Saturday, July 4, 2015

Truth in advertising?

While South Carolina and other Southern states reassess the Confederate Flag as a symbol of their states, perhaps we should take another look at our state’s motto. We need to talk about just why anyone thinks the term “The Equality State” applies to Wyoming anymore, if it ever did.

Why do states have mottos? They’re intended to convey something important about the citizens of that state. For example, Colorado’s motto is “Nil sine numine” or “Nothing without Providence.” Indiana is “The crossroads of America,” South Dakotans believe that “Under God the people rule.” Rhode Island’s motto is simply “Hope.”

Wyoming’s motto is “Equal Rights.” Its sole justification is a 146 year-old decision giving women the vote. It was 1869. Wyoming had become a territory and didn’t have sufficient population to seek statehood. The politicians felt that by allowing women to vote, the state could attract more women. In 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state to join the union and the first to grant women the right to vote, an important victory for women’s suffrage. But what has Wyoming done since?

After that the “equal rights” well ran dry. Actually the well started drying up even before statehood. In 1885, whites massacred Chinese workers in Rock Springs in an effort to force foreign workers to leave the state. Historian Tom Rea documented the tragedy on “In all, 28 Chinese were killed, 15 wounded and all 79 of the shacks and houses in Rock Springs’ Chinatown looted and burned.”

In the early part of the 20th century Wyoming racists joined Southerners in lynching blacks. Historian Todd Guenther chronicled the terrorism faced by blacks in those days. An article written for the Wyoming Historical Society in 2009 documents the extraordinary number of lynchings perpetrated against black men in Wyoming in the early years of the 20th century. “Some people expected a different reality in Wyoming, which boasted the nickname the Equality State.” Guenther asserted, “A black man’s life wasn’t worth much in the Equality State.”

Between 1910 and 1920, five Wyoming blacks were lynched. Unless you were one of them, it’s a small number. But it’s a per capita lynching rate 62 times higher than the national average, and 123 times Mississippi’s rate. Of surrounding states none lynched people of color except Nebraska, where one was hanged. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan organized several Wyoming communities, including, according the Guenther, Sheridan, Casper, Torrington, Riverton, Shoshoni, and Lander. Across the Equality State, businesses posted signs saying, “No Indians, No Mexicans, No Negroes.

Then came the sordid reaction to Japanese-Americans interred at Heart Mountain during World War II.

In 1949, Harriet Elizabeth Byrd, an African-American college graduate applied for a teaching job in Cheyenne. According to Guenther, “The State Superintendent of Public Instruction refused Byrd’s application because white’s didn’t want black teachers disciplining their children, and thus, Wyoming did not hire ‘Negro’ teachers.”

Later Mrs. Byrd became a state legislator, sponsoring legislation naming a holiday to remember Martin Luther King. Wyoming was one of the last states refusing to adopt the holiday, finally doing so with great reluctance.

The struggle continues. The Wind River Indian Reservation is a monument to unequal treatment. The Association of University Women says that Wyoming has the largest gender wage gap among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Their studies show a Wyoming woman is paid 64 percent of what a Wyoming man earns. Yet, “Equality State” politicians steadfastly refuse to address the issue.

The LGBT community was unable to find justice in the halls of the state legislature or from the governor. They were forced to go to the federal courts to find “equal rights.” In retribution, the legislature defeats bills protecting gays and lesbians from job-related discrimination.

Honest Southerners know very well what the Confederate Flag means. Honest Wyoming folks know the “Equal Rights” motto has become empty. If anyone accused Wyoming of being “The Equality State,” they’d be hard-pressed to produce any evidence less than 146 years old.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pope Francis vs King Coal

The Pope has honored his role as Christ’s representative by urging followers not to discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual or transgender brothers and sisters. He spoke sternly about the immorality of the growing gap between rich and poor.

Francis bluntly called out world powers for failing to stop a Holocaust they knew was in progress during World War II. He questioned the faithfulness of those who manufacture weapons of war all week long and then go to church on Sunday.

Now Pope Francis has decreed that climate change is far more than a political issue. It is moral, spiritual, and theological.  Scripture justifies, even demands, his outspokenness.

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1)

Politicians serving gods of the fossil fuels industry are aghast at the Pope’s entry into this fray. They really thought it possible to serve two masters. Like Jesus, the Pope says it can’t be done.  But God endowed human caretakers with the choice-making capacity. We’ve used that gift selfishly.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum said, “I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.” The Pope is a scientist with a Master’s Degree in Chemistry. Those who fear challenging the fossil fuels industry are not willing to leave science to the scientists.”  Their common mantra is, “I am not a scientist.”

“I’m not a scientist,” says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I’m interested in protecting Kentucky’s economy.”  Thus the choice is made between the planet and certain powerful economic interests.

While Nero and his colleagues fiddle, other non-scientists with real responsibilities rely on scientists. Mayors, military generals, and business leaders are preparing their corners of the world hoping to avoid the calamity.

Most of the most densely populated U.S. cities are on coastlines. Their mayors don’t deny climate change. They know the threat is real and they take their responsibilities seriously. They can’t adopt science denial as a policy. They know flooding accompanying rising sea levels will inundate their cities damaging billions of dollars in public and private property in America’s coastline cities.

Neither will you find the American military among science deniers. U.S. military installations are now being surveyed for vulnerabilities. With national security at risk, the generals are preparing for the impact of climate change on military operations.

While some governors and congress-people are paralyzed, U.S. businesses are acting. "Climate change poses a tremendous threat to the key sectors of the Midwest economy, particularly manufacturing and agriculture.” Hank Paulson, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, is “gravely concerned that our 'business as usual' path is dangerous, unsustainable and threatens our way of life.”

Wyoming’s politicians must know Wyoming cannot escape the wrath that is to come. Less snow in the mountains means declining run-offs in the spring, which means Wyoming’s agriculture industry will suffer. Hotter temperatures and less rainfall mean more devastating wildfires. Agriculture and tourism will be among the losers. 

Yet, Wyoming blithely spews more carbon dioxide than any other state or country: 276,000 pounds per capita each year, thanks to King Coal.

Genuine leaders recognize there is no future for coal but there is a future for Wyoming. If saving a dying fossil fuels industry is our only climate change policy, the future is much more bleak than it need be.

This matter is far too important to leave to pandering politicians whose vision extends no farther than the next election. There are, unfortunately, so few issues on which they have ever led. That’s why this Pope’s courage is so refreshing. The Pope speaks of “the relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment” and the apathy of those more interested in “the reckless pursuit of profits.” Both are well within the purview of theologians.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Liberals & Conservatives-The Differences

We hear about the left and the right, conservatives and liberals. How many people know the difference?”

The question was posed in an email received recently from a reader.  It’s a great question, one that gets lost in today’s shrill expressions of ideology.  The part about conservatives was answered last month when the Nebraska legislature not only voted to repeal the death penalty but also mustered enough votes to override the GOP governor’s veto.

Members of the Nebraska legislature are officially non-partisan but the vast majority are conservative Republicans.  The legislator who sponsored the repeal said it was a victory of the pragmatic over the dogmatic. Nebraskan conservatives questioned whether capital punishment conflicts with conservative principles due to its fiscal inefficiency and proven inequity. Some said the death penalty was the ultimate exercise of big government power.

It was fascinating to watch these lawmakers examine an issue under a different microscope. This time the starting line was not stereotypical dogma but rather political ideology. They applied conservative principles to the issue and reached a far different conclusion than is reached by a dogmatic analysis.

Dr. Hans Morgenthau was a prominent 20th century expert on international affairs. During the Cold War debates of the 60s on Vietnam, Cuba, and Berlin, Dr. Morgenthau wrote to Dean Acheson, Truman’s one-time Secretary of State. Morgenthau lamented, “What I find so disturbing in the Washington scene today is the dearth of men who are capable of thinking in political terms.” He found it a problem that politicians couldn’t “bring political categories” to debates on issues. “It is as though people were asked to judge paintings, not in terms of their intrinsic aesthetic value, but in terms of say, the cost of their production, the chemical composition of the paint, or their physical relationship to each other.”

The problem has worsened with today’s extreme-media-driven politics. We find ourselves in an environment where if a member of one party offers a proposal, members of the other find fault without employing a politically-principled analysis.

What are the principles dividing conservatives from liberals?  It’s difficult to state them without becoming ideological. For example, one website explained the difference this way. Conservatives, it asserted, believe “Western cultures are superior to others without rights, freedom, and respect for life.” Liberals, by contrast, believe, “All cultures are equal. Can’t pass judgment on any even if they don’t value freedom, rights, and life.” Nonsense like that that prevents honest political assessment of issues.

I’ll try to offer a “fair and balanced” (really) assessment of differences, trusting readers will correct me where they think I need correcting.

Conservatives believe in unfettered, free markets where laws of supply and demand determine wages and the behaviors of business. Liberals believe that without government regulation, the market invariably exploit workers, consumers, and the environment. Conservatives accept a level of discrimination in order to secure free, unfettered markets while liberals feel the government must act to make certain the playing field is level.

Conservatives believe business owners create jobs while liberals believe working people and consumers create jobs when they earn enough to enable them to purchase the good and services businesses offer.

Conservatives expect judicial restraint, with courts strictly interpreting the Constitution to uphold its original intent. Liberals support achieving social policy changes via court rulings, believing the Constitution is a living document intended to reflect societal changes.

Conservatives advocate less government, reduced spending, and lower taxes. Liberals believe in progressive taxation to support a level of government spending that will meet the needs of our citizens.

Conservatives believe the federal government is a threat to personal liberty. Liberals believe state governments are demonstrably unable to protect either those freedoms or the natural environment.

Conservatives believe citizens should fear government. Liberals believe citizens’ lives have been improved by federal government initiatives from social security to Medicare and Medicaid, to minimum wages, clean water and air, and more.

Liberal or conservative, we’d be better served by more victories of the pragmatic over the dogmatic.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

$100 million WYO budget cut w/o pain

I beg your indulgence for one more column on Medicaid expansion. If you’re tired of reading about Medicaid, it may be because you are not one of the 17,600 denied health insurance for the last three years when you could have been insured. Either that or you don’t mind being taxed more than necessary.

Declining oil and gas revenues have given rise to a renewed conversation of just how fiscally irresponsible it is to turn down Medicaid expansion. Governor Mead has floated the prospect of serious budget cuts and the elimination of entire programs in order to balance the budget.

As the Governor searches for savings, he should consider the massive savings available in the 100 million dollar appropriation for mental health and substance abuse services even without Medicaid expansion. This savings is in addition to the nearly 50 million dollars the Department of Health predicts could be saved by expansion.

Although it’s always about the money, the legislature shouldn’t ignore the human costs of their decisions. People without health insurance become sicker faster and die earlier than the insured. Dr. Sherry Glied, Columbia University public health professor, said on PBS, "The people most at risk today are those who have no health insurance at all. They're at risk of not getting regular care when they need it…of not catching real problems before they get serious enough to not be treatable…of not getting the best treatment when they actually do get sick."

But, let’s talk money. They tout themselves as “fiscal conservatives.” Their votes on this issue betray those claims. Call them the “neo-fiscal-conservatives,” politicians who put their narrow political agenda above their promises to take care of the taxpayers.

How did it happen that state legislators are able to deny the health care to Wyoming citizens that other states enjoy? Why are Wyoming lawmakers allowed to spend millions of your tax dollars needlessly while sending millions more to pay for health care in other states?

Obamacare was written to assure nearly all Americans would have health insurance. Those who couldn’t afford private insurance would be covered under Medicaid. Those who made too much to be Medicaid eligible but too little to afford private premiums were to be covered under expansion of Medicaid. The original law required all states to expand Medicaid for those folks.

When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, it also ruled that Medicaid expansion could not be mandated. States like Wyoming, whose political leaders opposed Obamacare, chose partisan politics over the enormous tax savings expansion offers.

Legislators and the Governor have overlooked another huge tax savings available even without expanding Medicaid. It’s a savings that would be significantly magnified if the legislature voted for expansion.

Wyoming spends nearly 100 million dollars each biennium for mental health and substance abuse treatment. As the author of the study that resulted in huge increases in public funding of these services, I know that while the size of that appropriation was once necessary, it is no longer.

Here’s why. Before Obamacare, most people needing mental health and addiction services were either uninsured or woefully under-insured.

Obamacare improved the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. As a result, insurance companies are now required to offer the same amount of coverage for mental health and substance use disorders as they would for medical or surgical procedures. Plans must cover medications, emergency care, outpatient, and inpatient services.

Today, nearly all of those who once could not afford mental health treatment without huge taxpayer subsidies are, or should be, insured. Medicaid expansion would make massive state appropriations unnecessary.

The Wyoming legislature should do what even Governor Mead now sees as fiscally responsible and expand Medicaid. Even if they don’t, they should review the huge expenditures for mental health and substance abuse services and ask how much of that 100 million dollar appropriation is now unnecessary as private insurance provides coverage.

In times of declining revenues, as the 49’ers said, “thar’s gold in them thar hills.”