestic political coverage fits into the "horse race" model. It is fed by near-constant polling and focuses mainly on whether or not a candidate is up or down. Movements can be attributed to news events, statements made by candidates, or even just by what stage it is in the campaign, but while many viewers find it exciting or interesting (otherwise they would just switch to something else) it has a huge flaw in that it tends to be very narrowly focused on the personalities of the candidates, with their ideas rarely if ever coming into the picture. As a result, much of the coverage of the video has centered on how badly it hurts Romney's electoral chances, how it showed fatal flaws in his ability to relate to the "average American", and speculation about how he might try to pick up the pieces and mount something resembling a competent campaign. While I certainly love how all this is exposing Romney for what he is, it will likely now also give the GOP a convenient excuse when he loses in a few weeks. Once again they will be able to focus on the fact that they picked a bad candidate to be their standard-bearer, without once asking themselves whether or not that standard is one that even should be borne. And that is a shame, because while Romney certainly is a bad candidate, everything he is saying is pretty much on script with the GOP platform.

If there is one thing I have learned about observing the GOP over the past several years, as it has gone from a respectable political party that intelligent people could support to one that is now dominated by the most extreme partisans and is on the verge of both moral and intellectual bankruptcy, is that introspection does not appear to be its strong point. Whenever something does not go its way, the GOP will always search for explanations outside of itself and its ideas, because even broaching the possibility that those ideas might be wrong is now heresy to the highest degree. More thoughtful conservatives, such as David Frum, who have tried to make the party have this internal discussion now have little influence among the faithful, even if they appear respectable to the rest of the world, and those faithful continue to remain in their evidence-proof echo chamber. Will another electoral defeat jolt some sense into the few GOP-ers who have some, and lead them to the conclusion that maybe it isn't bad candidates or non-existent voter fraud that makes them lose, but the fact that their policy ideas from 12 years ago were disastrous when actually implemented and they haven't offered anything substantial since? Maybe, but I'm not counting on it. In fact, the GOP pushing themselves further into irrelevancy is probably just what this country needs. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shameless plug

So you all remember the new book right? Well if you are interested in seeing some of the fabulous contributors to it (myself included), or getting any of your hard copies signed, please attend the Minnesota Atheists monthly membership meeting on Sunday, Sept. 16th at the Southdale library in Edina. I and 15 of my fellow authors will be reading short excerpts from our essays and answering questions about our experiences. Naturally, you will also be able to purchase copies of the book, with all profits going to support Minnesota Atheists. We are anticipating a packed house, so arrive early to get a good seat.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Atheist Voices of Minnesota

Nearly a year after I initially submitted my essay, the book Atheist Voices of Minnesota will finally appear on store shelves nationwide. The electronic version is already available in various formats, so if you prefer that medium you can follow the link above, but for those of you who prefer a physical object you can show off to all your friends or have signed by one or more of the authors, the long wait will be over on Tuesday*. A few weeks ago I attended a special gathering for everyone who had contributed an essay or helped in some other aspect of the book's production, and there picked up a few copies for my own use. Though I knew some of the other authors, up until that point I had not read any of the other essays that appear in the book. But now that I've had the chance to absorb the entire collection I imagine you'll be wanting my take on it all, even though as an author I can hardly be considered unbiased.

The first thing you should know is that this is not a parade of arguments about why it is highly unlikely that any of the various divine beings thought up by humans over the past few thousand years actually exist. Nor will you find arguments about why the many forms of organized religions are harmful to individuals and society. There are plenty of great books that already do that, such as The God Delusion and God is Not Great. So if you want to bolster your atheist convictions I highly recommend you read those. The purpose behind Atheist Voices of Minnesota is altogether different and is twofold: First, it aims to showcase the wide variety of atheist perspectives and how they inform the way each individual atheist lives his or her life, and second, that amidst this diversity there are many common struggles that atheists often face, most of which stem from having to live in a larger society where the great majority is either ignorant of your views or actively hostile toward them, and where the default assumption is that a person is religious.

The book fulfills this purpose remarkably well, and while I must admit that not all of the essays are Pulitzer-worthy explorations of the human condition, many of them (including mine, I hope) will stick with you long after you read them and contain moving accounts of dealing with life's big questions and issues. Birth, death, gender identity, substance abuse, parenting, work, family conflict, diet, marriage, culture shock, and childhood trauma are all covered in one or more of the essays. Many of them also contain some kind of coming out story (there is a whole section devoted to this) or a narrative of how the author came to embrace the atheist perspective. In reading them you will find honesty, humor, frustration, joy, confusion, sadness, determination, and wonder, but one thing you will not find is despair.

If this book does anything, it is to convincingly dispel the myth perpetuated by many of the religious that atheists live without hope and are morally bankrupt. While none of us featured in the book could be called complete paragons of virtue, all of us are trying as best we can to live decent, ethical lives, and consider courses of action based on how they will potentially affect other people and the environment, not on whether they conform to arbitrary standards from a book written long ago by people with no knowledge of modern life. And while we have all experienced pain and grief and anguish, we continue to have hope for the future and each in our own way work toward making this world a better place for ourselves and those who follow us.

So if you are an atheist, you need to read this book to hear the stories of your fellow atheists in their own words and know that it is possible to have a happy, meaningful, openly atheist life, even if it is in a society that often expresses contempt at the fact of your very existence. And if you are a religious person, you need to read this book to confirm whether or not all of those things you have heard about atheists from your clergy and fellow believers actually hold water. But whatever your stance in life, you will come away from Atheist Voices of Minnesota with a better understanding of who atheists really are and the convictions that shape our lives, and realize that if we pose a threat to anyone's beliefs, it is only because those beliefs pose a bigger threat to us and to society and thus need to be challenged.

This book was not created to change minds (although if it does, more power to you), but to show the rest of the world that atheists are not just isolated individuals hurling rhetorical fireballs at religion from their perches in the ivory tower, liberal media, Hollywood studio, or other supposed bastion of secularism. We are in your community, working jobs across all fields, on every rung of the social and economic ladder. We celebrate, grieve, question, laugh, suffer, love, and live. We are your neighbors, classmates, co-workers, sisters, brothers, spouses, and (though you may not know it) friends. We are here, we are sincere, get used it.

 *All of the profits from sales of the book are being donated to Minnesota Atheists, a 501(c)3 organization, and none of the authors are receiving any financial benefit from appearing in it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Shadow of the Past

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the conflict now known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. While there was certainly involvement by federal troops and officials, the conflict was fought almost entirely within the borders of the four-year-old state of Minnesota, and most of the combatants on either side had lived there for at least a few years. In one sense, the conflict was simply among the more bloody episodes in a systematic, decades-long campaign of forced relocation, material and cultural deprivation, and at times outright genocide perpetrated by the United States against the American continent's first settlers. But it was also unique in many ways, most memorably in the number of civilians, of both native and European heritage, who were killed, and it's scars remain among their descendants to this day. In its aftermath, the city of Mankato witnessed what is still the largest mass execution ever conducted on U.S. soil, where 38 Dakota men were hanged for their roles in the conflict, and in the years afterward the tribe was driven almost entirely from Minnesota.

My own ancestors did not arrive in the state for another generation, but they benefited from the conflict because, at least on my mother's side, they were able to farm land that had once been Dakota. And in a larger sense anyone who is a citizen of the United States has also benefited because the territory we occupy and the resources we use came at the expense of the prior inhabitants who were killed or driven out. Of course those prior inhabitants were no saints, often fought among themselves before and after the Europeans arrived, and were not so great stewards of the environment as modern myth would have us believe, but their suffering was (and in many places still is) real, and their anger is just.

While the atrocities of the conflict cannot be undone, they should be remembered and recounted in a way that makes sure everyone's story is told and that recognizes that the actions of the Dakota were a response to years of ill treatment by the federal government and the territorial and state governments of Minnesota. So wherever you are this weekend, take some time out to reflect that while our country was founded on some noble ideas, it was also created through a whole lot of theft and murder.

A proclamation from Governor Dayton on the anniversary: http://mn.gov/governor/newsroom/pressreleasedetail.jsp?id=102-46359

A PBS documentary on the conflict (which was really my first exposure to it when it aired nearly 20years ago): The Dakota Conflict

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Coincidence on an anniversary

Later today I will be going to a nice little soiree for the authors of the essays featured in the soon to be released book Atheist Voices of Minnesota (you've already pre-ordered your copy, right?). I am looking forward to meeting the other contributors to this greatly anticipated anthology and to reading the other essays. It is an interesting coincidence that this event occurs today, since I consider August 4th to be the anniversary of my own deconversion, way back in 1994. While, as my piece in the book describes, my leaving Christianity was more of a gradual disassociation as I discovered more and more about it that I could no longer square with my growing understanding of both science and ethics, as opposed to a clean and sudden break, I recognize today because it was when I realized that not only was Christianity not for me, but that all religions, as products of historical contingency and purely sociological forces rather than having any grounding in physical reality, suffered from its same flaws.

Though the book will officially be available in stores on August 28th, you can buy a copy early next weekend at the Regional Atheist Conference in "Mr. Paul". And if any tickets are left, come with us to the 'Aints game this coming Friday.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Five years ago today...

I was riding the light rail to my then girlfriend (now wife) Katie's apartment after work and saw a long line of emergency vehicles near the Metrodome. When I arrived there the news that the 35W bridge over the Mississippi had collapsed was already on every media outlet and I sat dumbstruck that such a horrific event could happen so close to where I lived. At the time it seemed to be a metaphor for everything that going wrong at both the state and national level, as GOP politicians twiddled their thumbs while the country was literally crumbling. I hope then that it would be the wake-up call the public needed to finally remember that investment in infrastructure is essential to maintain a well-functioning economy, but so far the level of commitment necessary to make any meaningful dent in the number of bridges and miles of roads in desperate need of repair or replacement has not yet materialized. Some folks get it, and there has been no lack of effort to create and pass the legislation to authorize funding for all of the projects that are waiting to be done, but unfortunately we are still being held hostage by that small slice of people who will do anything to avoid having to pay their fair share of the upkeep for this project we call civilization, but nonetheless continue to profit massively off of a system that they have rigged in their favor.

In Minnesota I am hopeful that the current electoral cycle will bring in a crop of legislators who understand that the provision of infrastructure is one of government's primary responsibilities and will raise the revenue necessary to make it happen. Nationally, I am not so sure, which is a shame because last I checked interest rates remain at historic lows, so it is the perfect time to finance projects that will reap benefits for a generation. Not only would the economy suffer less loss from delays and inefficiencies in the transport of goods and people, but all of the people hired to work on the projects would have some money to spend for a change, and that can't be bad for the economy, can it? At this point anyone with an R in front of their name has their fingers in their ears to prevent any such heresy from penetrating their thick skulls since, as Upton Sinclair once said, it is difficult to get somebody to believe something when their paycheck (in this case, campaign contributions from the .01%) depends on them not believing it. Just one more reason why in the short term we need to use the system that exists to remove the people blocking meaningful action by their kowtowing to the wealthy few, and then reform that system to ensure that the paralysis that is currently its defining characteristic never plagues us again.

I didn't know anyone who was injured or killed in the collapse, and that number was thankfully much lower than it could have been. But we owe it to them to make sure we don't have any bridges that fall down again.   

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Foxes guarding the henhouse

Whenever you get a loan of any type, such as a mortgage or credit card, it comes with an interest rate attached, and unless you happen to be the next Unabomber chances are that if you are an adult citizen of the United States you have needed a loan at some time or another. On the other side, if you have some money you do not immediately need to cover some sort of expense (and unfortunately the number of folks for whom this is true diminishes daily) you will stash some of it in a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union (the latter if you are smart and have any social consciousness). Hopefully such an account will be interest bearing, and you will be able to take advantage of what Einstein once called the most powerful force in the Universe. But no matter what your financial position happens to be you need to be outraged by the recent interest rate fixing scandals that have recently come to light. As Elizabeth Warren's excellent opinion piece details, this fraud robbed everyone. If you have made a financial transaction at some point since 2006, some of your money went to people it shouldn't have, borrowers were paying more than what the market said they needed to, and savers received lower returns on their investments than the market said they deserved. Democrat or Republican, 1% or 99%, you were robbed. Individually, maybe the amount you got taken for was not all that much, but when you talk about hundreds of millions of people making trillions of dollars worth of transactions the amounts are staggering. Maybe none of the loans you have are pegged specifically to the LIBOR, which changes daily, but many other less variable rates (such as the Federal Funds rate) take it into account, and if one of those benchmark rates can be systematically manipulated to favor the institutions that help set it, so can any other.

If we learned anything from the crash of 2008, it was that the deregulation of the financial sector that began in the early 1980s and kicked into high gear in the late 90's and early 00's was a really bad idea. Safeguards that protected ordinary consumers were weakened, complex financial instruments were marketed and sold to people that did not understand what they were getting into, and financial institutions were allowed to make bets with other people's money that they had previously been barred from making. The heads of the big banks, hedge funds, and brokerage firms assured us they knew what they were doing, and that they could police themselves effectively. We all know how that turned out. Thing is, most of the deregulation that enabled the crash has yet to be undone. The foxes are effectively still guarding the hen-house, and as the rate fixing scandal and the recent antics at JP Morgan Chase make abundantly clear they cannot be counted upon to look after anyone's interest but their own. Not only do the offenders on Wall Street get away unpunished, the worst of them are given bonuses, stock options, and golden parachutes.

The beefing up of FDIC guarantees was a good first start. The Dodd-Frank legislation is not perfect, but a step in the correct direction, even more so if could actually be fully implemented. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a long overdue agency and if it ever can exercise the powers it was in theory granted we might see some meaningful positive change in the financial sector. In a somewhat better world than this the esteemed Ms. Warren would be running the CFPB instead of running for the Senate, but if she is elected this fall that somewhat better world would become more probable. In the meantime, let us at least put a farmer with a gun in front of the hen-house that contains our collective nest egg.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Justice served?

On Thursday my wife and I attended the annual awards dinner of The Advocates for Human Rights. The law firm she works for is one of their major sponsors and reserves at least a couple of tables every year, so we've gone almost every year since she has worked there. One of the awards they presented was for a group of around a couple dozen people who have been working to strengthen the law against sex trafficking in Minnesota. Coincidentally, that same day news broke of the first major arrest under this law since the most recent version came into effect. It rightly targets the individuals (overwhelmingly men) who provide the demand for trafficked women and girls in the first place, and in this case the "john" happens to be a Mormon, a Boy Scout leader, and self-professed "family values" supporter (he has (had?) a web page detailing his stances). As if that wasn't enough to gloat about, the police report alleges that he even told the girls he had sex with that they looked too young to be involved in prostitution, but then went ahead and did the deed anyway. While the story was covered in Fox 9's predictably sensationalist style, it does get across the new paradigm that law enforcement is now operating under, which is to treat trafficking victims as victims, and not as offenders in their own right. This is, of course, infinitely preferable to the prior situation, where trafficked girls often ended up in jail facing criminal charges while those who partook of the services those girls were forced to provide rarely suffered any consequences. When it comes to the larger subject of prostitution, I have serious issues with the fact that the profession itself is still criminalized, and believe that fact is a major driver of trafficking in the first place, but in this particular situation the law is finally where it needs to be and I hope this guy gets the book thrown at him.   

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A little fanboy moment

So this morning I had a nice fanboy moment at, of all places, Liam's ECFE class. We started way back in September going Tuesday and Friday morning, and today was the penultimate meeting for the Tuesday class. The first hour the kids and parents are together (Fiona has been hanging out in the sibling care room since Katie went back to work and I bring both of them on my own), and the second they are separate, with the kids doing more directed play and the parents going off to a discussion group where we have talked about various aspects of child development and the challenges of parenting 2-3 year-olds. Today's discussion group started a little earlier than usual because our parent educator Leanne had brought in a guest speaker. The woman looked familiar, and when she introduced herself my hunch was confirmed, even though we had never formally met in person. Leanne knew the guest because she and her son attended another of Leanne's ECFE classes, but I knew her because she spent several years with that most excellent Twin Cities vocal music outfit The Rose Ensemble.

Our guest is also a music educator, and appropriately enough she was there to talk about how to integrate music into the daily life of infants and toddlers, and also to dispel some of the myths about how musical aptitude is solely based on innate ability. She used an analogy that I found quite compelling: reading is a learned skill, and although some people will be better at it or pick it up easier than others, we do not tell those for whom it is difficult to abandon it altogether. Yet that is often what happens with music. Some children will have a knack for it, and it will rightly be encouraged, and they may one day make it to Carnegie Hall. Other children will struggle mightily, and unfortunately will be told by society to give up and move on to something else. There are those who might say that we should tell children to focus on developing the things they are good at, and I certainly agree, but the process by which children figure out what skills or subjects they are more adept in is more often than not framed by the language of being a failure, which can have harmful psychological effects far into adult life. These effects can be especially damaging when it comes to music, given that it is an element of every human culture (at least every culture of which I have knowledge). As our guest reminded us, it was not so long ago that making music was a part of almost everyone's daily life, and it was only with the invention of the phonograph and recorded music, and the subsequent rise of superstars, that western society got away from that. In fact before the late 19th century the analogy with reading was pretty much the reverse: literacy was considered a skill for the elite few and music one that everyone could and should develop as far as they were able. Thankfully, I learned, my wife and I are doing a lot of good things to make music part of Liam and Fiona's everyday experience, and even if neither of them go to Julliard they will be encouraged to pursue any musical aptitude they might have to the fullest.

I waited until after the formal presentation to out myself as a squeeing fanboy, and our guest was quite pleased to know that Jordan (Sramek, Rose founder and artistic director) and co. had a groupie. Now go and buy some of their CDs, you won't be disappointed.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Thoughts on parental leave

Late last week my wife returned to work after spending nearly four months at home following the birth of our daughter Fiona in January. She has a pretty prestigious job, and her employer has one of the more generous maternity leave provisions you will find in the US labor market. When she went back after her leave with Liam I was in the second and final year of my graduate program, and the plan was that after graduation I would find a full-time position in my field and Liam would then be in day care three days a week while continuing to spend two days with my mother-in-law (grandma will not be denied!). For this to make financial sense any job I would take would need to pay me at least what it would cost to cover day care, the other incidentals that come with being employed, student loan payments, plus a little extra left over (else why go through all that trouble?). Given the extremely weak market for state and local government jobs at the time I graduated in August 2010 (my masters is in public policy), one which has not improved much in the time since, the plan did not come to fruition as hoped and I continued to be the main caregiver for Liam through all of 2011.

Now that the leave for Fiona is over, I am returning to this role for at least the next several months, with the only difference being that on the grandma days I will be at my part-time gig, which sort of fell into my lap late in January. I realize that my situation puts me squarely within a couple of growing male demographics, those being men who are primarily stay-at-home dads and men whose wives bring in the majority of the household income. I imagine that in many cases the latter enables the former, as it certainly does in mine, since if your wife has the higher earning potential it makes sense for her to remain in the labor force while you take care of the kids. However, I also realize that for a variety of reasons not everyone can afford to have someone stay home as a full-time caregiver, a situation I was reminded of yesterday when I read that the best friend of one of my sisters was going back to work after having her baby a mere six weeks ago. Combine this with the front page feature in the Sunday Star Tribune being about the disturbing rise in infant day care deaths, and the subject of parental leave is very much in the forefront of my thoughts today.

The article was framed using the story of a couple in one of the more rural MN counties whose infant son died in a home day care after being put to sleep face down. As anyone with young children knows, this is completely against all current recommendations on how to position an infant for sleep, but the provider did it anyway and then also failed to check on him every 15 minutes, which is the licensing standard for a home day care. While there is no way of knowing whether the infant's death could have been prevented if the provider had just followed the recommendations, the other, just barely mentioned tragedy is that his mother was already back at her $9/hr job less than two months after giving birth, with the father having already returned to his job sometime before. Now there is probably some heartless bastard out there who will ask "If a couple needs to rely on the income from a $9/hr job to get by, why are they having children in the first place?" To which I would reply: so that there might be someone around to take care of your old cranky ass when the callous kids you raised (if you had any) unceremoniously leave you at the nursing home. But seriously, though I agree that there are plenty of people out there who should not have kids but do, one cannot base someone's fitness as potential parent solely on their paycheck.

It is wisdom like this that has been absorbed and implemented in policy by pretty much every high-income  country out there, and some middle-income ones as well. The EU, Japan, and other OECD members have at least some government guaranteed paid parental leave (some countries have separate maternity, paternity, and parental leave provisions, others roll it all into the same system), except for the good old US of A. While there are some state-level leave requirements and supports, the only thing at the federal level is unpaid FMLA, and you'd better hope grandma doesn't get seriously ill in the same year. Employers thus have a great deal of discretion in deciding whether or not to offer paid leave as part of their benefit packages, and so they run the spectrum from the relatively generous leave my wife was able to enjoy to none at all. Thus situations like the one in the Star Tribune article and that of my sister's best friend are relatively common, and on the whole we all suffer for it.

What the rest of the rich world (especially the Nordic countries) has learned that we choose to ignore is that children whose parents are able to stay home with them in their early years will on average be much more likely to be socially well-adjusted, fare better in school, and grow up to be productive members of society than those whose parents are forced by economic necessity to be away earning income. The initial investments to support generous parental leave may be large, but they are paid back several times in the form of lower crime rates, improved mental and physical health, and a generally happier citizenry. In short, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to set up a system like they have in Sweden, where its benefits are already evident, or else we will continue to pay up the wazoo for not having it. Businesses will of course protest as they are dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but we give the child the vaccination even though we know they will cry as it is being administered.      

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So there's this book that I'm in...

It is not entirely a coincidence that the last time I posted here was just a few days before my daughter Fiona was born. A few weeks after that I started a new part-time job, and as such I haven't kept this thing up to date for a while. Today happens to be the final day of my wife's maternity leave, so starting tomorrow I will be taking care of both children three days a week and working the other two, which I imagine will leave even less time for casual blogging, but even so I hope to start making it worthwhile for my few readers to stop by a little more often.

In addition to the other recent changes in my daily routine, over the past few months a growing amount of buzz has been generating around a book that will be available later this year. That book is Atheist Voices of Minnesota, an anthology of essays written by people who, unsurprisingly, consider themselves a) atheists, and b) Minnesotans. Some of the contributors are widely known figures within the freethought movement, such as P.Z. Myers and August Berkshire (whom I've known for many years), others are card-carrying members of the atheist blogosphere, including Greg Laden and Stephanie Zvan, but the majority are people who just wanted to share their story (or at least part of it) with the wider world. As you have probably guessed, I happen to be in this last group, and while my essay is not long, it will be the first time any work of mine (not counting the occasional letter to the editor) will appear in print for a mass audience. Thus you can understand why I am eager to promote the book, and hope you will all purchase it when it comes out on August 28th (you can pre-order it on Amazon right now). I submitted my essay gratis, and all profits from the book's sales are going to Minnesota Atheists (a fine organization, if I may be so bold), so I won't be deriving any direct financial benefit, but if the discussion and feedback it generates lead to other opportunities I won't complain.

And I've got to say, after just watching the Twins get no-hit (and thus shut out for the second game in a row, and thus swept) by a thus far mediocre Angels club, it will be nice to have something to look forward to this summer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

You heard it here 85,647th.

Geez, Iowa GOP voters, when I wrote "eke out a narrow plurality" yesterday I didn't think you would take me so literally. Also, while the exit of Bachmann is in no way surprising given my other prediction, I admit I will miss her particular brand of insanity as the national nomination process wears on, but mainly because it means we Minnesotans will now probably have to endure another defense of her Congressional seat. Finally, while I am admittedly late to the bandwagon, a big thank you to Rick Santorum and his second place finish for giving the blogosphere and Twitterverse a deep gushing well of double entendre headlines to exploit. If only the Santorum outpouring had prompted Perry's withdrawal too.

And somewhere among the depths of whatever compound he is holed up in, Tim Pawlenty continues to beat his head against the wall. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I pity Iowans

So after several months of seemingly endless televised debates, untold millions (in the most literal sense, thanks to the Citizens United ruling, which may gain another opponent in Newt Gingrich) spent in advertising, and more "frontrunners" than you can shake a stick at, the Republicans in Iowa are finally voting. Likely to the great relief of the other 75% of the state's residents who still have a brain, as well as those poor souls who live close to the Iowa border and receive their TV broadcasts. As far as the actual outcome of the caucuses, I could care less about which yahoo ekes out a narrow plurality, but am interested to see how many candidates read too much into the results and drop out because of them. Then I will have to mentally prepare to weather all the advertising that will be directed at Minnesota voters until we have our caucuses on Feb. 7th.

I am also starting to keep track of the alternative nomination process going on at Americans Elect, which is touting itself as a non-partisan method for choosing a presidential candidate. As someone interested in electoral reform generally, I am very curious to see how this experiment plays out, especially since the candidate who emerges from it could theoretically have ballot access in all 50 states by the time they are nominated. While I could see it potentially being hijacked by one or more losing Republicans, judging by the responses to most of the questions I have answered on the site there appears to be a relatively left-of-center demographic already signed up, and the requirement that the nominated candidate must choose a running mate outside their own party (if they have one) may provide some safeguard. It isn't completely idiot proof, but it is definitely a step in the direction of a more meaningful and inclusive nomination process, as opposed to the media circus going on a couple hundred miles south of me. Hang tough, Iowans, your well earned respite is almost here.