Thursday, September 27, 2012

Go directly to jail

Do not pass go.

Do not collect $200.

MacGyver ran for seven seasons on ABC (and several foreign networks) from 1985 through 1992. MacGyver was a troubleshooter for the fictional Phoenix Foundation. Whenever possible, he used non-violent solutions to the problems at hand, and he refused to carry a gun. He frequently solved complex problems with everyday materials that he found at hand, along with his ever-present duct tape and Swiss Army knife.

Both of our kids were in high school when the series was on television, and science teachers frequently used some of the tricks that they saw on TV as tools to teach their students about science.

One of those tricks was the “MacGyver bomb”. To make one, all you needed was an empty two liter soda bottle, some aluminum foil, and some liquid drain cleaner. If you crumbled up small bits of aluminum foil, put them in the bottom of the empty soda bottle, added an inch or two of drain cleaner, closed the top, and waited for about a minute, you’d have a nice little explosion.

Our son learned how to make one in HIS science class, and for a short time afterwards, he and his friends blew off a few in front of our house in Aurora.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Dumb and Dumber”, you’ll appreciate the fact that young men occasionally decide to make choices that aren’t very smart. Either Brian or his friend Paul (also known as Lee) reasoned that if the bomb was fun to listen to during the middle of the day, it would clearly be AWESOME to put one in someone’s mailbox at 3:00 in the morning.

So they did.

At 3:00 in the morning, there aren’t a lot of people driving around, but the milk drivers from Oberweis dairy in Aurora, Illinois are already starting to make their rounds. One of the Oberweis drivers witnessed Brian and Paul walking away from a now-shattered mailbox, and called Aurora’s finest.

At 4:00 in the morning, I heard loud voices in the kitchen downstairs, so went downstairs to yell at Brian and his friend. In addition to Brian and Paul, a policeman from the city was also in the kitchen, and he explained to me what Brian and Paul had done.

Brian and Paul spent the rest of the day here:

From the city jail, Brian and Paul were transported to the DuPage County government center to face charges. Because the judge had heard the word “bomb” and “mail box”, he made the assumption that the two young men had used a genuine explosive device to blow up one of the large mail boxes owned by the U.S. Postal Service. Since destroying one of those big guys is a Federal offense (and a felony), the charges brought against the two were two class A misdemeanors, and a felony charge. Somehow, one or both of them managed to convince the judge of the true nature of their offense, and the felony charge, and one of the misdemeanor charges, were dropped. Each of them was required to replace the homeowner’s mailbox, pay a $250 fine, and do 1000 hours of community service.

Neither Brian or Paul had any further scrapes with the authorities, and the mailbox incident, 18 years in the past, has long since been forgotten.

Until this week.

Brian recently passed the Illinois state examination to be a real estate leasing agent in Chicago. He had successful interviews with at least 4 companies, and finally chose to work for the largest, and oldest, leasing company in the city.

As part of the hiring practice, of course, the company did a background check on Brian. When the human resources department found a felony on Brian’s record, they naturally were concerned, and contacted Brian’s boss, who then had a “conversation” with Brian.

Due to today’s job market, anyone with a felony on their record wouldn’t even be granted an interview with many employers. Fortunately, Brian’s new employer gave him an opportunity to explain his crime. Yesterday, he drove out to the DuPage Government center and obtained copies of the court case, which showed that the felony charge was dropped EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO. He is meeting with the H.R. department again this morning, and does not anticipate any further problems .

During our phone conversation yesterday, though, both of us had the same thought. How many other people aren’t being hired because of mistake in judgment years ago that they have long since forgotten about? That also may explain, in part, the gang problem that Chicago and most other cities have. If you can’t get a decent job because of a youthful indiscretion , you are frequently forced to a life of crime to support yourself and your family.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with roughly 2.4 million people behind bars. Of that total, 1.4 million are locked up for non-violent crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. Depending on the state, it costs somewhere between $18,000 to $31,000 a year to keep each of those people in prison, which means that we (as a society) are spending between 43 and 74 BILLION dollars on our prison expenses every 365 days.

I'm not doubting that the 1.000,000 violent criminals that are currently in our prisons should continue to be imprisoned, but I believe that our society needs to be a lot smarter about where we spend our scarce resources, and I'm not convinced that being "tough on crime" is always the right answer ESPECIALLY since it enriches the coffers of the Corrections Corporation of America and the politicians it supports.

In October 2010, the SB 1070 bill, which Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce sponsored in the legislature, came under criticism for benefiting private prison companies. Most of the language of the bill had been written as model legislation at a December 2009 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where Pearce was joined as an attendee by officials of the company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA "executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market" according to National Public Radio.

In order to maintain its "cash cow", CCA spends a lot of money on lobbying. From 1999 through 2009, the company spent $18,000,000 on lobbying expenses. In view of the fact that the company had a net profit of $1.7 billion in 2010, it certainly was money well spent. Another private prison company, The Geo Group, made a net profit of $1.2 billion the same year.

lock 'em up and throw away the key?

What does it take to become a felon these days? Unfortunately, not much.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’ve probably tried marijuana at some point in your life. Even former President Bill Clinton has admitted to its use. Fortunately, though, he never inhaled any of the nasty weed.

Penalties for marijuana possession vary widely by state. In some states, possession of as little as ¾ of an ounce will make you a felon (Florida), but it takes a full kilogram to be considered a felon in Alabama. Currently, 14 states have decriminalized the possession of minor amounts of marijuana.

Forty years ago, one of my co-workers gave me a cigar-sized “joint”, which I smoked in one of our honeymoon cottages in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I DID inhale, but don’t remember feeling much effect from it, or even enjoying it that much. If one of the local gendarmes had caught me, I would have been tagged a felon, since 20 grams is all it takes in Michigan to make possession a heinous crime.

As Arlo Guthrie discovered years ago, while sitting on the Group W bench in New York City, even littering and disturbing the peace can keep you out of the Army, but I decided that joining the Minnesota National Guard was a more practical solution.

You’ve just read over 1000 words, so what kind of a picture does that leave you with?

The best answer that I can give you is this:

Brian’s heart-pounding, hyper-ventilating, experience at his new job will turn out to be just fine, but it provides some important lessons for all of us:

1) The tough on crime approach isn’t always the best solution. Although Sheriff Joe may think that pink underwear and tents for inmates are the best way to prevent crime, the facts don’t support his approach. From 2002 through 2009, violent crime has DECREASED in all Arizona police jurisdictions - except in Maricopa County. Sheriff Arpaio’s district has seen a 58% INCREASE in violent crime since 2002. To show that his priorities are in the right place, though, the good sheriff sent a deputy to Hawaii earlier this year to verify President Obamas’s birth certificate. He is now 80 years old, and he’s running for re-election.

2) Possession of marijuana is illegal in most of the countries of the world, but a handful of them have decriminalized the possession of minor amounts, as have 14 states in the United States. You can find ample reasons NOT to make drugs of all types legal, but even Forbes magazine feels that it’s time to “end the war on drugs” in America. After all, the Volstead Act produced some unintended consequences, to the delight of a guy named “Scarface”.

3) Even if your “ghosts in the closet” happened a long time ago, you can never tell when they’ll come back to haunt you. In Brian’s case, he was able to resolve his crisis, but he went through some very anxious moments in the meantime. If you’ve had ANY problems with the law in your past, go to the courthouse to review your records. You may be able to correct a problem that you had long since forgotten about before it causes problems for you in the future.

To quote American author Flannery O’Connor, the life you save may be your own.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A nice place for uranium mining

In January of this year, the Obama administration imposed a 20 year ban on new mining claims on Federal land near the Grand Canyon. Although roughly 3000 mining claims have already been staked in the area, officials expect fewer than a dozen mines will be developed under existing claims.

Believe it or not, there WAS a time when uranium mining was done within the walls of the Grand Canyon itself. The origin of what eventually became known as the Orphan Mine dates back to a claim for a copper mine that was filed in 1893. Although copper was only mined for a couple of years, uranium eventually was mined at the location from 1956 until 1969, and a motel (the Grand Canyon Inn) operated near the mine site until 1966. Today, the location is considered to be a potential Superfund site, and millions of dollars have been spent so far in an attempt to determine the amount of contamination present at the site. As of 2008,the cost of remediation for the surface area of the mine was determined to be $15,000,000, and the cost to deal with contamination inside the mine and in a nearby creek (which drains into the Colorado River) is unknown.

Since the parties responsible for the contamination are ducking responsibility for the clean up costs, the burden has fallen to the National Park Service, which (naturally) means that we, the taxpayers, are the folks who are actually on the hook.

In addition to the uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, extensive uranium mining was conducted on the Navajo Nation. Between 1944 and 1986, over 4,000,000 tons of uranium were mined on the reservation, leaving a legacy of death and disease. The most contaminated area is the Northeast Church Rock Mine near Gallup, New Mexico, but other areas of concern are in Mexican Hat in Utah and in Tuba City. Arizona. The U.S. Environmental Agency recently provided a grant of $200,000 to Northern Arizona University to explore ways to re-mediate some of the contamination.

Fortunately, justice eventually prevailed for the Navajo Nation. In April of 2014, a $5.15 billion settlement was announced by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Grand Canyon National Park attracts more than 4,000,000 visitors a year, and generates an estimated $3.5 billion in economic activity. In addition, 26 million Americans in 4 states rely on the Colorado river for clean drinking water.

Not everyone, naturally, is in favor of the ban. Senator John McCain of Arizona (who has close ties to the two defense contractors responsible for the Orphan Mine site) and Representative Rob Bishop of Utah both feel that the ban jeopardizes jobs for no proven reason. The most entertaining (?) individual to watch on this topic, though, is Arizona State Representative Sylvia Allen, who’s of the opinion that the earth is only 6000 years old.

She’s off a bit on her numbers, of course, since the Vishnu Basement Rocks of the Grand Canyon have been determined to be slightly less than 2 billion years old. I’ll go out on a limb and say that I would consider her to be a little, um, wacky, but she has an awful lot of company.

It is estimated that nearly 50% of the adults in American would also be considered to be believers in Young Earth creationism, which means that you are VERY LIKELY to run into a few of them on your next trip to Walmart.

In case you're wondering, the man responsible for the "young earth" theory is Archbishop of Ireland James Ussher. In 1650, he estimated that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C.. His work continues to be cited today by many creationists, but even Pat Robertson now believes that the earth is actually considerably older.

My front door is less than 100 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Uranium mines look like this:

The Grand Canyon looks like this:

Guess which one I’d rather have in my back yard?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

One nation under God

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a man named Francis Bellamy in 1892. It was first published in a children’s magazine called The Youth’s Companion, and was part of the National Public School Celebration of the 400th anniversary of the day that Christopher Columbus first set foot on American soil.

The original pledge read as follows:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Bellamy was a Baptist minister, as well as a socialist, and he also wanted to include the words “equality” and “fraternity“, but decided against it due to the fact that the superintendents of education in his community were against equality for women and African-Americans.

After its original publication, the pledge was amended three more times. Eighteen years after the third revision, the Pledge was officially recognized by Congress in June of 1942, in all likelihood due to the fact that America was now officially at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The Cold War officially started in 1946, and by the time that the junior senator from Wisconsin had done his damage, America had a genuine fear of all those Godless communists. In 1951, the Knights of Columbus organization started to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and on Flag Day of 1954, the words “under God” were officially incorporated into the Pledge by a Joint Resolution of Congress.

It’s impossible to know what the Founding Fathers would have thought about the various changes in the Pledge, but it’s abundantly clear that the Founding Fathers felt very strongly that religion was a private matter in which the state should not interfere. Although there IS a reference to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, there is NO reference at all to a divine being in the Constitution, and the very first amendment to the Constitution forbade the establishment of any official church or creed.

For the same reason, the currency that was issued by our new country did NOT have the words “In God We Trust” on either the coins or the paper currency.

At the height of the Civil War, the Union figured that it needed all the help that it could get, so legislation was passed on April 22, 1864 to allow inclusion of the phrase on one and two cent coins. Although the phrase was subsequently added to other coins, it wasn’t until 1938 that ALL coins included the phrase.

For the same reason that “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954, the United States officially replaced the “unofficial” motto of E pluribus Unum with an OFFICIAL motto of “In God we trust.” Three years later, Congress started to add the phrase to paper money. By 1966, ALL paper currency issued by the United States included the words “In God we trust.”

From time to time, a columnist or commentator will state the position that the United States is a Christian nation. Unfortunately, that is simply NOT the truth. Ironically, the very FIRST nation to recognize the new country of the United States was the Islamic country of Morocco, way back in 1777, and our countries have had a strong relationship ever since.

During the colonial period in America, people could be (and were) put to death for disagreeing with their pastors, and the Founding Fathers had seen enough religious wars in Europe that they felt very strongly about establishing a SECULAR, not a religious country. Modern examples of why mixing religion and state are wrong are (1) the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan and (2) the exercise of sharia law in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and a few other countries.

It IS a fact that the majority of the citizens of Amreica are Christians . To be precise, Christians make up 78.4 % of our population, and the overwhelming majority of those would be considered Protestant.

Although Catholicism is the second most popular religion in the entire world (after Islam) Catholics represent only 24% of the American population. Mormons are a tiny 1.7% of the population. Ironically, that’s the same percentage claimed by those of the Jewish faith. Muslims are less than 1% of the total.

In spite of their small percentages, though, both Jews and Muslims are the overwhelming victims of hate crimes in America. The vast majority of those hate crimes are committed by mis-guided “Christians”.

Although our Founding Fathers made every attempt to separate religion from state, there have been times throughout our history when one group or another wanted to have us return to our “Christian values”. Setting aside the fact that there’s no small irony in the fact that serial adulterers like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh are among the group asking us to return to Christian values, what exactly ARE Christian values?

For starters, I would define acting as a Christian as acting as Christ would have acted. Using THAT definition, I actually met a lot of atheists in China who were better Christians than some of the Christians that I’ve met in America, but that’s straying from topic a bit.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Christian values is the Universal Declarations of Human Rights that was issued by the United Nations in 1948, in large part to the worldwide outrage generated by the Holocaust (which some folks still don’t believe). A copy is attached in the link above, and I’d recommend reading the entire document.

Like most modern countries, the United States has done a pretty good job of enforcing the ideals found in the United Nations document, but there are still areas that we need to improve in, even more than 60 years later. Here’s a few quick examples:

1 - Article 2 states that everyone, regardless of color, has the same rights and freedoms. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that our country passed the Voting Rights Act, and in the last two years, more than 20 states have passed voter ID laws, which were designed SPECIFICALLY to deny minorities the right to vote.

2 - Article 5 prohibits torture, but that didn’t prevent us from using “enhanced interrogation methods” about 10 years ago.

3- Article 9 prohibits arbitrary arrest, but apparently Sheriff Joe didn’t get the memo.

4 - Article 18 grants freedom of religion and thought, and includes the freedom to change religion, but I’ve met PLENTY of folks who were convinced that THEIR religion, and ONLY there religion, was the way to salvation. Since Paul Harvey once got a letter from God, I thought I’d share God’s thoughts with you:

what does a letter from Heaven sound like?

5 - Article 19 includes the right to freedom of opinion and expression, without interference. Have you ever heard of Sean Hannity?

6- Article 23 gives the right of equal pay for equal work, but it took until January of 2009 to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay act.

7 - Article 21 states that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government, but Arizona has a wacky legislator (and we have a bunch of them here) who wants to have our Senators APPOINTED rather than elected.

8 - Article 23 also gives the right to form a union, but Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin didn’t get the memo, either.

9 - Article 25 gives the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care - even if the only medical care that his wife can afford is provided by Planned Parenthood.

10 - Article 25 also meshes well with the Bible. The words “poor” or “poverty” appear 446 times in 384 verse in the Bible, and the word “justice” appears 1576 times in the Old Testament and 1379 times in the New Testament.

By now, you’re probably seeing a trend.

Although our elected officials in Congress have managed to work together in the past to find bi-partisan solutions to social problems (and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program is probably the best example) bi-partisan cooperation in Congress in recent years has gone the way of the dodo bird.

If you’ve had a chance to review Paul Ryan’s budget, or taken a closer look at the 2012 Republican Party platform, you’ll notice that the most vulnerable members of our society would potentially be at greater risk than they are now.

I’m all for Christian values. That’s why the Party that best exemplifies Christian values should continue to control the White House and the Senate, and I’d like to see them get control of the House as well.

Can I hear an Amen, brothers and sisters?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Read this book !

Even if you didn’t watch either the Republican or the Democratic conventions, you’re probably aware of the fact that NEITHER party is entirely satisfied with the state of the economy. Both parties, of course, offer competing visions on how to fix the problem, but how do we actually know WHICH solution would work better in the long run?

Since none of us have a crystal ball, the answer is very easy. All we have to do is to look at similar situations in our nation’s history, and see how our ancestors solved the problem.

The decade of the 1930’s was the most dramatic upheaval in our nation’s history, and it very nearly brought our country to the state of collapse.

One of the best books that I’ve ever read about the Great Depression is a book titled “Nothing To Fear”, written by Adam Cohen. Although the DEGREE of economic crisis in the 30’s was much more severe than we face today, the PROBLEMS that the Roosevelt administration faced are remarkably similar to the issues that we face today.

Then, as now, the Democrats and the Republicans had very different solutions to the problems at hand.

By clicking on the link below, you can get a sneak preview of the topics covered in the book, but I would STRONGLY recommend reading the book in its entirely yourself before drawing any conclusions.

Nothing To Fear

Rather than giving my viewpoint on the book, I’ll leave you with three surprising facts:

1) Although many people today might consider him to be a socialist, FDR was actually a fiscal conservative. The second bill passed by his administration was the Economy Act of 1933, which slashed the Federal Budget of $3.6 billion by $500,000,000. He also made further cuts in 1937.

2) The vast majority of the ideas of the New Deal actually weren’t Roosevelt’s, but came from a woman that most people aren’t familiar with.

3) The book spends a great deal of time discussing the Gold Standard, which the United States went off of in 1933. Surprisingly, the 2012 Republican platform advocates a RETURN to the Gold Standard.

With the full cooperation of both parties in Congress (a situation that we DON’T have today) it took a full EIGHT YEARS before our GDP returned to its 1929 level. You can draw your own conclusions from there today.

Since Roosevelt was in office for slightly more than 12 years, he’s offered a LOT of compelling advice that can help us to move forward. Attached below are just TWO of his quotations:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

“We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals; we now know that it is bad economics.“

The slogan for Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign was “Happy Days Are Here Again”. If we can somehow figure out a way to work TOGETHER again for the common good, we’ll eventually get to the point that we can starting singing that old tune again.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The bucket list

When I first moved to Evanston about 7 years ago, I put together a list of 25 goals that I wanted to achieve before I got to the point that I was too old and decrepit to move around without the assistance of a cane or walker.

So far, I’ve accomplished a number of them, and others may well always remain an elusive dream.

One goal that was NOT on my bucket list was mountain climbing, but it IS a goal that I recently achieved.

Mount Elden (in Flagstaff) is one of the five peaks of the greater San Francisco Peaks volcanic system, and they are all remnants of a single massive volcanic peak (nearly 20,000 feet tall) that exploded roughly 500,000 years ago.

The tallest of the San Francisco Peaks is Humphreys Peak. At 12,637 feet, it is the tallest mountain in the state of Arizona.

Just north of the dealership where Kelly and I both work is Mt. Elden. It stretches to a height of 9299 above sea level, which puts it roughly 2300 feet above “ground level” in Flagstaff.

From the air, it looks like this:

From the ground, it looks like this:

On the Saturday before my 65th birthday, Kelly and I (and dog Cody) decided to hike to the top of Mt. Elden. There are a total of 11 hiking trails on the mountain, and we chose to tackle the Elden Lookout Trail, which is the longest and most difficult. From ground level to the peak, it took us close to 3 hours to climb the 2400 feet of elevation. Once we got to the top, though, we had some pretty spectacular views:

Now that I’ve had a year to adjust to living at 7000 feel above sea level, the climb to the top wasn’t actually all that difficult. Surprisingly, the descent down was actually harder than the climb up because we used different leg muscles for the return journey, and my legs DID feel a little sore for a few days afterward.

On her first trip up Elden a few months ago, Kelly met a 70 year old man who climbs to the top 2 or 3 times every week, which proves the fact that you are literally only as old as you feel.

Now that I’ve done it once, it’s inevitable that I’ll have to do it again, Also inevitable is the fact the Kelly and I (and probably Cody) will make it to the top of Humphreys Peak at some point in time. If we DO manage to accomplish that, and if we listen very, very carefully, we’re likely to hear this tune coming out of the earth:

high on a mountain top

What’s on YOUR bucket list?