Author Archive

Mississippi: America’s Third World Country

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

Although I have been there only once, I can’t help thinking about Mississippi.

Mississippi has recently been in the news, of course, because its 2018 Gestational Age Act will be upheld in the same Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade, which we discovered from Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked first draft opinion for the majority.

This is not Mississippi’s first foray into restricting abortion. In 2007, the state passed its version of an abortion Trigger Law, which “bans all abortions unless necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman or if the pregnancy was caused by rape and charges have been filed with law enforcement,” and which takes effect immediately following the state attorney general certifying the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. The Trigger law had 19 male legislative sponsors and zero female sponsors. Regardless, Mississippi has been ready for this for 15 years.

But has it been ready for what comes next?

Matthew Walther, editor of The Lamp, a Roman Catholic literary journal, and a person who will never be accused of favoring abortion, sees predictable and unpleasant consequences after Roe is no longer the law of the land. In his 10 May 2022 guest essay for the New York Times, “Overturning Roe will disrupt a lot more than abortion. I can live with that,” Mr. Walthern acknowledges what very few anti-abortionists want to admit.

Research over the years has suggested that an America without abortion would mean more single mothers and more births to teenage mothers, increased strain on Medicaid and other welfare programs, higher crime rates, a less dynamic and flexible work force, an uptick in carbon emissions, lower student test scores and goodness knows what else.

But Mr. Walther, despite envisioning a gloomy horizon, “can live with that.” I cannot restrain myself from pointing out that Mr. Walther is of the male persuasion and, consequently, faces little likelihood of ever having to “live with” personal pregnancy.

Nonetheless, he makes a good argument, which brings us back to Mississippi.

A few points worth considering:

  • Poverty: According to the Department of Agriculture, 20.29% of Mississippi’s adults and 27.6% of its children live below the poverty line. This is the highest poverty rate in America where the national average is 11.4%.
  • Income: The median family income in Mississippi is $45,081. This is the lowest in the nation. According to the National Census Bureau, the national average in 2019 was $65,712.
  • Education: Only Texas, at 84%, ranks lower than Mississippi, at 85%, for the percentage of high school graduates. The national average is 89.6%. Only West Virginia, at 21%, ranks lower than Mississippi’s 22% for the percentage of college graduates. The national average is 31.28%.
  • Life Expectancy: At 74.4 years, Mississippi has the lowest life expectancy rate in the nation. Of note, the life expectancy rate for Mississippi’s men is 71.2 years.
  • Fetal Mortality: Mississippi’s fetal mortality rate, the number of deaths at 24 or more weeks of gestation per 1,000 live births, is 6.6. This is the highest in the nation. The national average is 3.68. If that isn’t enough, fetal deaths have lately doubled among unvaccinated pregnant women who suffer COVID-19 infections, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during a Mississippi State Department of Health press conference in September, 2021.
  • Infant Mortality: The Infant Mortality Rate is the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births. At 8.27, Mississippi’s is the highest in the nation, far exceeding Louisiana’s rate of 7.53, which is the second highest.
  • Maternal Mortality: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mississippi’s maternal mortality rate is 20.8, again, the highest in the country, where the national average is 17.4, which is the highest among all members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A maternal death is defined by the World Health Organization as, “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and the site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.”
  • Maternity Leave: Mississippi has no guaranteed Maternity or Sick Leave in its state laws.
  • Smoking: According to the CDC, 20.4% of Mississippians smoke. This is the fourth highest in the nation.
  • Autopsies: Something you probably have never have considered until now: Autopsy backlogs. According to the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), 90% of all autopsies should be completed within 60 days of death. The NAME has never accredited Mississippi, which has the highest backlog in the nation. The Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office was waiting for about 1,300 reports from as far back as 2011, records sent to the Associated Press in early April show. Around 800 of those involve homicides – meaning criminal cases are incomplete.
  • Abortion: According to the Mississippi Department of Public Health, the state has about 3,500 abortions annually. This represents 4.3 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age.
  • Finally: Mississippi ranks highest in the nation for Percent of Births to Unmarried Mothers, Cesarean Delivery Rate, Preterm Birth Rate, and Low Birthweight Rate.

Reading the above, one might be forgiven for thinking  there is a significant population in Mississippi who are actual victims of the state’s inability, or outright refusal, to carry out its first responsibility: to provide for the security and safety of its citizens.

Thinking about this, I have to ask: Given how well it’s doing now, how in the world is Mississippi going to cope with 3,500 new births per year? On CNN this past Sunday, Jake Tapper interviewed the state’s Republican Governor, Tate Reeves. That interview offered a glimpse of what is likely coming, a catastrophe becoming worse than it already is, which is considerable.

Tapper: Mississippi, as you know, has the highest rate of infant mortality in the United States. You have the highest rate of child poverty in the United States. Your state has no guaranteed maternity leave that’s paid. The legislature in Mississippi just rejected extending post-partum Medicaid coverage. Your foster care system is also the subject of a long-running federal lawsuit over its failure to protect children from abuse. You say you want to do more to support mothers and children, but you’ve been in state government since 2004. Based on the track record of the state of Mississippi, why should anyone believe you?

Reeves: I believe in my heart that I was elected, not to try to hide our problems, but to try to fix our problems. We are focusing every day on fixing the challenges that are before us.

Good luck, Governor. You and all those “unborn” children who are about to be “saved” are going to need a lot of it. And so are the Mississippi women who are about to become the state’s newest victims.

 

 

 

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Monday, May 9th, 2022

VI

We end this opinion where we began. Abortion presents a profound moral question. The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives. ‘The judgment of the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Thus ends the 1st Draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion for the court majority overturning Roe and Casey, the two Supreme Court rulings that made abortion legal in America.

Alito’s ruling lays bare what happens when courts are forced to decide on the constitutionality of laws that intersect with morality, societal culture, religion, historical and legal precedent, privacy, and control—specifically, a woman’s right of control over her own body.

Regardless of what you feel about abortion, you will not find even a hint of what Alito feels about it in his 67-page ruling, followed by Appendices in which he lists, in chronological order, the laws that every state passed prohibiting abortion, going back to Missouri’s in 1827, and ending with Mississippi’s in 1952. What you will find is the utter destruction of the arguments behind the Roe and Casey rulings. I think Justice Alito resents what he believes to be the inadequacies, the just plain wrong thinking he finds in Roe and Casey. One could be forgiven for believing he thinks those decisions were less like Supreme Court deliberations and more like a couple of the weekly meetings of the Mickey Mouse Club. Frankly, I cannot wait to read the dissents I know are coming.

The coming fight

The official ruling won’t appear for a month or two, and it may differ from Alito’s draft in minor or major ways, but we are already seeing the beginnings of the warfare to come, the torching of an anti-abortion organization’s office and the picketing and protests outside the homes of Supreme Court Justices, for example. This is a galvanizing issue that only exacerbates the political divide in our country. There will be protests and marches and the probability of violence is not remote. Anger sits in the air. Moreover, there are deep psychological wounds. The women I have talked with who support abortion’s legality are emotionally crushed. Their sense of devastation and betrayal is palpable and profound.

What is all the more galling for these and other women is discovering that the fight they thought they had won 49 years ago, is now lost. Women who were in their 20s in January, 1973, breathed then a collective sigh of relief. Now, those women and their daughters feel gut-punched.

And that ain’t all.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 23 states already have laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion. That includes the 13 states with Trigger Laws that will drop like the Hammer of Thor when the official ruling arrives.

There are no two ways about it: we are in for a bumpy ride. This will likely be a major issue in the upcoming midterm elections, and if Republicans win and take control of both houses of Congress, it is probable they will move to pass  legislation outlawing abortion nation-wide (and some say contraception and gay marriage, too—Alito’s ruling leaves the door open for those, even though he says the Supremes are only ruling on abortion. Still…). President Biden will veto that, and there will not be enough votes to override his veto. But if all this happens followed by a Republican victory in 2024’s presidential election, the Biden guardrail will be removed. Emigration to Canada will soar.

Going back to the future of the pre-1973s will bring some dire consequences.

Current research demonstrates:

  • By the second year after a nation-wide ban on abortions, pregnancy-related deaths, known as maternal mortality, would increase by 21% overall:
  • Among non-Hispanic Black woman, this percentage would increase by 33%;
  • In a 1976 article, researchers from the Center for Disease Control examined national abortion data from the three years surrounding the Roe ruling and estimated that the number of illegal procedures in the country plummeted from around 130,000 to 17,000 between 1972 and 1974. That will change;
  • On the other hand, a 2020 study published in The Lancet found that in countries where abortion was restricted, the proportion of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion had increased, and the unintended pregnancy rates were higher than in countries where abortion was broadly legal.

I have total certainty the abortion debate, peaceful or otherwise, will not end anytime soon. Feelings about abortion are deeply held beliefs for most people, and, as has been demonstrated since humanity first stood upright, deeply held beliefs seldom, if ever, change.

An admittedly naive suggestion

First, let me state the obvious. Abortion happens when an unintended pregnancy occurs. Unintended pregnancies occur when education is lacking, wrong, or just plain non-existent, and when contraceptives are not used by either the man or the woman. Both of these—education and contraceptive use, which are two sides of the same coin—are hit-or-miss issues throughout American culture.

But they don’t have to be.

It is unfortunate, indeed, that, in many areas well-intentioned, but misguided, parents, officials, and legislators seek to eliminate, or at least dumb-down, Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) in our public and private school systems. A 2018 UNESCO study “identified 22 relevant systematic reviews, more than 70 potentially relevant randomized controlled trials and a significant amount of non-trial information from 65 publications and online resources,” and found that “sexuality education —in or out of schools —does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour or STI/HIV infection rates.” And it “reduces unintended pregnancy.”

Education works, and it can significantly reduce the need for abortions if coupled with a systemic nation-wide program that provides easy—even free—access to contraceptives. To succeed, this must not be a one-off, public affairs program. It’s too important for that. The states, as well as the federal government, would need to advocate, and do so forcefully, to change current behavior. Yes, there would still be unintended pregnancies, but shouldn’t everyone’s goal be to reduce those to a minimum? This would result in fewer illegal abortions and less maternal mortality.

For example, today, only 65% of women and a third of men regularly employ contraception. The vast majority of women prefer the pill, with LARCs (Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives) following behind. The point is, there is a 35% opportunity among women, the people who become pregnant and sometimes must resort to abortions.

If, as now seems nearly certain, Roe is overruled, what are our options? We can do nothing, and revisit back alleys and coat-hangers, or we can do everything in our power to reverse that course through Comprehensive Sex Education and universal contraception.

The bleak future is not reality, not yet, anyway. Given our society, there may be little chance of changing the future that now seems ordained, but there are things we can do to mitigate the potentially terrible results of the Alito ruling if we have the strength to fully embrace them.

Women, and women alone, should have the right to decide when, and if, they have children.

 

The Leak

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

At 8:30pm Monday night, Politico reporters Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward dropped the biggest journalistic bombshell of a year filled with journalistic bombshells when they published a leaked first draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule and strike down the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion constitutional, and therefore legal, in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. This ruling, which, according to experts, should be made official in a month or two, also affirms Mississippi’s ban on abortions after the 15th week. Today, the Supreme Court said the leaked draft is authentic, and Chief Justice John Roberts, calling it an egregious breach of trust and confidentiality, said an investigation would begin immediately to discover how it happened and who is responsible.

It is important to note this is a “First Draft.” There may be more. However, a vote has been taken, and we know the results. Between now and the official ruling, votes can change, but probably won’t.

Supreme Court leaks have happened before. In an ironic twist, the night before Roe v. Wade was announced in January of 1973, a Supreme Court clerk leaked the decision to the Washington Post.

Thinking about the decision and the leak, I would like to offer a few points for your consideration.

First, I can see no sense to this leak, which I think disgraceful and a betrayal of trust. The reason I see no sense to it is because it achieves nothing that would not have been achieved when the ruling is made public in its final form in a month or two. At that time there would still be ample opportunity for it to play out vis-à-vis mid-term politics. So, why now? Who gains what?

Second, right now we have no idea if this was politically motivated. If it was politically motivated, we do not know the motivation behind the person who leaked it. It could have been anyone with access to Court documents. Imagine a clerk leaves the decision lying around, or forgets to turn off a computer, whereupon somebody else decides to cause a little mayhem. The point is anything is possible in our current vacuum of ignorance.

Third, Justice Samuel Alito wrote this first draft of the decision. In Alito’s confirmation hearings he was asked about his previous writings regarding Roe, writings in which he wrote Roe was unconstitutional. He wrote that the Constitution says nothing about abortion and that abortion decisions should be left to the various states. He responded to those confirmation questions by saying he would “put aside” the things he argued when a mere lawyer and “think about legal issues the way a judge thinks about legal issues.” The interesting thing here is the decision he has now authored is a mirror reflection of what he wrote when a “mere lawyer.” He writes now that Roe was “egregiously wrong” from the beginning; that the Constitution says nothing about abortion; and that the matter should be left to the “elected representatives” in the various states. Makes one wonder.

I would note that the Constitution also says nothing about baseball, but on November 9, 1953, the Supreme Court upheld a prior, controversial decision that allowed major league baseball to operate outside of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Maybe Justice Alito would like to overturn that decision, too?

Fourth, this is NOT akin to the Pentagon Papers, as some are arguing. The only thing this has in common with the Pentagon Papers, which documented governmental lying about the Vietnam War, is the method by which we learned of it: a leak. We would never have learned of the Pentagon Papers but for the leak. Without the present leak, we would have learned of this decision in the near term – which we still will. This decision, regardless of whatever you think of it, and I condemn it in the highest possible terms, has nothing to do with governmental lying with respect to national security.

Fifth, At least one Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, lied during his confirmation hearing. When asked about Roe, he responded it was “settled as a precedent,” because “it has been reaffirmed many times over the past 45 years.” Apparently, he did not believe that, or he would not have voted to overturn Roe now. He certainly could have voted to allow Mississippi’s abortion ban after 15-weeks to stand without overturning “settled law.” We may be forgiven for wondering if Justice Kavanaugh lied about a few other things during his confirmation hearing.

A note about “settled law.” Settled law is settled until it isn’t, as in this case. I point out that the Dred Scott decision was once “settled law.”

Sixth, in a tangential development, reporters asked Senator Susan Collins, (R-Maine), her reaction to the leaked decision. You may recall, just prior to Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing she emerged from a meeting with him and said he’d assured her that Roe is “settled law.” She gave him her vote. Today she was asked about that and said:

“If this leaked draft opinion is the final decision and this reporting is accurate, it would be completely inconsistent with what Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh said in their hearings and in our meetings in my office. Obviously, we won’t know each Justice’s decision and reasoning until the Supreme Court officially announces its opinion in this case.”

Seventh, Chief Justice Roberts also responded to questions about Roe during his confirmation hearing. When asked if Roe was settled law, he replied, “It is settled as a precedent of the Court, yes.” Roberts did not vote to overturn Roe in this draft decision.

Eighth, this seems one more reason to think we are now living in two countries, one Red, one Blue. Eventually, if we’re lucky, very lucky, we will find common ground when we once again begin electing leaders who aspire to embrace the values, the good ones, upon which America came to be. I don’t know about you, but that time cannot come soon enough for me, if it ever does.

My question is: What happens to this country if it doesn’t?

As Thin As The Skin On A Grape – End Of Week Thoughts On The Teaching Of Slavery In America

Friday, April 29th, 2022

A few years ago, before the horror of the pandemic sent us all scurrying to our respective bolt holes, I toured Boston’s historic Trinity Church that sits smack in the middle of high-brow Copley Square. Massachusetts born and bred, and I’d never visited this historic church that in 1885 the American Architectural Association judged the most important building in America. It still ranks among the AIA’s current top ten list.

In late 18th and 19th century Boston, Trinity was the church of the Brahmin elite. Its pews are all labeled with the names and descriptions of the historic families who occupied them. Some very famous names.

About halfway down the center aisle is the pew that once belonged to the family of Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719–1781). Royall was one of the founders of Harvard Law School, and Harvard adopted his family’s a slave owner and slave trader, and in 2016, 200 years after the founding of the law school, Harvard disassociated the crest from the school, because of the family’s business in the slave trade. Better late than never.


The Isaac Royall House and slave quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

In 2014, Trinity’s History Committee (Yes, there is one) published the remarkable Trinity Church Boston: Facing the Reality of our Past, which lays out in excruciating detail the sordid history of its membership’s past connection with slavery.

Most of the wealthy people who built Boston owned slaves. Slavery entered the Massachusetts Bay Colony as early as 1638 when a ship the Puritan Governor John Winthrop had sent to the West Indies with Indian captives returned with Africans. In 1645, Winthrop’s brother-in-law, Emanuel Downing, told him “I don’t see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business.” Thinking about that, Winthrop realized an opportunity—in Barbados, which had become so focused on producing sugar that it needed to import all other products. At the same time, New England farms were producing a surplus of food. Winthrop saw a fortuitous “fit” for his colony. Massachusetts trade with the British West Indies grew quickly.

Massachusetts got into the slave business in two ways: First, as Winthrop continued to do, by trading captured Native Americans for kidnapped Africans who were considered more desirable; and, second, by participating in the broader Atlantic slave trade.

And thus it began. Molasses to rum to slaves. Boston in the Triangle Trade.

On Tuesday, Harvard University announced it would commit $100 million to study and redress its ties to slavery, which, in addition to Isaac Royall, Jr., are considerable. The money will create an endowed “Legacy of Slavery Fund,” which will continue researching and memorializing its slavery history, working with descendants of Black and Native American people enslaved at Harvard, as well as their broader communities.

In announcing the initiative, Harvard published an unflinching report detailing what Harvard president Lawrence Bacow described as its “profoundly immoral” behavior. In a letter to the university community about the report, Bacow wrote, “I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

Harvard now joins other universities—notably, Brown, Georgetown* and Princeton Theological Seminary—not only wrestling with their participation in the “peculiar institution” of slavery, but also trying to work out how to commit to making amends, both socially and financially.

Why bring up all this disgusting history?

Two reasons. First, people generally associate slavery in America with the South; many are not aware of the North’s disgraceful history of slave trading and ownership.** Most everyone knows George Washington and other southern Founding Fathers were slave owners. But Boston? That’s been swept under history’s rug. Time for that to stop.

This is not to say there were not Bostonians who were aggressively anti-slavery. There were, John Adams and John Hancock for example, but they were outgunned, and greed won out, as it so often does. Massachusetts did not outlaw slavery until 1781, and at its height, there were nearly 5,000 slaves in the Commonwealth.

Second, studying slavery, even just reading about it, is uncomfortable. It is a repugnant and distressful topic. The question is: Does that mean young people should not study it in school?

As far back as 1998, elementary, high school and college educators were having serious discussions online about how to teach this necessary history with sensitivity. In that year, Professor Patrick Manning of Northeastern University wrote, “I expect everyone to be uncomfortable when we talk about slavery and slave trade, but it is essential to experience the various sorts of discomfort brought by slavery and to learn from them.”

High school teacher Karen Needles wrote, “In my classroom, I actually made students lie on the floor in close proximity to the space allotted slaves on the slave ships.” Many teachers on this 1998 List Serve did that.

Educators from this period worked hard to instill in their students an understanding of and respect for the tragedy of slavery and the Middle Passage. Chris Lowe, a professor at Boston University wrote to his colleagues, “From our outreach director here at the African Studies Center at Boston University, Barbara Brown, who works primarily with K-12 teachers, I know that teaching the slave trade appears as a big problem to the teachers she works with. My strong impression is that the main issue may not be Eurocentrism so much as the emotional minefield involved, as the history in question has the potential to provoke feelings of anxiety and shame for students (and teachers) of all racial backgrounds that are hard to cope with, and consequent defensive reactions.”

These profound conversations happened 24 years ago and are not unique. Educators at all levels cared, and cared deeply. Today’s teachers care just as much.

Yet now, 24 years later, Republican Governors in red states have loudly proclaimed their sanctimonious intentions to protect young minds from being infected by such things as the 1619 Project, or Critical Race Theory. These Governors have been signing laws that make it difficult, even illegal, for teachers to probe deeply into matters of race and sex. Their laws specifically prohibit teachers from introducing any concept by which:

(vii)  an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex;***

Versions of these restrictive laws have been passed in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Mississippi.

On page one of South Dakota’s summary of its new law it says the law aims to “protect students and employees at institutions of higher education from divisive concepts.” Keeping in mind that our nation’s history is rife with “divisive concepts,” there might not be much history taught in  South Dakota.

Slavery, the Triangle Trade and the Middle Passage might be the ultimate in “divisive concepts.” Nonetheless, once the kidnapped Africans arrived here, what happened to them? Assuming you agree that how they got here and what happened to them is historically important, how should this uncomfortable, but historically important, history be taught?

Consider Louisiana for a moment.

In 1712, there were only 10 Africans in all of Louisiana (there were a lot more in Boston). In this early period, European indentured servants, submitting to 36-month contracts, did most of the work clearing land and laboring on small-scale plantations. This would change dramatically after the first two ships carrying kidnapped Africans arrived in Louisiana in 1719 and in 1794 with Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin.

By 1795, there were 19,926 enslaved Africans and 16,304 free people of color in Louisiana. The German Coast, where Whitney Plantation is located, was home to 2,797 enslaved workers. The United States outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, but that did not stop the domestic slave trade. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the population of enslaved Africans skyrocketed. Someone had to pick all the cotton, which made the south rich. Just before the Civil War in 1860, there were 331,726 enslaved people and 18,647 free people of color in Louisiana.

Should the children of Louisiana not be taught this? Should they not be taught the political and economic underpinnings by which slavery grew in their state? Should they not discuss and argue it in class, led by teachers, like the ones quoted above, who have the objectivity, training, honesty and dedication to open their minds to what lies beyond?

Studying this stuff is going to make them, and their parents, uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, we have a bigger problem than ignorance. But teachers, staring at the penalties written into these vague, new laws, are now thinking twice about what and how they teach. This is a tragic development in education, and undervalues the curiosity and capacity for learning in today’s youth.

I wonder what those educators writing each other back in 1998 would think of all this? In a moment of prescience, Professor Lowe wrote, “There are probably political dimensions to this a la “culture wars” stupidities as well.”

If we Americans are too fearful to let our children learn our history, both the good and the horrific, then the moral and intellectual foundation of our future leaders will be as thin as the skin on a grape.

 

*In 2021, the Jesuit conference of priests announced their own $100 million commitment to be used for racial reconciliation and to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University. And Brown University is examining its role, because Rhode Island’s involvement in slavery was ever greater than that of Massachusetts.

**In 2005, the New York Historical Society opened its fascinating “Slavery In New York” exhibit detailing New York’s deep involvement with slavery, just like Boston’s. I toured the exhibit and was positively stunned.

***All the new laws have a version of this sub-paragraph. It’s almost as if they were all written by the same person.

A National Disaster. A National Disgrace.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2022

One of the maxims of our nation, embraced by everyone, has always been, “Our children are our future.” Not much to argue with there.

Another universally accepted truth is that a child’s formative years are the most important in learning and character development. According to UNICEF:

Children’s brains are built, moment by moment, as they interact with their environments. In the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second – a pace never repeated again. The quality of a child’s early experiences makes a critical difference as their brains develop, providing either strong or weak foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life.

If the forgoing is true, if we really believed it, you would think we would plow every possible resource into early childhood development and learning. You would think responsible societal child care would be one of our top national policies and priorities.

But such is not the case in America. No town, city, county, or national government, none of them, support child care in any meaningful way. It’s sort of every parent for themself. Good luck finding decent child care, and you’ll need even better luck paying for it.

We have a situation in which child care enterprises cannot afford to pay many of their educators much more than minimum wage, and, even at that, parents, especially poorer parents, cannot afford to enroll their kids, presuming they can find an available slot. Every single thing in the child care “business” seems set up for failure.

For example, in my home state of Massachusetts, generally regarded as having the best educational system in the nation, 15.3 percent of early childhood educators still live below the poverty line and families in the Commonwealth pay 20% to 40% of their income for early education and care.

This is insane.

Sonya Michel, a professor at the University of Maryland has written a fascinating and infuriating essay on the history of child care since earliest times. The History of Child Care in the U.S., published by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare History Project, should be required reading—for everyone.

Michel explains how early child care advocates, always women, fought hard to get government financial support for child care during the New Deal and after World War II. However:

From 1969 to 1971, a coalition of feminists, labor leaders, civil rights leaders and early childhood advocates worked with Congress to legislate universal child care policy, but their efforts failed when President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971. As a result, for the next three decades, direct federal support for child care was limited to policies “targeted” on low-income families. At the same time, however, the federal government offered several types of indirect support to middle- and upper-class families in the form of tax incentives for employer-sponsored child care and several ways of using child care costs to reduce personal income taxes.

Ronald Reagan, who did not invent the term “Welfare Queen,” but adopted it as part of his campaign strategy beginning in 1976, saw to it that, after winning the presidency in 1980, child care expenditures for low-income families were dramatically reduced while those benefiting middle and high-income families nearly doubled, mostly through tax credits.

In the years since Reagan, we have continually found new and inventive ways of sweeping this national disaster under a threadbare carpet for posterity to trip over time and again. Despite all the face plants, we never learn.

There are places where child care and early learning are done well. Unfortunately, unless you’re really well off, you won’t find those places in America, which is one of the reasons many ex-pats living in France choose to remain there until their children are ready for public elementary school. The French, like them or not, have figured out how to provide high-quality, affordable child care. Why can’t we?

Other European countries have distinguished themselves by enacting policies aimed at elevating work-life balance to a high level. In addition to France, Germany and Sweden have embraced the notion that governmental assistance in early childhood is a serious societal responsibility.

Without credible, high-quality early childhood education for everyone, how can we expect to prepare today’s children to carry America’s torch into the future?

It’s time to end this national disgrace.

 

 

How To Rebuild Ukraine And Who Pays For It?

Monday, April 25th, 2022

What’s past is prologue.
William Shakespeare – The Tempest

In 1870, Germany defeated France in a Battle of Annihilation at Sedan, which led to its ultimate victory in the Franco Prussian War and the creation of the German Empire. In a stick-in-the-eye insult, Kaiser Wilhelm 1 was crowned the first Emperor in the  Hall of Mirrors of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. As part of the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Frankfurt am Main, the Germans took Alsace Lorraine and levied massive reparation payments of five billion francs the victors thought would take France at least 20 years to pay. As long as they remained unpaid, German troops would remain in France. The Treaty’s final insult was a German battle parade straight through the Arc de Triomphe, then down the 1.9 kilometer long, 70 meter wide Champs-Élysées, and ending in the  Place de la Concorde, where Parisians had draped all of the statues in black. German troops marching to rhythmic fife and drum. It was humiliation the French never forgot.

With a Herculean effort that amazed Germany, France paid the reparations in three years, and the Germans had to leave. However, the taking of Alsace Lorraine, which sat on the western French border, right next to Germany, just as Ukraine’s Donbas region sits next to Russia, was the debasement that gnawed at France the most.

 

 

 

 

The Germans, with their colossal arrogance of the time, ignored Bismarck’s recommendation to treat the French in Alsace Lorraine lightly and allow them some autonomy. So, hatred grew. And kept growing all the way up to World War 1. It was palpable on both sides, so much so that from 1895 until 1914 each devoted themselves to planning and preparing for that war, which they knew, absolutely knew, would come, the Germans with their Schlieffen Plan, which required the violation of Belgium neutrality and predicted the capture of Paris on Day 39 of the war*, and the French with their Plan 17, which depended** on the Germans violating Belgium neutrality, but had no prediction for the capture of Berlin. Fifteen years planning for the the worst war in history. Not planning to prevent it, but planning to win it, because they both knew it was inevitable. It was the tragic, but natural, gravitational course of things at the turn of the 20th century.

Alsace Lorraine did not cause World War 1, but the hatred it involved was fuel for the massive fire to come.

Ukraine and Russia have also been preparing for war for some time, since 2014 when Ukrainians threw out Putin’s presidential puppet Viktor Yanukovych in the Revolution of Dignity. Following that, an enraged Putin annexed Crimea and sent Russian soldiers in olive drab uniforms without insignia into the Donbas to help Ukrainian separatists “liberate” the area. That was the beginning of the inexorable march to today.

Today, if you can possibly put aside the more than 2,300 Ukrainian civilians that have been mercilessly killed and the 12 million that have been displaced, five million out of the country, you are faced with the physical infrastructure damage the Russians have wrought. There are now cities in Ukraine that look like the worst of those bombed to ruin in World War II.

Last week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on members of the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance, suggesting it will cost at least $600 billion dollars to rebuild the war-torn country following Russia’s invasion.

The prime minister made the appeal Thursday during a ministerial meeting held by the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as Russia’s war neared its third month.

Who will pay? And how? And if Russia captures the Donbas, what will happen? History suggests Ukrainians will react just as the French did, preparing with all their might to take it back. Maybe not now, maybe not in the near term, but the French waited 44 years.

Realizing the enormity of the rebuilding task, there are now suggestions being floated. Chief among them is: Taking all the Russian and Oligarch frozen assets in the hands of the west, and using them to pay for reconstruction. This would net a few hundred billions of dollars and would be a nice start.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seemed open and receptive, but also cautious, to that idea last week. When asked during a press briefing about the potential of using frozen Russian Central Bank funds to support Ukraine, Yellen said, “I wouldn’t want to do so lightly,” adding that it would have to be done in consensus with US allies and partners and might need Congressional approval. That would be an interesting vote, indeed.

On Thursday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a virtual address to IMF and World Bank leaders that “a special tax on war is needed.” He called for the proceeds of sanctioned property and Russian Central Bank reserves to be used to compensate Ukraine for its losses. He added that frozen Russian assets “have to be used to rebuild Ukraine after the war as well as to pay for the losses caused to other nations.” He said it would take $5 billion per month over the next three months just to keep the Ukrainian economy alive, an economy which the IMF predicts will shrink by 45% this year. It’s easy to see why.

Of course, Russia will strenuously object to this, and, regardless of what happens in the Donbas, Putin, losing all his now frozen assets forever, might be driven to do something even more terrible than he already has. And that, my friends, could drop us right back into 1914 all over again.

I hope at least some of our leaders have studied history.

*The Germans made it to 70 miles from Paris before they had to retreat and dig in. Thus began more than five years of trench warfare with nearly 10 million soldiers and even more civilians killed.

**France had an agreement with England, whereby if Germany violated Belgian neutrality in an attack on France and if France never set foot on Belgian soil, then England would enter the conflict on the side of France, which is exactly what happened. Belgium had been guaranteed perpetual neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London, signed by the German Confederation, England, France, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, and Russia.

The Sunshine State Goes Darth Vader Dark

Saturday, April 23rd, 2022

In 1967, 55 years ago, the Walt Disney World Company proposed building a recreation-oriented development on 25,000 acres of property in Central Florida. The property sat in a remote area of Orange and Osceola Counties, so secluded that the nearest power and water lines were 10-15 miles away. Neither Orange nor Osceola County had the services or the resources needed to bring the project to life.

In that year, the Florida State legislature created a special taxing district for Disneycalled the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID)that would act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government.

Walt Disney World then moved ahead with its vision to turn 38.5 square miles of largely uninhabited pasture and swamp land, into a global destination resort that today hosts millions of visitors every year.

The Special Taxing District designation gave the Disney company significant tax benefits amounting to tens of millions of dollars every year. However, those special tax benefits came with special upkeep responsibilities.

The new legislation said Walt Disney World would be solely responsible for paying the cost of providing typical municipal services like power, water, roads, fire protection etc.

Local taxpayers, meaning residents of Orange and Osceola County, would not have to pay for building or maintaining those services.

That all changed yesterday when Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation revoking Disney’s Special Taxing District designation. Now, Disney will be paying taxes it did not up to now have to pay. It will also be relieved of having to  provide the municipal maintenance services it has provided for the last 55 years for Orange and Osceola Counties, whose combined population is about 1.8 million. With Disney and its 80,000 Floridian employees no longer picking up the bill, the responsibility for all those municipal services, including Police and Fire, now falls to the counties. Property taxes (the way municipalities raise revenue in Florida) will  increase substantially.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings is worried. “My primary concern is about any particular cost shifts that are mandated by the state to local governments,” he said in an interview with Orlando’s News 6. He should be worried.

Digging deeper, Sarah Rumpf of Mediaite notes repealing Disney’s status means that Orange and Osceola Counties, in addition to municipal services, are now responsible for Disney’s $2 billion bond debt—a 20% to 25% tax hike costing $2,200 to $2,800 per family of four. And if that’s not enough, since Disney’s RCID pays more and has better employee benefits than the Florida government, county workers taking on the jobs currently performed by Disney will likely have to take pay and benefit cuts. Yikes!

In another little twist, since both counties voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, Machiavellian DeSantis has found a new and improved way to stick it to opponents.

The creation, passage, signing and enactment of this legislation happened in four days.

The question is Why? Why all this political steamrolling? The answer is because Governor DeSantis, who brooks less dissent than Caligula, is upset because Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek had the daring temerity to criticize what has come to be known as the Governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Chapek even went so far as to apologize to his 80,000 employees for not condemning the bill earlier and more strongly.

The bill, officially known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, would ban classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade; lessons on those topics in other grades would be prohibited unless they are “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” a vague threshold, indeed. And parents would be allowed to sue over violations. It doesn’t take the Oracle of Delphi to see where this is headed.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is DeSantis throwing seasoned red meat to his right-wing carnivores in Florida. It is DeSantis showing his many followers exactly what he thinks of the LGBTQ+ population. It is discriminatory and downright bigoted. But in Florida, it resonates, and the Governor’s lapdog legislature is happy to walk three paces behind carrying the bags.

In the immortal words of that great American salesman and inventor Ron Pompeo, “But wait. There’s more!”

In response to the 2020 census, the Florida legislature was required to draw up new legislative maps. It did, and the gerrymandered result gave Florida Republicans a guarantee of two additional seats in the US Congress. However, this was not good enough for Governor DeSantis, who created his own maps, which guaranteed four additional seats. In DeSantis’s version, Republicans would be expected to win 20 of the state’s 28 congressional districts, a four seat increase from the 16 they hold now. The Republican-dominated Legislature, in happy subservience, approved the Governor’s maps, which he signed into law three days ago. In addition to giving the Republicans four more seats, the new maps eliminate two currently held by Black Democrats, one of whom is Val Demings, who is challenging Marco Rubio in next year’s senate election. In the game of Pool, we’d call this an Elegant Combination.

The map is expected to draw a near-immediate court challenge from Democratic-aligned groups that contend the proposal violates federal and state law because it dismantles and diminishes those two seats currently held by the Black Democrats. Recognizing Democrats would challenge in court the new maps, Republicans, planning ahead, even included in the final bill $1 million to pay for that fight. Trouble is, it’s not clear if that legal battle can be resolved before June, when candidates must qualify for the ballot.

If all this were real warfare instead of the political kind, we would say Governor DeSantis and his Republican army had just won a Battle of Annihilation.

 

 

 

 

 

Unmasked In America

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

Having now fully recovered from a week-long dance with COVID 19, I can report that here in the heart of the Berkshire mountains, once again all seems right with our little corner of the world. The grey and red squirrels have resumed tormenting Lancelot, the mighty wonder dog, as they contemptuously steal the bird seed he daily guards, impervious to his barking, too fast for his chasing. But he continues to try. We should all be so determined.

Meanwhile, in a surprise ruling yesterday, US District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national mask mandate for public transportation. Airlines and their passengers appeared jubilant.

Much has been made of the fact that Judge Mizelle is both a Trump appointee and was judged by the American Bar Association “not qualified,” as noted in its 8 September 2020 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Judge Mizelle was being considered for her current position.

Judge Mizelle had been nominated to serve as a district court judge for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. As part of its analysis of a candidate’s qualifications for such a position, the ABA goes by criteria laid out in its Backgrounder.

The Backgrounder provides that “a nominee to the federal bench ordinarily should have at least 12 years’ experience in the practice of law.” The Backgrounder further provides that “in evaluating the professional qualifications of a nominee, the Standing Committee recognizes that substantial courtroom and trial experience as a lawyer or trial judge is important.”

The ABA noted Judge Mizelle was admitted to the Bar only eight years before her nomination and had never “tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel.”

Judge Mizelle had clerked for four judges, including Justice Clarence Thomas, and spent all of ten months at what the organization called a “reputable law firm.” Although the ABA wrote that the Judge had a “keen intellect,” in what appeared to be a sardonic coup de grace dripping with cynicism it noted, “We also are aware that as a law school student the nominee participated as co-counsel with her supervising law professor in two one-day state court trials as part of her curriculum.”

I’m wondering if the ABA, in its long history of evaluating people for district court judgeships, has ever before felt the need to dip into a candidate’s law school course history in order to say something, anything, nice about the candidate’s experience.

Moving beyond how she got to where she is, we need to ask how Judge Mizelle’s order will play out? As mentioned above, airlines seem to be overjoyed, but airplanes are well-ventilated conveyances. Her order affects all public transportation, and subways at rush hour, for instance, have about as much ventilation as a well-traveled sarcophagus.

And what about other industries? Although Judge Mizelle’s ruling applies only to public transportation, it is forcing others to re-examine their policies. For example, consider the health care industry.

Most health systems and physician groups have indicated they will maintain their masking requirements, regardless of changes in other industries. Some providers are easing the rules in certain markets as COVID-19 infection rates decline, but those decisions were made independent of Mizelle’s ruling.

Trinity Health’s chief clinical officer, Dr. Daniel Roth, said the Judge’s ruling jeopardizes the immunocompromised and those who can’t be vaccinated. “Trinity Health has followed guidelines from the CDC to ensure the safety of our colleagues, clinicians and patients. Yesterday’s court decision removing the requirement for face coverings on public transportation was irresponsibly abrupt and increases risk,” he said in a statement.

This evening, the Biden administration’s Justice Department, in keeping with a recommendation from the CDC, announced it would appeal Mizelle’s ruling. Although this might be the right health decision, it is likely the wrong political decision. It will perpetuate the uncertainty and confusion Americans face every day as they travel, and that will only strike another blow at Biden’s approval ratings. It may be time, finally time, to let Americans decide for themselves, with all the heartbreak that might bring to some.

No one’s asking me, but if they were, I would dearly love to advise President, also Politician, Joe Biden to do nothing, absolutely nothing. Let this go and, with a smile on your face, watch it fly off into the vastness of the darkest of nights never to be mentioned again. With all the problems of the last 15 months, if he never again had to get into the “to mask or not to mask” debate, our President would be one very happy guy.

Yes, I would dearly love to offer that advice.

But what about the many immunocompromised people who have to travel but are scared to death to do it. What about them?

And what about the children? What about the children too young to be vaccinated, in some cases too young for a mask? What about unmasked adults on public transportation near those children who might infect them because they chose their personal “freedom” over the potential harm to a child?

What about that?

How Easy It Is

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

“A large swath of humanity just seems highly suggestible and follows the lead of people they’ve come to admire. That sometimes turns out fine, and sometimes not.” From yesterday’s Letters from the Berkshires.

Recovering from CoVid 19 is difficult in more ways than one.

Although I’m pretty sure this is true for all religions, my Roman Catholic education and upbringing  instilled in me and my peers a desperate need to be constantly productive and to feel bad if we weren’t, because that would be the very definition of LAZY. We were all indoctrinated, brainwashed really, and it has stuck all the way into an eighth decade. Now, sickness has thrown a spanner into the personal productivity assembly line.

I was reminded of that today, as I was fighting the virus and found myself somewhere between productive and lazy, leaning toward lazy, when I picked up a story from the Associated Press (AP) (no byline given) describing the harshly repressive actions taken by Vladimir Putin’s Security Police against even the slightest hint of criticism for his growing-more-barbaric-by-the-day immoral destruction of Ukraine.

It seems now, and the AP story documents this, that most Russians (although we may never know for sure) have swallowed Putin’s Kool Aid to the point where the Russian sociological landscape is beginning to look like that of East Germany’s before the fall of the wall. Neighbor is turning in neighbor for the slightest whiff of disagreement, or even enquiry. This happened fast.

Much of humanity continues to demonstrate how susceptible it is to believing something absent any evidence, any factual confirmation, as long as leaders tell it to them repeatedly. Over and over again we see this everywhere. Look no further than the Big Lie here in the USA. But at least falling for the Big Lie is yet to get people killed (as long as you don’t count the January 6th Insurrection).

Until 23 February, Ukraine and Russia were neighbors with often overlapping histories* covering several centuries. Despite the fighting raging in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, most of the country thrived.  Ukrainians had friends and relatives in Russia and Russians had friends and relatives in Ukraine. They spoke to each other – usually in Russian. But then overnight, Ukrainians became “bestial” Nazis, and now the mission of the Russian state seems to be to exterminate the population, the very definition of genocide. And sadly, most Russians appear to be buying the lie.

I will leave you with this little morsel to digest;

“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war, neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a Communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

That was Reichsmarschall Herman Göring, second most powerful man in Nazy Germany, a man who knew a thing or two about committing Genocide, answering a question from  Gustave M. Gilbert a psychologist who had access to the prisoners during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. The quote is taken from “Witness To Nuremberg,” (Arcade Publishing, 2002, page 30) by Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, Chief Interpreter for the American prosecution, who was present as interpreter and translated and recorded Göring’s response to Gilbert.

*One part of those overlapping histories, known in Ukraine as the Holodomor, happened when the Georgian Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, exterminated millions of Ukrainians by intentional, genocidal starvation in 1932 and 1933. Mr. Putin doesn’t talk about that.

 

The Dragon Has Struck

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

A little setback

Reality landed with a heavy thud on Monday morning here in the Berkshires. After not feeling well Sunday evening, I tested positive for CoVid 19 Monday morning.

I will be forever grateful to the scientists who created the vaccine that has made this a moderate inconvenience (but it’s certainly no fun), rather than a full-bore medical event. Believe me, this could have ended very badly were it not for three vaccine shots.

Two of the symptoms are, shall we say, interesting. First, things are a bit fuzzy in the brain. Concentration is sometimes difficult, as in right now as I try to type these words, but make more mistakes than usual, many more. Second, occasional profound fatigue. For a guy who is used to playing energetic tennis four or five times a week, this is humbling, indeed.

It’s a long time ago in the life of this pandemic that I stopped trying to figure out why people would choose to risk their lives (and those around them) by refusing vaccination. A large swath of humanity just seems highly suggestible and follows the lead of people they’ve come to admire. That sometimes turns out fine, and sometimes not.

Correction

In my column of last Friday, 8 April, in which I reported on the actions companies doing business in Russia are taking in light of Putin’s inhumane invasion, I wrote this sentence about a specific company that has chosen to remain and sell its stuff to Russians:

Personally, I have decided the Acer corporation will not be among the brands I consider for my next pair of running shoes.

However, as percipient readers have reminded me, the Acer Corporation makes computers, not running shoes. It’s the Asics Corporation that makes running shoes. I should have known better. The offending sentence now reads:

Personally, I have decided the Acer corporation will not be among the brands I consider for my next computer.

Since I really like Asics running shoes, I am happy I can continue buying them with complete moral justification! Just as soon as I leave my CoVid bed.

Please forgive me for the error.