Once a Bully, Always a Bully

A recent Washington Post story detailing an incident in Mitt Romney’s high school days when he bullied a student who was thought to be gay has garnered a lot of attention, and rightfully so. While Romney supporters are eager to dismiss it as a childish prank, to do so would ignore signs that this behavior has continued into his adult life and even his presidential campaign. His youthful actions are just part of a lifetime of bullying and oppression that has no place in today’s society, much less in the White House.

The details of the story are pretty horrific. According to the Washington Post, Romney was apparently outraged over his schoolmate’s hair, which was bleached blonde and hanging over his eyes. This caused Romney to tell his friends, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Look at him!” So, he gathered a posse of his friends, found his victim, pinned him to the ground, and cut his hair while he cried and screamed for help.

The other boys with Romney that evening have since recalled the incident as “vicious” and “a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.” Yet, Romney’s own recollection of the events drew quite a different reaction—laughter.

Fox News Radio attempted to downplay the story and gave Romney a chance to apologize for his actions. After initially saying that he had no memory of the incident, Romney offered a vague apology for “pranks” and “dumb things” he did in high school. But, he was unable to remember what he did without laughing about it, and that is troubling. A grown man with ambitions for the highest office in this country apparently still finds it funny to physically assault someone because of his sexual orientation.

This behavior is part of a lifetime of bullying. In addition to picking on gay students in high school, Romney also pulled pranks including tricking a teacher with bad eyesight to walk face-first into a door. After college, he led Bain Capital, a private investment firm where the business model was based in part on acquiring struggling companies, leading them into bankruptcy and laying off their employees. He was later famously quoted as saying, “I like being able to fire people.” He also recently mocked people at a NASCAR event who wore trash bags to shield themselves from the rain, saying, “I like those fancy raincoats you bought. Really sprung for the big bucks.”

Individually, these things may be easy to dismiss, but as a whole, they are impossible to ignore.  The National Association of School Psychologists says that many bullies do so to fit in with a group that may otherwise exclude them. This seems to be the case with Romney, as he has become increasingly vicious as his campaign has progressed. After initially struggling to find supporters, he gained approval from GOP voters by stepping up his attacks on women, the poor, and LGBTQ people, endorsing policies that would oppress or limit the rights of all these groups.

Politics aside, Romney appears to be an intelligent man. Surely, he should know better than to engage in childish bullying to win support from his party. The fact that this seems to be his primary campaign strategy shows a serious lack of growth , compassion and leadership from a man who is hoping to win an election.

Student Loan Debt is Part of a Vicious Cycle


Here’s a scary number—1,000,000,000,000. That’s the estimated dollar value of current student loan debt in America, an average of more than $25,000 per student.

Here’s another scary number—53.6. That’s the percentage of recent college graduates that are either unemployed or underemployed, according to the Associated Press, meaning that they are likely struggling to repay those loans.

These numbers are, in part, both the cause and effect of the slow recovery from the recent economic recession. And, unless something drastic is done, these numbers may get even scarier.

Experts, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, have argued that the easiest way out of a recession is to put money in the hands of people who will spend it, therefore increasing demand for products, which would then create jobs, giving more money to consumers and increasing tax revenue. The current plague of student loan debt is the exact opposite of this idea. Instead of creating a new wave of consumers eager to buy cars and homes, raise families and spend money, the current loan crisis has borne a generation of debt slaves who are not able to spend on the things that would actually stimulate the economy.

According to the Pew Research Center, economic difficulties including loan debt have caused 24 percent of young adults to move back in with their parents to save money. More than 20 percent have postponed either getting married or having a child. And 49 percent have taken a low-paying job outside their field of study just to pay their bills. But, most troubling are the 35 percent who have gone back to school hoping to increase their job opportunities and wait out the recession, while accumulating additional debt they will then struggle to repay.

Krugman suggests that the national deficit is not nearly as urgent a problem as individual debt. He encourages increases in government spending to create jobs, including rehiring many of the public employees that were laid off due to spending cuts. However, most legislators in Washington refuse to approve any additional government spending, and instead insist that cuts are the solution to the deficit problem. These cuts have led to increased tuition rates and decreases in financial aid, which have caused the increased necessity for student loans.

There is light on the horizon, however. President Obama has proposed an Income-Based Repayment plan that would tie payment rates to income, with no one paying more than 10 percent of their monthly discretionary income. He also plans to reject a potential increase that would double the interest rate on student loans from 3.2 to 6.4 percent. The interest freeze alone would save the average student $1,000 per year. A plan from Rep. Hanson Clarke (D-MI) would go even further, forgiving all remaining debt for anyone who has made 10 years of payments.

These are not perfect solutions, as lenders would take a big hit from loans that were not totally repaid. But, both Obama and Clarke believe that the benefits of freeing graduates from the burden of excessive debt would outweigh any negative effects. At the very least, it would make the future for college graduates a lot less scary.


Students Suffer When Budgets are Cut

Education budget cuts have become a national crisis. The immediate results of these cuts are seen in tuition hikes and teacher lay-offs. However, the long-term effects are even more troubling.

Lack of funding has handicapped educators at all levels, as early as pre-school. The Head Start program, which provides services to poverty-stricken children, has already suffered. Research from the National Education Association shows that students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs like Head Start perform better in school and are more likely to attend college. Additionally, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has found that each dollar invested in the Head Start program has a return of $7 to $9 as the enrolled students graduate from school and enter the workforce. Yet, the NEA reports that only 30 percent of eligible children are able to participate in the program due to insufficient funding. Despite the demonstrated success of the program, Head Start is on the chopping block again. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed cutting 200,000 spots from the program to provide additional funds for defense spending.

Decreases in education funding impact college students, as well. Tuition at all California state universities and community colleges has been raised, but the increased fees do not offset the shortages caused by additional funding cuts. Some schools have had to find alternate money saving measures. Valley College, for example, has had to cancel most of its summer classes. And, CSU recently eliminated grants for 20,000 graduate students, encouraging them to take out interest-heavy loans in order to pay their tuition.

Funding cuts also hinder student performance. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study shows a direct correlation between the amount spent per student and test scores. Students nationwide were tested in math and reading comprehension in fourth grade, and again in eighth grade. On average, state test scores increased by one percent for each additional thousand dollars spent per student.

Interestingly, there was little correlation between test scores and teacher salaries. Schools that hire additional teachers, enabling each student to receive more personal attention, scored better on tests than those that simply raised salaries for their existing teachers.

Instead of hiring teachers, however, many school districts are laying teachers off as a way to save money. Many California teachers received “March 15” letters, indicating that they would not be guaranteed a job for the next school year. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, more than 11,700 letters were issued. While some of these teachers will be fortunate enough to still be employed in the fall, many will not. Statewide, more than 32,000 teachers have been laid off since 2007, according to a report from the state legislative analyst’s office.

Despite the obvious damage done by reducing education funding, the cuts continue. It is clear that there is a budget crisis, and it is just as clear that this is directly impacting students. As long as education is deprived of the funds it needs, students will suffer.

Misplaced Priorities

American education is suffering. Budgets are being cut and schools are first on the chopping block. Funds that should be spent on education are spent on wars or prisons, and American students are paying the price.

Educating people costs money, and this country simply doesn’t have enough of it, or at least not enough dedicated to education. This is an important distinction. America is coming out of a recession and has an extraordinary amount of debt, but there is still plenty of money to spend. The problem is how the government is choosing to spend it.

President Barack Obama’s proposed budget details total expenditures of more than $3.8 trillion. Of that, only $71.9 billion is intended for education, 1.8 percent of the total. For the sake of comparison, $672.9 billion, or 17.7 percent, is proposed for defense spending. Of course, national defense is important, but it certainly isn’t nearly ten times as important as education. America would be better served by spending less on killing people overseas and more on educating people here at home.

This skewing of priorities is also present on a state level. California has budgeted $10.7 billion for prisons and $39.2 billion for the state’s K-12 schools. These numbers are shocking when it is considered that there are approximately 155,000 prisoners in California and more than 6.3 million students. This translates to annual expenditures of about $69,000 per prisoner and only $6,200 per student.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students who drop out of school are four times as likely to be incarcerated at some point. Increasing education funding to encourage students to complete high school can dramatically cut the need for incarceration funding. The study conservatively estimates $2,100 in savings per additional graduate. Increasing the national graduation rate by just one percent would result in savings of at least $1.4 billion. By spending a little more on education now, less will be needed for prisons later. Additionally, graduates have higher employment rates and salaries, meaning that tax revenues would increase, providing further economic benefit.

Gov. Jerry Brown has offered a potential way to supplement the state education budget, but it is mostly smoke and mirrors. He has proposed a temporary .5 percent sales tax increase and a raised income tax  on people making more than $250,000 annually. This is supported by more than 72 percent of people if the money is used for education, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. This is where Brown gets sneaky. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates $6.9 billion in additional revenue if the proposal is approved. The budget assumes that the tax increase will pass, yet grants less than $5.3 billion in additional education spending, meaning $1.6 billion has already been cut and diverted towards less popular purposes, including prisons. And, if the proposal doesn’t pass, an additional $4.8 billion in cuts will be triggered.

Still, this willingness to raise taxes is encouraging; especially since tax cuts for the rich are a large contributor to the national deficit, and efforts to reduce this debt are the primary justification for spending cuts. Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that these tax cuts took $2.5 trillion out of the federal budget over the last decade. This money could have eliminated the need for education cuts, but was instead used to pad pockets that were already overflowing.

America has chosen to spend its money blowing people up or locking them up, instead of raising them up through education. By prioritizing might over mind, and letting greed trump reason, this country is depriving itself of the very thing that made it great.

Lack of Gun Control Means No End to the Tragedies

Early this month, seven people were killed at Oikos University in Oakland, California. A former nursing student, upset that he had been expelled, entered a classroom, told the students to line up against the wall, and then opened fire. Each of the seven deaths that day is tragic. But just as tragic is the fact that thousands upon thousands of Americans are killed each year by guns, and nothing is being done about it. This must change.

The Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, and Americans have taken full advantage of this right. There are currently around 270 million guns in America, nearly one for every person in this country. That is despite the fact that guns are created for only one purpose: to kill.

Guns have killed an average of more than 32,000 people per year over the last three decades, according to a report from the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s almost a million lives that could have been saved if guns weren’t so easily available.

Gun advocates will argue that guns are necessary for self-defense, and that they have a right to protect themselves and their property. Yet a study from the American Journal of Public Health shows that areas with higher rates of gun ownership have significantly higher rates of gun fatalities. Additionally, people carrying guns are no less likely to be injured during a crime than unarmed people. In fact, guns increase crime rates rather than bringing them down. For every person killed by a gun, more than 35 others are victims of a crime that involved a gun, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

People are killed at work, at home, and like those at Oikos University, even at school. These are places that are supposed to be sanctuaries of safety, free from danger. But, as long as people continue to carry guns, no place is ever completely safe. Since the infamous Columbine massacre in 1999, there have been more than 170 deaths in school shootings, including 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007. And, as tragic proof that not enough is being done to eradicate gun violence on campuses, two more people were killed at Virginia Tech in 2011.

Despite all of this, gun advocates adamantly oppose any kind of gun regulation. The National Rifle Association pushes laws like Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which famously led to the killing of Trayvon Martin in February. And politicians are quick to lend their support, with presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at the NRA’s annual convention last Friday to assure gun-owners that he’s on their side. They continue to believe that the solution to gun violence is to have more guns, when in fact the opposite is true. Quite simply, if there are guns around, they are going to be used to kill people.

This is a violent country, but it doesn’t have to be. Fewer people should have guns, and there should be fewer guns available. Laws making it easier for people to obtain guns are the cause and not the solution to the problem of gun violence. And, until people realize this, no one will be truly safe.

A Few Lies Hide the Bigger Truth About Apple

Much of the credit Mike Daisey earned for exposing the horrible working conditions at the Foxconn factory in China was lost when it was recently determined that he was not being entirely truthful.

The conditions at the factory, which makes many Apple products, were a central part of Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” named after the late founder of Apple. Daisey traveled to China to visit the factory, and with the help of an interpreter, interviewed many of the factory’s workers. He used the information he gathered as the basis for a monologue he performed in a New York City theater.

As the conditions at the factory gained more attention, Daisey became a popular guest on dozens of television and radio news shows. It was after one of these appearances, on the radio show “This American Life,” that it was discovered that he had fabricated some of his information.

Daisey claimed that he saw armed guards at the gates to the factory, that he met underage workers, and that he spoke with people who had been poisoned by N-hexane gas. All these things, and others, were discovered to be false when fact-checkers with “This American Life” spoke with his Chinese interpreter.

When confronted by the producers of “This American Life,” Daisey admitted to lying, but claimed he did so in order to make people care about a situation that they easily could have ignored. “And, everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end—to make people care,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But, I stand behind the work.”

Despite his intentions, the fact that Daisey made up some of the information he was presenting as the truth has led to doubts about the rest of his story, even those things that are factual. Fact-checkers have reviewed the entirety of Daisey’s monologue and determined that most of what he said was indeed true. But, his fabrications have caused writers from the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, to accuse him of using the Apple scandal as a way to make himself famous, rather than trying to bring light to the very real suffering of the workers in the Foxconn factory.

But, Daisey did succeed in shining a very bright light on the conditions in the factories where many Apple products are made, and that light uncovered some terrible things. Workers are forced to work long hours doing repetitive work, causing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other muscular ailments. Many suffer from severe depression, leading to a large number of suicides. There is prolonged exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals and materials, and there have been numerous fires and explosions within the factory. All these risks come with the added insult of workers being underpaid.

Daisey wanted Americans to know how their products were being made, and he wanted to help the workers that suffer to make those products. But, by fabricating some of his story, he may have done more harm than good. Investors are already forgetting the scandal surrounding Apple, and the price of its stock continues to rise.

Kony 2012 Only Tells Part of the Story

Joseph Kony is a monster. That is indisputable. What is in dispute, however, are the facts and motivations behind the film that has made him an Internet sensation. This raises the question of whether “Kony 2012” is an altruistic call to action or mere propaganda to justify a military invasion in central Africa.

The film paints Kony as the leader of an army of 30,000 child soldiers who has led a 20-year rein of terror over the people of Uganda. This may be partly true, but it does not tell the entire story. The Council of Foreign Relations says that Kony has been in hiding outside of Uganda for six years and that “it is unlikely that the LRA consists of more than a few hundred people.” While this does not lessen the atrocities committed by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, is does cause curiosity as to why there is such urgency to act now.

Invisible Children Inc., the producer of the film, and the “Kony 2012” campaign both appear on the surface to be noble. However, it cannot be mere coincidence that American interest in the cause exploded soon after oil and uranium deposits were found in Uganda. It is also suspicious that Invisible Children spends as much of its funding on self-promotion as it does on the people in Africa for whom the group claims to be fighting, as disclosed in the group’s audited financial statements and then verified on its own website.

The filmmakers are calling for military intervention in Uganda to find and capture Kony. However, as stated in the film, 100 American soldiers were sent to the area last fall. This is troubling, as these troops are being sent to assist the Ugandan Army, which serves a government that gained and maintains power through many of the same tactics employed by the LRA, including use of child soldiers and the mass slaughter of innocent people.

The fact is that central Africa is a volatile and violent place. Millions have been killed in Uganda, the Congo and South Sudan in the past two decades. Kony, as terrible as he is, can only be blamed for a small portion of these killings.

Yet, “Kony 2012” asserts that he is the world’s most dangerous person and then provides a ridiculously simple method for bringing him to justice. The plan is to make Kony so famous that he cannot be ignored, with the thinking that if enough people are made aware of the evil things he has done, someone will be forced to do something about it.

Making Kony famous will not bring him to justice. For 10 years, Osama bin Laden was the most famous villain on the planet, but it took military action to find him and cost thousands of lives in the process. Involving the U.S. military in the hunt for Kony will serve only to bring even more violence to an area that has been ravaged for decades.

Capturing Kony will not bring peace to Uganda any more than capturing Saddam Hussein brought peace to Iraq. Hussein was captured in 2003, but violence in Iraq continues even now that American troops have finally been withdrawn. Sadly, the same will happen in Uganda.

End This Endless War

On March 11 , an American soldier walked into an Afghan village and slaughtered 17 innocent people, most of them women and children, and set their bodies on fire. This is tragic, but it is only one of countless senselessly violent acts that have been committed against civilians in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. Just as tragic is the fact that the war continues, meaning more deaths will follow.

It is time to end this war. Too many people have died, and too many more will die if our troops are not brought home.

Death is an inevitability of any war, but attacks against civilians fall well outside normal consequences, even in wartime, and are especially heinous considering these civilians have absolutely nothing to do with the reasons that American troops are in Afghanistan.

The War in Afghanistan began in October 2001 in response to the 9/11  attacks on the United States, with the stated goal of capturing Osama bin Laden and eliminating the threat of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 and current estimates place al-Qaeda membership at fewer than 100 people in Afghanistan. Yet, the fighting continues.

Public opinion has turned against the war. Nearly 88 percent of Americans favored the war when it began, according to a Gallup poll. Recent polling by the Washington Post shows that support for the war has fallen to 35 percent. Afghans also initially favored American intervention, as they were eager to be rid of both al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. Polls suggest that fewer than 30 percent of Afghans now want American troops in their country.

Much of this swing in opinion is due to recent attacks against civilians. Just this year, American troops have committed numerous atrocities. In February, air strikes killed eight people who were believed to be enemy combatants. It was later discovered that they were innocent children. This came on the heels of a video surfacing showing American soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Afghans. These, like March 11’s tragedy, are things that should not happen. Sadly, they will continue to happen as long as American troops remain in Afghanistan.

Nearly 2,000 American soldiers have been killed since the war began, a number dwarfed by the number of innocent Afghans killed during that time. Exact totals are difficult to determine, but estimates range as high as 17,000 civilian deaths directly related to the fighting, with another 20,000 estimated deaths from starvation, disease or displacement caused by the war.

American arrogance insists that the fighting should continue until the U.S. is victorious. But, this is not a war that can be won. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda has been decimated. To think that anything beyond that can be accomplished is foolish. The only thing that can be achieved by continuing to fight is increasing the casualties on both sides. In that scenario, everyone loses.

President Barack Obama has vowed to withdraw  all American troops from Afghanistan by 2014. That is not good enough. American soldiers should be brought home immediately.

The Pain of Inflated Gas Prices Offers an Opportunity

Gas prices are up. It’s impossible not to notice. The national average cost of a gallon of gas has reached $3.79, and prices are even higher in places like California. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Alternative energy solutions must be found.

Everyone is feeling the pinch, even those who don’t drive, as higher gas prices increase the prices of virtually everything else, since the more it costs to transport something, the more consumers end up paying for it. This does, however, raise two very important questions: Why are gas prices so high? And, what should be done about it?

There is no single answer to what has inflated gas prices so much, but there are a few causes that can be easily identified. It’s no secret that much of the oil that is imported into this country comes from the Middle East. It’s also well known that whenever there is a conflict in this area of the world, gas prices go up, whether this unrest actually has any effect on oil supplies or not. Recent conflicts in Egypt, Syria, and Libya have all contributed to price hikes, as has the escalating tension with Iran and their threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which about 20% of the world’s oil is shipped. The fear that access to oil will be limited sends gas prices through the roof.

Another contributor to inflated prices can be found here in America, and like most economic issues, the blame lies with Wall Street. Traders and speculators have played a key role in gas price hikes. Both Forbes and Goldman Sachs have estimated that rampant speculation has added more than $.50 to the cost of each gallon of gas.  This artificial inflation has only served to take money out of working people’s pockets and give it over to bankers. There are provisions in the recent Dodd-Frank Act that are supposed to limit oil speculation, but they have largely been ignored.

It’s simple to say that gas prices could be lowered by resolving Middle Eastern conflict and enforcing financial regulations, but neither of these things are simple. Another suggestion would be to increase domestic supplies, an idea that has been adopted by Republicans with their “Drill, baby, drill” mentality and their continued push to build a pipeline that would bring oil from Canada to refineries in the United States.

These are short-term solutions, however, and focus on the wrong part of the supply and demand problem. Increasing production may lower prices temporarily, but it will also increase oil dependency. There is a finite supply of oil in the world, even if a large amount of it remains untapped. If current oil consumption habits continue, a time will come when this supply is exhausted, but the demand for energy will remain.

So, a better solution would be to shift the focus toward alternative energy sources like solar, wind, biofuels, and even nuclear power. Alternative energy has the added benefit of being cleaner than oil. The government gives oil companies billions of dollars in subsidies, while they rake in billions in profits. If these subsidies were directed towards alternative and renewable energy resources, they would help America reduce its addiction to oil, while also ensuring that future generations will have the fuel sources they will need, since there would be no worry about supply dwindling.

Gas prices are a problem, but they are a short-term problem in need of a long-term solution.

There is No Place for Religion in Government

Religious freedom is one of the foundations of American life. From the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, to the authors of Bill of Rights, and right up to the present day, Americans have cherished the freedom to believe whatever they want and practice that belief however they choose. This freedom, however, is under attack.

In order to truly have freedom of religion, it is essential to have a separation of church and state. Religious believers of any faith do not have the right to impose their beliefs on anyone else. Religion has no place in the laws or government of this country. Our founders recognized that, and wrote it into our Constitution. They knew that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, and that one of the functions of government is to protect minorities from the majority.

Since this country was founded, Christianity has been the dominant religion, both in terms of numbers and influence. Recent polls show that about 76 percent of American adults identify as Christian. Many Christian beliefs and practices have become mainstream. This does not mean, however, that all Americans are Christians, and it is very important to remember that.

Religious beliefs are creeping into our government more and more. This has been most noticeable lately in the battle over abortion and contraception, two legal practices that are frowned upon by religious types, as is same-sex marriage. But, the fight to incorporate Christianity into daily life has been going on for decades, and can be seen in things like adding the words, “Under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s to the debate over teaching creationism in schools to the posting of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. Our leaders are even sworn into office by placing their hand on a Bible and saying, “So help me, God.”

These things are not freedom of religion.  That is freedom to be Christian. True religious freedom is terrifying to Christians. Just look how they react to Muslims and the imagined threat of Sharia Law. President Obama has been forced to prove his Christianity, because his attackers have repeatedly claimed that he is secretly a Muslim, as though that were something evil. Christians are equally threatened by atheists, and have turned “secular” into a dirty word.

The fight over religion has been especially noticeable in the last year, with presidential candidates like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann inserting their religious beliefs into every debate and every policy proposal. Politicians repeat their claims that this is a “Christian nation,” despite our founders’ explicit statements that it is not. Anyone daring to point this out is accused of “attacking religion.”

It is unfair to paint all Christians with the same brush. Many Christians are tolerant and accepting of others. It is unfortunate that a few zealots make the rest look bad. But, this is the same thing that has happened with other religions. Muslims are demonized based on the actions of a very few extremists, despite the fact that most Muslims are peaceful, kind, pious people. Extremists of any religious affiliation are dangerous, and they always garner the most attention, even though most religious people don’t share their beliefs.

The fact is that different Americans believe different things. Some are Christians, some are Jews, some are Muslims, and some belong to other religious groups. Some don’t believe anything at all. And, because this is America, all of those are okay. Americans are free to believe whatever they want, and they should be equally free from having anyone else’s beliefs forced on them.