Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who is the Wyoming Liberty Group

I kept waiting for the governor or an agency head to defend state employees against last month’s Wyoming Liberty Group (WLG) attack. They’re apparently unwilling to do so in this political environment.

Just who is the Wyoming Liberty Group and why are they targeting Wyoming state employees?

Susan Gore, a wealthy heiress to the Gore-Tex fortune, founded WLG. According to IRS filings, WLG had about four million dollars in revenue from 2009-2011, big money in small state politics. A Republican friend credits WLG with the new meanness in Wyoming politics. “Without the financial clout of a Texas millionaire that decided to show us Wyoming hayseeds the light,” he says, “those other fringe groups wouldn’t have gotten the traction they have.”

The WLG attacked state employee retirement benefits in an op-ed entitled “A gold-plated pension plan.” WLG employee Maureen Bader, who comes from Canada bearing a Master’s Degree in marketing and policy, wrote the column. The policy she’s marketing is the destruction of state employee pension plans.

WLG’s divisive approach was evident in their attack. WLG employs Bernie Madoff’s name, claiming Bernie would be proud of “the gold-plated promise of retirement security” afforded state employees. The great irony is that someone working for Susan Gore would use Madoff as a metaphor.

Bader repeatedly referred to state employees as “bureaucrats.” The term is designed to elicit a description of someone more concerned with procedure than with people's needs. It’s a derisive term showing disrespect and a lack of any real-world knowledge of the people Wyoming employs to do the people’s work.

It’s especially objectionable when used by an organization more interested in the wealth of the 1% than the welfare of the 99%. WLG is part of what Hillary Clinton called “a vast rightwing conspiracy.”

According to sourcewatch.org, WLG is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN). The center for Media and Democracy reports, “The Center for Media and Democracy's in-depth investigation, "EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government," reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders.”

SPN developed an agenda directing members to conduct assaults on public education, environmental regulation, Medicaid, and public pension plans.

WLG’s attack on Wyoming’s public pension plan is nothing more than a cookie cutter provided to them by ALEC and SPN. However, the attack is irrelevant in Wyoming where the actuarial status of the plan is excellent. The funded benefits ratio has increased significantly in the last year alone and thirty-year projections show the plan is on a trajectory leading to assets totaling 114.7% of benefit costs.

F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the rich are different. Fitzgerald was describing people like WLG’s founder. According to Forbes.com (July 8, 2014) Susan Gore once adopted her ex-husband as her “child” as a strategy to get an “extra helping” of her parents’ estate. They died leaving equal shares of company stock in a lucrative trust for grandchildren. Susan had three children. Her siblings had four. So she adopted her ex-husband to give her four “children.” A court said, “Nice try, but no bananas.”

Yet this is the person attacking Wyoming state employees as greedy. The rich are, indeed, different.

Wyoming’s employees didn’t adopt former spouses to secure their retirement. They did it the old fashioned way. They worked for it. There were many years when the legislature refused any salaries increases. Many of those years they were instead assured the state would pay a greater share of retirement contributions. 

It was a trade-off of which out-of-staters like Gore and Bader wouldn’t have been aware.

(In the interests of disclosure, I receive state retirement benefits.)

If WLG wants an honest dialogue about pension reform, they should do so with more knowledge of the program’s historic development and be less hypocritical and far less insulting.







Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cheney should speak to lawyers

It’s a little weird that an organization representing the legal community invited a war criminal to keynote their convention earlier this week. Add to his war record the fact that as vice-president, Dick Cheney consistently demonized lawyers, the invitation seems “curiouser and curiouser.”

In an effort to snag big names to headline their confabs, organizations don’t spend enough time thinking it through. The Wyoming Bar Association should have asked what a speech by Cheney could contribute to the success of their convention. The answer is not much other than unneeded controversy.

When accepting the 2004 Republican Party vice-presidential nomination, Cheney pontificated about what he called “junk lawsuits.” During the 2000 vice-presidential debate, Cheney proposed capping noneconomic damages, and limiting fees that trial attorneys receive.

Bob Kraft, a Dallas attorney satirized Cheney’s campaign against lawyers in his February 15, 2006 blog: “Impatient with stalled efforts to close the courts to litigants, the Bush Administration literally fired the first shot in its groundbreaking "No Lawyer Left Standing" initiative. Vice-President Cheney, hunting on a private ranch near Kingsville, Texas, bagged an impressive buck (Harry Whittington). Under the new program, hunters may take one white shoe in-house lawyer or three outside lawyers daily. There is no limit for trial lawyers. ‘We’ve just got to thin the herd,’ said the Vice-President. ‘We’ve tried tort reform and caps on damages, but people are still suing.’ Cheney added.”

Funny? Yes! But Cheney’s efforts to shield his beloved Halliburton from asbestos related lawsuits weren’t so funny. In April of 2003, the Texas Observer cited “the so-called ‘Dick Cheney’ amendment, which would make it easier for companies to elude asbestos lawsuits. If the Cheney amendment is enacted, Halliburton wouldn’t have to pay the $4 billion settlement, or any other asbestos damages, and victims would be flat out of luck.”

Just the mention of the name “Halliburton” conjures up images of Cheney’s role in the tragic war in Iraq. Make no mistake about it. ISIS is the spawn of the Cheney decision to invade that country. What is happening today is the obvious and predictable result of the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history.

While George W. Bush busies himself writing books and painting pictures, Dick Cheney uses his retirement years to revise history. The Wyoming State Bar convention is just another stop on his road show. His purpose in attending their convention was obvious in the material he provided the Bar to publicize his speech.

His official biography includes an attack on President Obama, a claim that he and Bush left the world in good shape, and that Obama’s policies have “led to a reversal of the made on the war on terror in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.” Call him delusional.

His administration ignored reports of “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” (Presidential Daily Briefing August 6, 2001). Then Cheney converted 9/11 into a pretext to invade Iraq.

Lie by lie, Cheney built a case for war. Later it became clear that contrary to Cheney’s saber-rattling there were no weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaeda was not then operating in Iraq, American soldiers were not welcomed as liberators, and that the only beneficiary of the war was Halliburton. Years later a Republican congressman, Walter Jones, asked Colin Powell’s former chief of staff about the manipulation of intelligence. "How could the professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?"
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson responded, "The vice president."
Cheney may or may not have been “Commander-in-chief” but he was “Manipulator-in-chief.” Cheney ripped-up the Constitution as he oversaw the creation of “Black Sites,” i.e. offshore prisons where suspects were held indeterminately without charges and subjected to "enhanced interrogations.”
Dick Cheney should have a forum to explain his role in the Iraq disaster but not at a convention. He should be in the witness box being cross-examined by a prosecutor seeking a conviction for his war crimes.







Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ode to Unions

The celebration of Labor Day this week got me thinking about Wyoming’s working people. The holiday was first created to celebrate "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” In 1894, Congress set aside the first Monday in September to recognize the accomplishments of unions. One-hundred-twenty-years later it’s a three-day weekend without meaning.

When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, half the American workforce belonged to unions. Today the number is closer to 15%.  That didn’t happen accidentally. There’s been a well-orchestrated strategy to deny workers the right to organize. Unions were a key part of the New Deal coalition, contributing both money and votes to progressive candidates and causes. Republicans determined to break that coalition.

New coalitions formed around progressive ideas. The national Democratic Party was not a casualty of anti-union efforts. Workers and their families paid the price. The negative impact can be seen in Wyoming as easily as anywhere in the country.

More people are working more hours, taking fewer days for rest than ever before.  The US Department of Labor estimates that on the Labor Day one in five American workers will be required to work. In Wyoming, a high number of adults are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. But most of these jobs have few if any benefits and the ends don’t meet.

While union contracts protect members from being fired for unjust reasons, non-union Wyoming workers have no job protections. They can be fired for no cause regardless of how many years they have faithfully served an employer. Adding insult to injury is a law recently passed allowing Wyoming employers to pocket an employee’s earned but unused vacation pay when employment is terminated.

Many of these low wage jobs have no allowance for sick days. A worker can lose his or her job by taking time off to care for a child or spouse. State law protects employers who discriminate against gay or lesbian workers but does not adequately protect those who are forced to work in unsafe conditions. Wyoming women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts, a problem that finds a solution in most union contracts.

Those are a few of the economic and social costs of losing the labor movement. But there are also significant political costs.

While anti-union strategies have not harmed the fortunes of progressive candidates nationally, they have effectively destroyed the two-party system in our state. As the labor movement in Wyoming declined so did the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Before their precipitous decline in numbers, Wyoming union members were the bulwark of voter registration efforts.

The last time a Democrat won one of the state’s three congressional seats was 1976 when Teno Roncalio ran for his final term in the US House of Representatives. In 1976 there were 77,000 registered Democrats and 87,000 registered Republicans. Seventy percent of all eligible voters were then registered. Voter registration was largely the work of organized labor.

A 10,000 registered-voter gap meant Democrats had a fighting chance. Today the gap is 110,000 and 44% of all eligible voters aren’t even registered. As the numbers of union households declined, the numbers of registered Democrats declined.

Some think a one-party political system is okay but Wyoming’s working people should ask whether there is any relationship between this history and their lives.

Candidates who focused on hot button issues lured working people into voting against their own economic interests. Voters were stirred about same-sex marriage even though the greater threat to their marriages is low wages. They made voters angry about immigration even as they closed union shops in the US and opened sweatshops in Mexico. Disingenuously they convinced voters the government would take away their guns, while they took away their right to organize and with it their ability to feed their children.

Some will say unions were once necessary but are no longer relevant. Those same people must believe the same thing about the middle class.





Saturday, August 30, 2014

One God-One World-One Book

Theologian Marcus Borg says there “are no intrinsic conflicts between the intellect and Christianity, reason and religion.” In his book Convictions, Borg assigns such perceived differences to “a misunderstanding of religion and its absolutization or the absolutization of a nonreligious worldview.”

If true for Christianity, is it not also true of the perceived differences between Jews, Muslims and Christians? The Quran calls the adherents to these three faiths “the People of the Book.” The Abrahamic faiths share much including monotheism, calls to love God and one-another, to help the poor, and the value of prayer.

Muslims hold Jesus in high regard as one of the important messengers of God. Jesus lived and died a devout Jew, studied the Torah and preached it during his ministry. They also share a reverence for many of the same holy places.

In spite of commonalities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims adopted separate canons each claiming to be “the Word of God (or Allah).” The Divine is big enough to inspire more than one book. But multiple books are sources of division. Imagine a world where the three Abrahamic faiths agreed on “One God, One Word.”

A new interfaith council should be convened to write a common book. A task this awesome requires ground rules.  

Of the peoples of Earth, 31.5% are Christian, 23.2 % Muslim, and 0.2% Jews. Given the historical explanation of why there are so few Jews, it’s unjust to apportion by those data. All three make reasonable guesses about the nature of God and have a long historical record of rationalizing their beliefs. Each community should come with an equal number.

Don’t seat them at a triangular table. That will only heighten the divisions. Seat the delegates at a round table reflecting the shape of the planet the Creator started with.

The task is to unify scripture. Start with an updated opportunity to be heard. I don’t know about synagogues and mosques, but there are approximately 13 million more women than men in churches. Worship attendance isn’t a good method to apportion. Apportion the sexes roughly the way God did, equally dividing delegates between women and men.

Providing opportunities for everyone to be heard shouldn’t stop there. Delegates should reflect racial characteristics not of their faith alone but of the world as well as sexual orientation, cultural adhesion, and economic status. If a text is to accurately reflect God’s voice in the world, those who discern that voice should fully represent the make-up of that world.

Admittedly there’s a risk of a Tower-of-Babel-like experience. In the Spirit, there’s also a good chance for a Pentecost-like experience where all will be filled with the spirit of the Divine, speaking in other languages, hearing one another as though they spoke their native languages.

A threshold issue is whether to produce a science book or mythology. The lack of clarity on that important matter among those who wrote or read existing holy texts causes no end of arguments. My preference is mythology. Mythology explains more. An understanding of God seems to lend itself far better to mythology than to science.

Abandon numbered verses. Using numbers to divide the story of the Divine leads to picking and choosing. We should look for the Divine’s big story, not the ability to memorize a sentence taken out of the context to prove a point.

Without a deadline this could continue into eternity. How about 40 days, a symbolic period used in all three texts. Shouldn’t take more time than Jonah spent preaching in Ninevah for people of faith to figure out what they agree about.

Being faithful to God or Allah is not about having what Marcus Borg calls “an intellectually correct theology.” It’s much more about our common core, i.e. love God and your neighbor as written in Hebrew scripture, taught by Jesus, and commanded in the Quran, “Worship Allah and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, neighbors, companions at your side, and travelers.”

As John Lennon said, “Imagine.”













Saturday, August 23, 2014

UW's credibility 4SALE

The time was when Wyoming legislators levied severance taxes for the purpose of reimbursing us for the extraction of the state’s wealth. The idea was that if corporations make money taking that wealth they should reimburse the citizens by paying a tax.

Today there are some key Wyoming politicians who think that by paying their taxes, the big oil, gas, and coal companies have bought an ownership interest in the state or at least its only four-year university.

Recently House Speaker Tom Lubnau was a guest on public radio. He was asked about the role of coal in climate change. Afterward, Tom posted this message on Facebook. “I should have known better than to go on a Wyoming Public Radio show about coal exports. The low point was when I told the show's host her question was preposterous. It makes me sad when a UW employee, who's (sic) salary is paid largely by extractive industries, advocates against extractive industries.”

It’s not the first time Lubnau’s been unhappy with UW employees who dared to question the environmental impact of mining. Last year the University responded to his criticism of a piece of art that the Wyoming Mining Association believed to be an objectionable statement about coal. The University destroyed the artwork. The University, Lubnau argued, shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds it.

There’s another sign the industry exercises undue control of the university. Recently an oil company, the Hess Corporation, became the largest corporate donor in UW’s history. Hess’s 10 million dollar donation will be used for research on tapping hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. Hess’s president says it will be good for business.

It is undoubtedly good for his business but does anyone think the UW School of Energy Resources can conduct legitimate research on fracking or climate change when it relies so heavily of such “donations”?

Since 2007, UW has collected over $40 million from energy companies.

Faculty members told a reporter they have “deep concerns” about where UW’s headed, but are afraid that voicing concerns could jeopardize their jobs. Lubnau’s Facebook post would explain their fears.

There’s a third bad omen. Recently powerful members of the legislature began meeting with UW administrators to “clarify” what they want from the school. Rep. Eli Bebout who chairs the Appropriations Committee, which controls the UW budget, said, "I just think the University, the students, the faculty, everybody should understand in our state, the blessing we have by having the minerals and the importance of those revenue streams."

Perhaps there are other things they should also understand.

Legislators fronting for the mining industry are attempting to replace the appointed UW Trustees and micro-manage the school. Those legislators have little interest in academic freedom and objective research. Their goal is to make the University of Wyoming serves the interests of the mining industry.

Interestingly, this trend toward polluting Wyoming’s education system isn’t confined to the University. In 2013 the legislature enacted legislation requiring the governor’s office to work with industry to develop public school curriculum teaching students the benefits of energy development.

Without politicians willing to “offend” the industry, Wyoming would have continued giving away resources. As it was, Wyoming passed its severance tax 64 years after the first state began taxing mineral extraction. Republican governor Stan Hathaway led the enactment of that tax in 1969. Hathaway’s leadership created a Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, funded with additional taxes on minerals. Republicans in the legislature supported Hathaway over energetic energy-company lobbying against both proposals.

Hathaway and his GOP were willing to buck the industry to do what was right for the state.

The severance tax reimburses the state for its loss of non-renewable wealth. Companies removing our coal, oil, and gas fill the hole with a check. In a rather Kafkaesque twist, Lubnau, Bebout and other politicians seem to think it’s the energy industry that is doing the state a favor.

The University, students, faculty, and alumni should understand the threat this kind of thinking poses to the school’s legitimacy.