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.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sunday's sermon @ Highalnds

We have been studying 1st Samuel at Bibles and Beer for the past month or so and I was delighted to see a reading from that Old Testament book come up on the lectionary, in fact the same chapter we studied last Monday evening. First Samuel can be found in the history section of the library we call the Bible. Together with first and second Chronicles it traces the religious, political, and social development of Israel from a loose collection of tribes to a monarchy.

First Samuel actually begins with the last verse of the book of Judges, which reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

By then Israel has progressed from a one-man show when Moses led the people. When he found it was all too much for him, he appointed others to help him and soon Judges sprang up, people who felt called by God to be military, political, social, and religious leaders among the people. The judges were people like Gideon, Sampson, Deborah, Eli, and Samuel.

Samuel’s mother was barren until God answered her prayers for a son. She then promised Samuel to God. Chapter 1 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Samuel grew up watching Eli. Chapter 2 says, And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord. 22Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

Samuel had watched the old priest Eli try to control his wretched offspring, Hophni and Phineas. Eli was a man of God. He deserved better from his sons…but God blamed Eli for their failure and cast judgment saying no one in his family shall ever live to old age. 33The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the members of your household shall die by the sword. 34The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.

And they did. Well . . . that was then. Fast forward a few decades and now Samuel is a father who cannot control his sons. The Bible says they took bribes and perverted justice.

By now the people had had enough of these old men and their thug sons. So they go to Samuel and tell him…hey, now don’t take this personally, but you’re getting a little long in the tooth and if you should pass in the night we don’t want to be stuck with these sons of yours…so give us a king. Everyone around us has one, why not us?

Well, Samuel does take it personally. So Samuel calls on God. The two of them sit down for a talk. God is, as usual, quite empathetic. Look Sam, he says, they haven’t rejected you…they have rejected me.

But then…God’s been rejected before. God can take it. God’s become quite accustomed to rejection. God says, let me tell you a story about Adam and Eve. Made them in my image, you know…set them up with everything they’d ever need. And God tells him the story about the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent and that apple he found lying on the ground with only two bites taken from it.

God puts his arm around Samuel’s shoulder and says, see my old friend, I couldn’t control my children either. God knows I tried and tried again. And God began to reminisce like old men do.

He told Samuel about how he booted Adam and Eve from the garden. Tough love, he called it and how sad he was as he watched them go out into the world. Heck, he said, they couldn’t control their kids either. One of them killed his own brother. Things didn’t get any better. I was so angry with the folks at Sodom and Gomorrah that I decided I had to destroy the whole city…Abraham, bless him, tried to talk me out of it and we agreed I’d back off if we could find just 10 good people in the entire city…we couldn’t…not even ten.

Finally, I said let’s erase all of this from the face of the earth and start over. So I sent a flood and destroyed everyone and everything. Felt terrible afterward and made a promise I regretted form time to time…said I’d never do that again. And I haven’t…though from time to time I have zapped one or two who really got under my skin…like Eli and his sons. I thought that would send the message but look at those boys of yours. But…they are no different than the others.

God smiled and said, you know my prophet to the Muslims, Mohammed, was once asked about his children and the problems they create. He said…my children are my greatest joy…and my greatest heartache. Ah…no truer words…

Oh my…God said…humans are determined. Over the centuries, these people have continued to wander off the beaten path…one time they found themselves slaves in Egypt, of all places. What a mess that was. I finally found someone willing to lead them out of there…after plagues and locusts and all sorts of nasty stuff…finally got them on their way to the Promised Land but it took them forty years to get there and I have never heard such complaining. The whole trip…when they weren’t whining they were worshipping a golden calf.

But they finally made it…finally got to the land I’d promised…and foolish me…like that day in the garden when I asked only one thing of Adam and Eve, I asked only one thing of these people. Drive out of the land all of those folks who worship other gods. I told them that if they didn’t, there’d be trouble ahead.

Well, long story short…once again they didn’t do the one thing I asked…and here we are again. Last time it was the Egyptians…now it’s the Philistines…always fighting among themselves or with someone else. Blaming me when they lose…taking credit when they win. Telling folks that I’m the one who told them to go to war…God knows how this will all end.

So…now they want a king…as though that’ll make any difference. Well, God said, as he stroked his long white beard…give ‘em what they want. They want a king? Let them have it.

But don’t let it be said we didn’t warn them. You tell them that I said that if they get a king…he will make their life miserable…he will draft their sons into his army and send them off to who knows where to fight his wars. A king will make servants of their daughters and farm hands of their sons and he will tax them to death, using the money to buy weapons of war and to build his own palaces.

If then…if they still want to replace me with a king God says in verse 18, you tell them for me, In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."

And so Samuel started to walk away to fulfill the assignment God had given him. But God stopped him and smiled and said…just between you and me and the fence post…on that day, when they cry out because of their king…you know…I won’t abandon them. I’ll be there again as I have always been there when my people cry out.

And as God turned to walk away, Samuel could hear God speaking to himself, saying…I suppose the day will come when I finally learn that all this zapping people and threatening them doesn’t work. I suppose one day I will learn that they will do what humans do because that’s how I made them…with all that free will stuff they throw in my face…and I will just need to forgive them and love them for who they are.