The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

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Really Rudy? Really?

February 23rd, 2015

The race for President in 2016 is in full swing and already the potential candidates are lining up. Suffice it to say that candidates and their supporters are already saying really stupid things. The latest comes from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He’s decided not to run for President in 2016 but wants people to listen to him. The 24 hour news cycle loves to play and replay stupid and outrageous comments.

Enter Rudy. Last Wednesday (the 18th) he was speaking at a private dinner that included assumed presidential candidate Scott Walker. Here’s what Rudy said:

I do not believe — and I know this is a horrible thing to say — but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

OK Rudy, let me say a few things to you about this:

  • Can you give some examples? I’m always amused when people like you make broad, inflammatory statements but don’t give examples. I like to think of myself as fairly well read but I don’t remember ever hearing the President say anything disparaging about America. I’m also astounded that, as I read through various accounts, nobody has asked you to give examples.
  • I know you (and those who agree with you) feign offense at this, but this charge finds its base in racism. No other president in recent memory has had to defend himself against the charge of not loving America. And no other president has come to us from African descent. I wrote about this in 2008 and it’s as true today as ever. Those of us who opposed the decisions of President Bush never, ever questioned his love of America. We also never doubted clear and definitive proof that he was born here.
  • Finally, and I think this is the crux of the matter, is this truth: you don’t believe President Obama loves America unless he hates everyone else. Most of our allies were once our enemies: England (the Revolution), France (remember Freedom Fries?), Germany (World War II). While the Bush administration made it clear that we live in a black and white world (“You’re either with us or against us“), President Obama sees the complexity of world politics and looks for solutions. If this make him someone who hates America, count me in.

Yosemite 2015: Fun, Too Warm and Dry, and Tinged with Sadness

January 25th, 2015

I write this a few hours after Nancy and I returned from our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park for its annual Chef’s Holidays. We’ve been going for several years and have always enjoyed it. Their staff is second to none and now several of them recognize us. It’s three days of good hiking, superior food, and an opportunity for Nancy to interact with some of the best chefs in the country.

That said we did see some disturbing things there. First was the weather: the elevation on the valley floor is nearly 4000 feet above sea level and from there we can see peaks of over 8000 feet. Several times over the years we’ve seen snow on the valley floor and I don’t remember ever not seeing snow on the top of Half Dome; this year we didn’t see any snow that high. To be fair Half Dome has had snow this season but it melted within a few weeks. Simply put it’s too warm.

It’s also too dry. Much of California has been suffering a drought for a few years. Precipitation that falls as snow in the higher elevations gives the rest of us water for much of the year as the snow melts and flows down to lower elevations. We can see this clearly in Yosemite Valley through the falls, Bridalveil and Yosemite being the most common. Water flow changes dramatically during the year, but they should be fairly robust at this time of year and they weren’t. This past year wildfires have come dangerously close to popular areas of the park. It’s hard to imagine but there is no way to avoid the reality that climate change is badly affecting the park.

My next concern follows from a conversation we had with one of the park rangers. We often joke with park rangers about silly questions they get from park guests, but a few struck me as more concerning than silly. The ranger was walking along a trail and met a group of hikers; she told them that she saw a bobcat nearby and hopefully they would too. One of the hikers said: “Oh, did you just let him out?” Later that season (in the autumn when the falls often run dry) a woman asked her to “turn on the falls” since she had come all the way from England.

Both these encounters point to a troubling reality: we’ve become so acclimated to being spectators in a planned experience that we don’t recognize when we are truly “in the wild.” I call this the “Disney effect.” Instead of going into the wilderness and observing what nature has to teach us, we think that the whole thing is a staged event we can manipulate. Do you want to see the falls? Don’t worry that you’ve come at a time of year where water rarely falls, we can turn it on. Do you want to see one of the native animals? Let us know and we’ll release him.

This reality robs us of the opportunity to do exactly what the early Yosemite caretakers wished: to see how natural beauty and breathtaking scenery can transform our lives long after we leave the valley. John Muir (1838-1914) and countless others dreamed of a place that would teach us, not entertain us. They wanted us to leave the valley with a greater understanding of and respect for nature; this understanding and respect would compel us to treat the rest of the earth with the wisdom we gained there. It has with me, and I hope it has with others.

At the beginning of this post I spoke of a “tinge of sadness.” On our trip to Yosemite I received word that my Aunt Eva died after a short illness. She was married to my father’s oldest brother, Uncle Ed. Aunt Eva was a wonderful woman. She was born in Gardner, Massachusetts to immigrants from Kent County, New Brunswick (Canada). She married Uncle Ed in 1952 and had two of my favorite cousins: David and Terry. I don’t remember visiting Gardner (as a child or an adult) without a trip to 69 Baker St. I also don’t remember not being treated to her famous fricot. If you’ve never had the joy of eating fricot you need to put this on your bucket list. It’s not a dish for the wealthy. It’s a dish for good, hardworking people who want a simple, elegant meal at the end of a hard day’s work. It always made me feel loved, and in touch with those ancestors whose hard work made my success in life possible. Aunt Eva, I’ll miss you.

Freedom of Speech: Can We Take a Breath and Be More Accurate?

January 17th, 2015

There is much to talk about with the events of the last month, but I’m going to focus in on the abuse of the phrase “free speech.”

Last month the movie The Interview was roundly criticized by North Korea. This is not surprising as the point of the movie is the assassination of their leader Kim Jong Un. It was produced by Columbia Pictures (owned by Sony) and it became clear that its Christmas debut was problematic: many Americans feared seeing the movie because of threats of violence against the theaters. Because of that the film was pulled.

Almost anyone could have predicted the backlash. Threats of revenge, realistic or not, created pressure to on Sony to cancel the premier. Then another backlash caused Sony to release it and make it available for download. Many felt that Sony’s decision to block the release was an attack on free speech.

As an American I applaud the conversation but I am troubled by some of the debate. The idea of Sony’s action was attack on free speech made it seem that the decision by Sony was somehow unconstitutional.

As this discussion was quieting we read, to our horror, of the assassination in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is a satiric periodical that has parodied, among others, Jesus, the Pope, the prophet Mohammed, and others. Many of us find some of these images troubling and even offensive and, as a result, don’t subscribe. But a few terrorists, who claim to be Muslims, decided that these images allowed them to murder.

This, also, created a backlash where many of us expressed our support for Charlie Hebdo and satirists over the world.

I support neither North Korea nor those who killed the good people in Paris (which also included 2 police officers and 4 hostages in a neighboring Jewish market) but I don’t think these are attacks on freedom of speech. Please understand that I am, in no way, excusing or supporting these attacks.

When we think of “freedom of speech” we normally think of the Constitution and we all revere what it protects. But it protects only one thing: you cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or imprisoned for expressing your opinion. It does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. In other words, if I say something hurtful or offensive to my wife, I’m not protected from her reaction. It only means I can’t be arrested.

If I choose to view the movie or read Charlie Hebdo, I’m not celebrating freedom of speech. The Constitution has nothing to say about this. But I will be making a statement about freedom from fear. The phrase “freedom from fear” should ring a bell: In his State of the Union in 1941 President Roosevelt spoke of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom of fear. A few months later the artist Norman Rockwell painted his interpretation of freedom from fear onto canvas.

I celebrate both freedom of speech and freedom from fear and am grateful that I can live in a place and time where I can do both. But as a student of American Constitutional history I feel a need to make a distinction between the two. Maybe nobody except me cares about this, but these freedoms are not the same thing.

If you choose to see the movie or buy the magazine, know you are celebrating freedom from fear and not freedom of speech.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 18: The Senate Intelligence Report on the CIA’s Torture Program Shows That the Nuremberg Defense is Alive and Well

December 15th, 2014

Earlier this week the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. After the events of 9/11 the CIA began, with the approval of President Bush, to gather intelligence that would allow us to find, capture, and prosecute those responsible.

Virtually everyone in the country, and indeed the world, found this appropriate. Violence should always be answered with justice. But early on it became clear that while we all agree on the goal, the Bush administration saw this as an opportunity to suspend the Constitution and ignore long held prohibitions on torture.

Over the next several years we learned about Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, Extraordinary Rendition and a host of other terms. Many of us (who wanted justice for 9/11 as much as anyone) believed that the Bush administration made unwise and illegal decisions under the guise of national security. Unfortunately the administration was clear: anyone who disagrees with us is unpatriotic and secretly hopes for the destruction of the United States.

Time and again they claimed that “enhanced interrogation” of “the worst of the worst” led them to intelligence that saved thousands of lives. Many of us were suspicious or doubtful but in the absence of information (that they refused to release) it was hard to prove.

It isn’t any longer. According to an article in Vox, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence decided to launch an investigation in March of 2009. To be fair this isn’t a coincidence: it came two months after the inauguration of President Obama. Then again many of us voted for President Obama hoping that he would stop the abuses of the Bush administration. In any case when they began their investigation it became clear that they couldn’t interview anyone from the CIA because the Department of Justice was considering criminal prosecution of those involved. Nobody from the CIA would testify out of a well placed fear that any testimony could be used against them in a criminal trial. While the Justice Department decided in 2010 not to prosecute anyone, it gave the Republican members of the committee the cover they needed to stop cooperating with the investigation and distance themselves from any findings. They are now portraying this investigation and report as one sided and partisan even though they abandoned their chance to affect it.

The Democrats on the committee continued their work and published the results here. It’s pretty devastating.

As Americans we need to ask two questions: (1) Is torture permissible?, and (2) Does it work?

As to the first question, I answer “no.” Torture is ultimately about convincing another human that he isn’t human. Torture means telling someone that he isn’t of any value outside of his ability to provide information that is valuable to the enemy. When our Vietnam Veterans spoke of being tortured they all knew that they were being coerced to give information that would injure their country in exchange for better treatment. And they took solace in the fact that the United States didn’t torture Vietnamese prisoners.

As to the second question, that answer is clearly “no.” The report is clear that any information gained was already known from another source or was gained from the prisoner before the torture began. Simply put, all the torture gave us nothing.

And yet the previous administration continues to push back against the facts. Former Vice President Dick Cheney stated on Meet the Press that he would do it again. He claimed it was justified because the Justice Department ruled those tactics permissible.

In the final word this is what troubles me most. The Bush administrated claims to rely on the opinion of the Justice Department even though they were officials Bush appointed. Everyone, from the president on down to the torturers, claimed to be following orders. This sends chills down my spine because it reminds me of the Nuremberg Defense. After World War II the surviving leaders of the Nazi party were put on trial for war crimes. They defended their actions by saying that they were “just following orders” and were not responsible for their actions. The court ruled this defense unacceptable: the defendants had a moral and legal responsibility to refuse to carry our orders that were clearly illegal.

I wish that was more widespread here. Unfortunately there was one man who stood up and called out the torture for what it was: John Kiriakou. He is now in federal prison. His inmate number is 79637-083. Had other shown his courage he might not be there and we would be a country that better lived up to its values.

We Are All Ferguson

November 27th, 2014

Today is Thanksgiving Day, but many of us can’t shake the images we’ve been seeing from Ferguson, Missouri.

For those living under a rock, take heart: almost none of us had heard of this suburb of St. Louis before August 9, 2014. On that date police officer Dennis Wilson responded to a call of a young black man stealing cigarillos from a local store. Arriving on the scene Officer Wilson found two young men walking in the street, one of whom (Michael Brown) fit the description of the man who stole the cigarillos. Two minutes later Officer Brown had redness and swelling on his right cheek and Mr. Brown was dead from at least six gunshot wounds.

Protests began almost immediately. Many in Ferguson, and elsewhere, believed Mr. Brown was killed by law enforcement because he was a young black man. Had he been white he would still be with us.

This perception was exacerbated by the fact that the city of Ferguson is 69% black (according to the 2010 census) while the police force is 6% black. This is due, in no small part, to the changing demographics in Ferguson. In 1980 the population of Ferguson was 85% white, but by 2010 it had plummeted to 30% (I got this from a New York Times article).

This led to a perfect storm where the majority of the population was black while the majority of law enforcement was white. I call this a perfect storm because it brings back reminders of the history of slavery. From 1630 to 1865 the majority of Africans experienced America as a place of enslavement. From 1865 to the present day many of them have experienced America as a place of discrimination.

This is not universal and the fact that our President is African American gives us proof that we live in a nation that accepts people of different races.

That said we should never forget that discrimination continues to exist and seemingly random events focus us toward this reality.

The events of August 9th gives us just this reality. In the last few days I’ve read some of the testimony of the grand jury (and I encourage you to do the same. You can access much of the testimony on this New York Times article).

It’s a complicated series of events but after reading Officer Wilson’s testimony I believe he acted properly. I think he had a reasonable fear for his life and did what he had to do.

At the same time I continue to understand that much of the protest is justified. This isn’t about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson: it’s about the state of race relations in the United States. And it has to be talked about.

All of my experience of law enforcement have been positive but mine is not everyone’s experience. People of color (of all ages) recognize “the look.” They know that they come under extra scrutiny when they walk into a convenience store and countless of them have had experiences with law enforcement that I would find more bewildering than offensive.

And when someone like Michael Brown is shot to death it feels like an attack on an entire community. I briefly lived in Memphis several years ago, less than a mile from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. I remember speaking with people from the neighborhood who lived there then. They felt that his assassination was the first shot in a war against them and this feeling was exacerbated when they saw National Guard troops in tanks rolling into the neighborhood. The residents of Ferguson certainly had the same feeling when they saw the National Guard roll into their town with weapons from the 1033 program. The 1033 program provides local police departments with weapons designed for warfare. If you’re in law enforcement it’s free stuff; if you’re a minority it looks like you’re unarmed and at war with someone who wants you dead.

We also need to view these events against another reality: race relations in this country are riddled with crimes against people of color where justice was promised but not delivered. In 1963 the civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers was shot to death in his own front yard. His killer was not convicted until 1994. That same year four young girls were killed when dynamite was placed under the washroom of their church. The first of the bombers was not convicted until 1977; two more were convicted in 2001 and 2002 (a fourth died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial). In 1964 three civil rights workers were slain in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1967 seven men were convicted but none of them served more than six years.

All these cases involved lies from law enforcement that these crimes would be investigated. I ambivalent about this, but I’ve been reading about the charge that the district attorney in Ferguson convened the grand jury with no interest in indicting Officer Wilson.

I write this with a certain amount of discomfort, and maybe that’s the point. The events of Ferguson in the last three months has shown a light on a topic many of us would like to ignore: we’re not done working to achieve true harmony of skin color.

As long as I don’t get “the look” when I walk into a store but someone else does, we’re not done. As long as I see a peace officer and feel protected while another looks at the same peace officer and feels unsafe, we’re not done. And as long as anyone believes the end of slavery 149 years ago means we’re done, we’re not done.

Carl, Thank You For Conceeding But You Could Have Been More Gracious

November 10th, 2014

In an earlier post I spoke about the close race for my U.S. Representative. Two years ago we unseated Brian Bilbray by electing Scott Peters; shortly after that, Carl DeMaio announced he would run against Scott in 2014. Carl served on the San Diego City Council and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2012.

Carl is nothing but bad news for those of us who want a good future for our city and nation. Nancy had a few occasions to watch Carl live as a member of the city council. She found him to be a slimy bully.

When he planned his campaign to unseat Scott he tried to brand himself as a team player, a problem solver, and a “new type of Republican.” He wasn’t any of those. Carl is gay and is in a long term relationship with Jonathon Hale; he claims that he is hoping to make the Republican Party more accepting of gays.

As a Democrat I applaud him and hope he is successful. Alas, I don’t think he will be successful because I don’t think he’s honest. All along he’s assumed that because he’s gay he would automatically get the San Diego gay vote. He didn’t and it never occurred to him that he would have to actually have to work for the gay vote.

I’ve spent the last several days waiting for his concession and hoped he would be gracious. Yeah, right. Toward the end of his campaign there were allegations that he sexually harassed two of his campaign aids. This is never good news for someone running for office but Carl’s strategy came down to accusing Scott of planting these stories.

It was his last opportunity to show some class and he blew it. Good riddance Carl.

Happy Anniversary to this Blog

November 7th, 2014

As of yesterday it’s been 10 years since I started this online blog. At the time I was on the cusp of leaving my job as a chaplain at Odyssey Hospice, which is now part of Gentiva Hospice. I wasn’t sure where my path led, but I knew it didn’t follow the same path as Odyssey Hospice. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to be a hospice chaplain and I took some time off to explore my next step.

I was “between jobs” from November 13, 2004 until February 14, 2005. I learned a number of things, but mostly I learned that I don’t do unemployment well. I caught two colds, suffered several days of indecision, and learned that I like the simple pleasure of a good days’ work. As I look back on the blog I have to admit a certain amount of embarrassment over the blog posts in the first few months: it had a “dear diary” flavor to it. That only changed when I started working again; I posted less, but thought more.

Since then the blog has turned into my honest thoughts. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve written, and in 2007 my friend Chip suggested that I move my page to his server. Since then I’ve had a page that gives you the ability to search my page and give me feedback. It’s been good.

Hopefully everyone who reads this will keep reading. I love writing, and I love (even more) getting your feedback.

It’s Been a Few Days and I’m Feeling a Little Better

November 7th, 2014

On Tuesday night I stopped blogging at 8PM, mostly because all the news coverage was all about the stunning Republican landslide. The idea of Republican control of the Senate, even without the 60 vote filibuster proof majority, troubles me.

It’s been a few days and I’m starting to feel a little more hope. While things on the national level didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, things in California generally went well. We re-elected California Governor Jerry Brown for a 4th term. By all accounts he’s done a remarkable job of reversing the downward slide we experienced from Arnold Schwarzenegger and he was able to win re-election with little campaigning.

Two years ago Scott Peters narrowly unseated incumbent Brian Bilbray. The race was so close that it took 10 days after the election to be sure Scott won. A congressman faces his toughest re-election after his first term and this was no exception. From Scott’s first day on the job Carl DeMaio, a former city council member, announced his intention to run for Scot’s seat in 2014. The race was neck and neck and on election night Carl was winning the counted votes by 752. On Wednesday night it was reversed and Scott was ahead by 861 votes. At this point all the votes cast on election day and most of the mail in votes had been counted; all that was left were the mail in votes that were dropped off on election day and provisional ballots.

Frankly this time last night I was pretty optimistic. Most mail in ballots skew Republican and were mailed in early. I’m not sure I’m proud of this but most people who wait until the last minute vote Democrat. I also believe that most provisional ballots would skew Democrat.

In any case I was pretty anxious waiting for the results. I was hoping that Scott’s momentum would continue and afraid it would reverse. The results were so good I had to check a few places to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Scott’s lead went from 861 votes to 4,491 with somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 votes left to count.

In my mind this finishes the election. For the sake of simplicity I’ve rounded the number up from 4,491 to 4,500. If there are 15,000 ballots left to count, Carl would have to win 9,750 of them. If there are 10,000 ballots left to count, Carl would have to win 7,250 of them. Either way it’s a hard hill to climb.

On the Republican side I’m impressed that Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham beat back challenges from the tea party (I refuse to link or capitalize). I’m hoping that will make moderate Republicans more willing (or less fearful) to actually work with President Obama.

Finally, I read an excellent column by David Broder who speaks eloquently about the reality that Republican demographics are diminishing. Almost nobody who has recently become an American citizen or has recently become old enough to vote thinks their future lies with the Republican party. I think David is right and I’m happy to think so.

Election Night 2014: Not Sure How Long I’ll Blog Tonight

November 4th, 2014

It’s my tradition to blog on election as we follow the races. I may not follow them as far into the night as I usually do for a few reasons. The first is that I’m generally disappointed with how the candidates are running the election.

The Republicans are running this as a referendum on a President with two years left on his political life. The Democrats are running like President Obama doesn’t exist. I’m proud of my votes for him, I think he’s done an excellent job given what he faced in January of 2009, and I’m angry that my party is trying to pretend he’s not there.

The other reason is a more simple one: I don’t think there is as much at stake tonight. Nobody believes the leadership of the House of Representatives will change, the Presidency will certainly not change, and while the majority may shift in the Senate we likely won’t know tonight. There are close Senate races in North Carolina and Louisiana but they likely won’t be decided now. Both races have more than 2 candidates and require 50% plus one to win. In other words it’s a fair bet that both races will require runoffs.

7:00PM Pacific Time, 10:00PM Eastern Time, 3:00 AM Greenwich Mean Time: The polls don’t close for another hour here in California so I have nothing to report. I’m disappointed but not surprised to see that Mitch McConnell survived a strong challenge. He had to fight for the Republican nomination from Matt Bevin, a member of the Tea Party. He won the nomination and I had hoped he would be so wounded that the Democrats would unite against him. Alas, Mitch won, and if the Republicans win the Senate he will be the majority leader.

I’m also disappointed by the 7th Congressional district of Virginia. In a stunning upset in June, Dave Brat defeated Eric Cantor. Dave is an economics professor at Randolf Macon College, and this placed him against the Democratic nominee, Jack Trammell, who ironically enough, is also a faculty member at Randolf Macon. Jack was supposed to be the guy Eric Cantor would destroy in the election. When Brat won, I hoped the Democrats would unite and defeat Brat, but it didn’t happen. The 7th Virginia Congressional district is still pretty Republican and I’m guessing that moderate Republicans who liked Eric held their noses and voted for Brat.

On the other hand I’m pleased with New Hampshire. Senator Jean Shaheen was challenged by Scott Brown. Scott was born in Maine, but moved to Massachusetts as an infant. In 2010 he won a special election to fill the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy who died of cancer. Scott expected that this would lead to him holding that seat for a long time, but he lost to Elizabeth Warren in the general election in 2012.

Scott then moved to New Hampshire and challenged Jean. Tonight’s projections show that he will lose to Jean. I find this good news because it shows Scott as an opportunist. He doesn’t care who he represents, he just wants to be a Senator. This makes the charge that he is a carpetbagger who will go anywhere and say anything to gain power.

8:00 PM Pacific Team, 11:00 PM Eastern Time, 4:00 AM Greenwich Mean Time: The polls have closed in California but almost nothing is certain where I live. My congressional race pits the incumbent Scott Peters (Democrat) against Carl Demaio (Republican) and almost certainly won’t be settled tonight. In fairness, two years ago Scott’s victory wasn’t announced until 3 days after the election. It may happen again. While my district is trending Democrat, it may be a few more years to turn it blue.

We voted on several ballot measures, but the measure that I cared the most about was Propsition 46. As most of you know I’m married to a doctor. If you’ve been harmed by a doctor on a medical procedure you can sue the doctor. If it’s found that it was malpractice you can sue on a few grounds. If the doctor’s malpractice prevents you from ever working again you can sue the doctor for the wages you would have earned for the rest of your career and there is no ceiling on what you can sue for. If the doctor’s malpractice causes you to need medical care for the rest of your life you can sue for the care you need for the rest of your life.

So what is left? Well if you sue somebody you can claim the money you need to care for the injured person and to replace his (or her) wages but you can also sue for “pain and suffering.”

“Pain and suffering” is the money you get for saying that the plaintiff was irresponsible. It’s meant as a scare tactic against large companies who feel that settling lawsuits is a good financial decision. Right now in California there is a cap of $250,000; that is, no matter what happens a plaintiff can’t collect more than $250,000 for pain and suffering. Proposition 46 would raise that immediately to $1,100,000 and index yearly increases to inflation. To be fair the $250,000 cap has not moved since 1975. But Prop 46 would have had a catastrophic effect on malpractice insurance and the ability of doctors to practice medicine in the state. There may be room for an intelligent discussion on pain and suffering caps, but this was nothing more than a money grab for lawyers.

OK, I’m getting sufficiently depressed that I need to stop blogging and get a night’s sleep.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 17: Governor Brownback, We Warned You

October 31st, 2014

I’m upset that this isn’t a bigger story, but the standing Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas is in the political fight of his life. This is news because he is a Republican.

Remember this is Kansas. The state that has declared war on teaching evolution.

Four years ago Sam was elected Kansas’ governor in a landslide after a 14 year career in the U.S. Senate. Sam is a strong believer in “supply side economics” or what many of us call “trickle down economics”. Basically this economic theory claims that if we cut income taxes, especially to the richest among of us, that will stimulate the economy. The people who get to keep more of their money will invest it. Ordinary people spend more money. Small businesses, who benefit from this increase in spending, will expand and hire more workers. The money lost on the tax cuts will be offset by more money in income taxes by the people who are hired and the sales taxes paid by the people who spend more.

The best part of this model is that it both looks good and feels good. Who doesn’t want to raise revenue by cutting taxes? Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work. It’s like all the “eat whatever you want and lose weight” diets.

Four years ago Sam was elected and he promised “an experiment.” OK, I have to ask this: someone who has declared war on science is conducting an experiment? In any case he promised to cut state income taxes on small businesses and wealthy individuals and he did. Small business taxes were cut to 0% (that’s right: no taxes) and the highest individual tax bracket was cut by 24% (you can see this here). He promised that while state revenue may take an immediate hit, it will be soon made up by people and businesses who move to Kansas to take advantage of this experiment.

Did it work? No. The NPR story provides an excellent outline of what happened, but basically this is what happened: small businesses benefitted because they didn’t pay taxes but they didn’t expand because there was no increase in business. NPR spoke with Alex Harb, who owns a computer store in Wichita. He spoke about how his tax cut allowed him to purchase more products for his store, but this has not led to an increase in business. Because of this he has not opened new stores or hired more employees. He has not become a job creator.

Is there a downside? Amazingly the supply side/trickle down guys don’t talk about this. Kansas anticipated a drop of $300 million in revenue while the tax cuts kicked in. Alas, they saw a drop of $600 million with no end in sight. If you are wealthy Kansan or a small business owner you have more money in your pocket. But if you work for the state you’re screwed.

The town of Marquette, Kansas was so devastated by the tax cuts that they had to close their last remaining school. You can read this on the Topeka Capital-Journal website. Amazingly the loss of jobs by the school district wasn’t expected by Sam.

So how has the state done? Sam promised that his “experiment” would show that Kansas’ economy would outpace the economies of neighboring states. Has it?

No. Employment in Kansas has grown by about two percent in Kansas, which sounds fine until you recognize that, according to the NPR article, Kansas has fallen behind the national average and three of the four states that border Kansas (and they all have higher tax rates).

I found this at the web page for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Senate. They track several trends, and I looked at private sector job growth since February of 2010. Kansas and its neighbors (Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Nebraska) showed these results:

  • Colorado: 12.8%
  • Oklahoma: 10.8%
  • Kansas: 6.8%
  • Nebraska: 6.1%
  • Missouri: .8%

According to this Kansas is in the middle of the pack. That’s fine except Sam promised they would leave their neighbors in the dust. Clearly he hasn’t.

The best part of this story for me is the loyalty Sam expected from his fellow Republicans. He should have recognized Republican loyalty is a synonym for jumbo shrimp. Given the opportunity they headed for safety. This story shows how 100 prominent Republicans are endorsing his Democrat opponent Paul Davis. Do you think these Republicans endorsed Davis out of principle? Neither do I. They made a political decision that their future lies in abandoning Sam after cheering him on.

Sam may win or lose, but if he wins, the people of Kansas lose.