Tuesday, August 25, 2015

How Do We See the Poor?

Last week I attended the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association annual brunch at the Springfield Hilton. I know what the Republicans said in their presidential debate. I wanted to hear what Democrats say as we gather steam for election year 2016.

People handed me stickers for candidates; candidates wandered around shaking hands. Then came two and half hours of speeches. Political speeches tend to sound alike. But they tell you what concerns the speaker most, what they want to accomplish with your vote. At the Democrats’ brunch, I heard over and over again the imperative to help “the most vulnerable” in our society.

Susana Mendoza, the City Clerk of Chicago who is running for Illinois Comptroller, worried about how the current budget crisis would lead to cutbacks at Illinois social service agencies, hurting “the most vulnerable”. Mike Frerichs, the Illinois Treasurer, told us what he is proud of since he barely won election in 2014: financial measures to help the poor, like college savings accounts, retirement plans, and the Able Act, helping families with a disabled dependent. He also talked about “the most vulnerable”.

Four Democrats are running for the US Senate seat held by Republican Mark Kirk. In their brief speeches, they all spoke of the imperative of helping poorer people. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth said, “We have to be there for the voiceless. We are better off as Americans when we don’t leave anyone behind.” Richard Boykin, Cook County Commissioner, will advocate for “those who have been left out”. Andrea Zopp gave us the image of “people working hard to pull themselves out of poverty”.

Napoleon Harris went to school with the same clothes every day, before hi stalnet carried him to an NFL career and now to the Illinois Statehouse. His life demonstrates that getting out of poverty requires effort by many individuals, which is what Republicans focus on. But Harris also stressed the importance of collective help from the surrounding society.

The contrast between what these Democrats said and what Republican presidential candidates say about poverty is striking. Little has changed since Mitt Romney said that 47% of voters “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Only one of the ten men at the Republican debate, Ohio Governor John Kasich, discussed poor Americans at all. For Republicans, poor people are mainly targets of abuse, not help. Donald Trump said in June that poor people “sit back and say we’re not going to do anything. They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.” Jeb Bush has criticized poor families, proposing a model he doesn’t think they follow: “A loving family taking care of their children in a traditional marriage will create the chance to break out of poverty far better, far better than any of the government programs that we can create”. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker blocked the expansion of Medicaid in his state, asking, “Why is more people on Medicaid a good thing?” The health insurance plan he outlined in the debate to replace Obamacare would cut subsidies to poor people.

There is nothing new about Republicans blaming the poor for their own predicament. Long before Ronald Reagan used stories about welfare fraud to characterize poor people in America, conservatives created a distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Republican candidates don’t propose to help people in poverty, because Republican voters believe poverty is poor people’s own fault. 51% of Republicans in a 2014 Pew survey thought that poverty is caused by “lack of effort”. Republican politicians helped to create the image of the poor as undeserving. Now Republican voters demand it. Economic data, census surveys, or social scientific research are not useful here.

The Republican unwillingness to use government resources to help the poor is just what the richest people want. That’s one reason why donations of $1 million or more have benefitted Republican candidates 12 times as much as Democratic candidates.

I don’t feel that way. Conservatives imagine all kinds of explanations for why I might not think the poor are undeserving: I’m a liberal, a socialist, a communist, a Jew, a New Yorker, a college professor. I would blame my parents. They managed to communicate two ideas. It was important to look upwards, to try for better, and to work for that. Equally important was to look down the scale of success, but not to look down on less successful people. I learned from them to see how the system of power and wealth promulgates the idea that those who don’t have it don’t deserve it.

I wouldn’t have been able to hold down a brunch with the Republican presidential candidates. When Republicans turn their evil eye on the poor, I get sick. The Democrats made me feel at home. They see the system and want change it. We can argue about how much. But we won’t argue that the poor deserve what they get. 

It doesn’t do Democrats any good to advocate for the poor. They don’t make the giant political contributions that keep the Republican machine going. They don’t vote as often as the people who make those contributions. They don’t staff the offices of lobbyists in Washington. They don’t hobnob with candidates at fancy dinners. There is no quid pro quo for helping “the most vulnerable”, except the feeling that it’s the right thing to do.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 25, 2015

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What Are the Issues for Republican Presidential Candidates?

The first Republican presidential debate two weeks ago has spawned countless news reports about what the candidates said, with emphasis on Donald Trump’s anger at being confronted with his own words about women. What do these men think about the real issues that face our nation?

The surprisingly pointed questions posed by the FOX moderators tilted the debate in certain directions. The first few questions pointed up potential weaknesses of various candidates, such as the problems in New Jersey’s economy under Gov. Chris Christie and the divisive rhetoric of Sen. Ted Cruz, inviting defensive assertions, but not policy statements.

Abortion was the first real issue brought up. Gov. Scott Walker and former Gov. Jeb Bush bragged about defunding Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin and Florida, although what they actually did was to reduce funding to family planning clinics, some of which are run by Planned Parenthood. Walker and former Gov. Mike Huckabee said they do not support any abortions, even to save the life of the mother. Nobody contradicted them.

Of course, immigration was a big topic for discussion. Trump wants to build a wall, Rubio said, “We need a fence,” Walker said, “Secure the border.” Nobody liked the idea of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Of course, nobody mentioned that their number rose from 8 million to 12 million while George Bush was President, and has fallen slightly since 2008. Nobody offered any ideas about how to deal with so many people already living here. Only Bush offered anything positive, a “path to earned legal status”.

Foreign policy brought out some tough language. Walker wants to send weapons to Ukraine and put missiles in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Cruz wants to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Carson approved of torture of enemies. Bush said we should “take ISIS out with every tool at our disposal,” which sounds like sending more troops to the Middle East. Most who spoke on military issues urged an expansion of our armed forces. Nobody explained how this might be funded at the same time as taxes are reduced.

Gov. John Kasich offered the only discussion all night about poor Americans. He defended Ohio’s expansion of Medicaid as a means of helping the addicted, the mentally ill and the working poor. The only other person to bring up poverty in America was Jeb Bush, who said, “There’s 6 million people living in poverty today, more than when Barack Obama got elected.” That’s an amazing statement for a presidential candidate, since the US Census Bureau reported last year that over 45 million Americans live in poverty. Otherwise no candidate even acknowledged that poverty was an issue, much less offered any kind of policy to deal with it.

Conservative disdain for dealing with poverty is linked with their desire to cut government programs. Here in Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s effort to cut the state budget is depriving programs which help the poorest people of their funding. When the United Way surveyed 400 Illinois social service agencies, most replied that they could operate only a couple of months more without additional funding, and one-third have already cut back their programs.

While everybody else demanded a repeal of “Obamacare”, only Kasich discussed the importance of caring for the health of poor people. Nobody said anything about the millions of uninsured Americans, a number which has fallen from 18 to 12 million since 2013. The phrase “health care” was never used. Besides Kasich, nobody spoke of Medicaid or Medicare except Huckabee, who wants to get rid of the income tax in favor of a consumption tax. Nobody spoke about Social Security except Christie, who wants to increase the retirement age by two years.

Nobody spoke about racial issues. When Megyn Kelly asked Walker about Black Lives Matter and police killing unarmed blacks, he spoke only of improving police training. She brought up race relations again, but only asked the one black man, Dr. Ben Carson. He criticized people who talk about racial issues as divisive and said we should “move beyond” that.

Nobody mentioned the environment. Not a word about climate change or pollution, either from the moderators or the candidates. Nobody mentioned our aging infrastructure, our unsafe bridges, our closed mines full of toxic wastes. Environmental issues inevitably cost money and require regulation, and thus don’t fit the Republican mantra of reducing government and eliminating regulations.

Primaries are about trying to appeal to your friends. Republican primaries in recent years have been about portraying oneself as conservatively as possible. The candidates who have the least conservative records, like Bush and Christie, forcefully asserted their conservatism. Nobody uttered the word “moderate”, not even Kasich. Nobody talked about compromise or reaching across the aisle. Everybody talked about unifying the country, but nobody acknowledged that only a minority of Americans characterize themselves as conservative. The latest Gallup poll puts the proportion of social conservatives at 31%, which has fallen from 42% since 2009. In fact, only 53% of Republicans identify themselves as social conservatives, with 34% moderates, and 11% liberals.

Despite the talk of bringing Americans together, these Republicans disdained the majority of Americans who voted for President Obama as deluded or even stupid. We can expect 11 months more of such rhetoric until the Republican National Convention in July 2016.

Steve Hochstadt
Chicago IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 18, 2015

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Bears Don’t Hate Us, So Far

Up here in northern Wisconsin, we talk a lot about bears. Everyone has seen a bear or bears wandering through the woods. The black bears here are not dangerous to humans, although incidents are reported every year of accidental but tragic human-bear interactions in someone’s backyard.

The bears aren’t hunting us. What if they did?

Humans have generally been murderous foes of animal life. We have hunted bears, and other impressive animals, for thousands of years all over the globe. The development and spread of guns changed the natural world in the 19th century. The enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, which once took hours to pass overhead, were killed off by 1900. Bison herds which covered the plains were wiped out as the frontier was pushed westward. Animal life was subordinated to political concerns: the government promoted the slaughter of bison by the Army to make room for cattle and to weaken Native American tribes by eliminating a major food source.

Every culture treats some animals with great respect, sometimes bordering on reverence. Pets have special status, because they are considered so useful. But the idea of maintaining the permanent existence of certain wild animals by creating legal protections is a very recent idea. The shock to the popular imagination of the extinction of passenger pigeons and the near elimination of bison and whooping cranes turned the tide of public opinion in the early 20th century. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, a 1937 treaty restricting the hunting of whales, and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 created legal protections for a few species. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 went much further – President Richard Nixon declared existing laws inadequate because they ignored the destruction of habitats. We extended protection to animals we barely knew, to animals we feared, to animals to be named in the future.

Today our society harbors deeply conflicting viewpoints about the treatment of animals. At one extreme is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization which argues that animals also have the right to life. PETA focuses on situations where animal life is routinely abused for human convenience, such as on factory farms and in laboratories. But PETA also makes the radical claim that we should extend our concern for human life “to other living, feeling beings, regardless of what species they may be.”

At the other end are people like Walter Palmer, who illegally killed a lion in Zimbabwe. His desire to kill animals has frequently violated the law. The international attention being given to his obsession with killing wild animals might cause further shifts in public opinion about animal life.

Daily life is more complex than the simplistic arguments of media and politics. What animals should I kill today? I set traps for the mice which live in our cabin. Should I feel bad about swatting the mosquitos buzzing around my head? Can I save the daddy longlegs in my bed? We all express our hopes that the loon family, which never comes very close but whom we hear across the lake, will have babies that survive.

I found a garden snake the other morning and called out my family to see it. Pretty and fast, small and helpless against any human desire to kill it. I would have felt different about a rattlesnake sharing my yard with children and dogs.

Beauty helps. Who would crush a butterfly? They don’t do us much good. Displays of dead butterflies have fascinated millions of museum visitors. But killing a butterfly appears to most people, I think, as undisciplined brutality.

It seems remarkable to me that only humans hunt for the pleasure of killing. Animals might attack us individually when they feel threatened. As of now, we have nothing to worry about from all the species which we routinely kill, which we hunt, which we render homeless, sick or dead by our profligate use of the earth and waters. We are much more likely to be confronted with nightmares about a revolt of machines, from “I, Robot” to the “Terminator” and “Matrix” series, than we are to think about a revolt of the animals. The scary fantasy in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” depends on a change in the chimpanzees’ nature through human-developed drugs. Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is a rare film about aggressive animals hunting us.

What if any of those physically powerful or very numerous, and potentially deadly species we go around killing decides they’ve had enough? That seems crazy. But thinking about it is useful. Do whales have a right to attack our boats?

I’m not against hunting. I like hamburgers made with domesticated, slaughtered beef and with wild hunted deer. I’m not against hunters, although I believe some hunters are thrilled by a murderous blood-lust that I find abhorrent. I’m not a vegetarian.

But I think the lives of animals have an inherent value. I don’t like killing for the sake of killing. I try to avoid killing animals just because they are tiny or annoying. I believe the right to life should not just be about humans.          

The bears out here in the woods are a long way from planning resistance. Lucky for us.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 11, 2015