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Category: government (Page 1 of 6)

choices & the fiscal cliff

I’m totally baffled by the tempest in a teapot that’s being stirred up by the media over the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Fueled mostly by conservative pundits and Tea Party sycophants, and aided by a complacent media, it seems that the average U.S. taxpayer should be in a state of panic.

The thing is: yes, taxes could go up and paychecks could end up smaller. But making smart and simple choices in life can make it all academic, in the end.

Really – it’s simply a matter of choices.

If no agreement can be reached before January 1, 2013, many taxes will roll back to the levels they were at under President Clinton. These rates are lower than they were under Reagan or Bush for a majority of taxpayers.

For example, a person earning $62,000 per year would see their income taxes increase approximately $1,900 in 2013 – an average of $36.56 per week. That’s not a ton of money, by-the-by, if you look at it, and it’s easy to save this amount by making discretionary – i.e. not necessary of basic, day-to-day existence – spending choices.

A big choice that many people make each working day is to buy a coffee or related beverage at Starbucks or a similar purveyor of high-end coffee drinks. Your average latte costs between $4 and $5. If this expense is completely skipped for a work week, that’s $20-25 saved. If you also get a donut, scone, or breakfast sandwich with this – let’s say it’s another $2-4 for this – that’s another $10 to $20 saved per week, and the $36.56 weekly tax expense is covered.

Even if you cut back one, two, or three of these discretionary beverages, that’s money saved and tax “hit” blunted. And, frankly speaking, with a little practice it’s possible to make a top-notch espresso, latte, or cup of coffee at home for a fraction of the cost of the coffee house.

The same rule applies for buying lunch from a local deli, bodega, restaurant or food truck: save $10 per lunch, and it adds up.

Post-work drinks? Buy a six-pack or bottle of wine and enjoy it at home, and invite your friends over. Remember: each single bottle of beer or glass of wine at a restaurant or bar typically covers the price of the entire six-pack (beer) or bottle (wine).

Yes, this can affect others in this supply chain system – namely the baristas, wait staff, bartenders, and shop owners. So combine bits and pieces: give up a coffee here, a beer there, lunch from the food truck elsewhere. Don’t completely abandon your local haunts – just cut back a little. They’ll understand. If you keep track of the money, the savings will add up.

And then there’s the discretionary expense that riles me more than most things: cable TV.

I understand: there is some great writing on cable TV. Some of the shows are really awesome.

But most cable packages have you paying for a lot of channels you’ll never watch, as well as channels that you can pick up for free with a simple antenna, over the air.

Yup: there is still such a thing as free TV, people! And most of it is full, 1080p or 1080i high definition!

For free! Over the air!

Do I practice what I preach? Yes, though I could do better. I brew my own coffee, both at home and at the office, though I do enjoy an occasional flat white from Filter, or a gingerbread latte from Starbucks. I eat out for lunch more than I should, though I try to stick to cheap, healthy stuff (no food trucks regularly serve my office’s neighborhood, anyway). I’ve never subscribed to cable. I do subscribe to Netflix.

I save additional money by riding my bike to work, something I’d do even if I lived further away from my workplace than I do now. That’s let money spent on gas, parking, and other car-related things.

These are all choices I make. I do them to save money and simplify things.

And with the looming “fiscal cliff,” I’m prepared.

Life is a series of choices, some of which are harder to make than others. Some of the choices I’ve made would be very tough for others to do for themselves, and that’s OK.

But challenges, like a tax increase, require an ability to think creatively and, occasionally, make choices that feel like sacrifices. But part of being a responsible adult is making the tough choices that aren’t necessarily the easiest or more pain-free – sometimes, choices will seemingly hurt.

But saving money here and there means that, down the road, there will be funds to spend on other things, whether practical (e.g. a new house or car) or fun (a vacation or concert). It also means having a rainy day fund in case of emergencies – not a bad thing to have.

Now this could all be an academic discussion if the various areas of the U.S. government can come to an agreement on avoiding this “cliff.” But so long as the Tea Party remains as inflexible as C. Montgomery Burns, and as long as Democrats remain similarly inflexible, it’s best to be prepared to make choices.

vote yes on no! (election 2012 live[ish]blog)

7:35pm

Polls are closed in Virginia. Results from there are… forming.

But I vote in DC. I arrived at my polling place at 7:02am ad found a queue of over 100 people waiting to cast ballots.

And by 7:30am, I was done and out. Many ovals were filled with the standard golf pencil: Obama/Biden, Grosso, Beatty (simply because a moderate Republican would provide a needed check in the otherwise mono block DC Council), Strachuzzi (because we need new approaches within Congress), Mendelson, et al. I voted for the weak-sauce ethics reform measures because they are, at the very least, a step toward meaningful ethics reform in the DC government.

My reward? A flat white from Filter – yum!

I worked all day at the office.

Now I head to watch the returns with friends dating back to the days of Howard Dean. I’ll keep you posted by updating this post.

8:12

At Tunnicliff’s, drinking a lager. Talking heads on TV are vamping because there isn’t anything to report. Whee. Drink.

10:25pm

Trusty’s has been good. Once the trivia game broke up, it got quiet. Watching results pour in with relative peace. Nice to see Warren, Baldwin, McCaskill, Sharrod Brown win. Interesting to see the national popular vote juxtaposed with the Electoral College.

12:35am

At the White House – four more years!!!

random thursday rant

A few random thoughts about recent happenings in DC:

I’m dismayed that the DC Council’s monthly breakfasts tend to be lavish affairs, especially when the Council is dealing with high levels of unemployment, corruption, and whatnot. Yesterday’s breakfast had a rather flashy spread, complete with individual glass bottles of Voss sparkling mineral water. This water isn’t cheap, and it’s very sad to see such wasteful spending, especially when DC Water is promoting reusable bottles filled with DC’s perfectly drinkable tap water.

So I ask: as the monthly breakfast duty rotates amongst Council members, who went to these wasteful lengths? Hey, DC press (I’m looking at you, DeBonis, Sherwood and Suderman): let’s not allow this to simply pass us by.

(As an aside, this kind of over-the-top, lavish catering reminds me of my time on the DC Democratic State Committee, when the committee was planning its trip to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. One of the DCDSC’s national committee liaisons spoke of “wonderful, catered breakfasts with crispy bacon, eggs, all the trimmings,” and the need for an exorbitant budget to pay for all of this opulence – for a group that didn’t really have a purpose for being at the convention, other than to cast a ceremonial nominating vote. Otherwise, the Democratic National Convention is all about networking and trying to land a political appointment – whatever. And these funds were raised through less-than-legal means, in the end – DeBonis’ write-up is a good place to start on said research. Needless to say, I was very happy not to run for reelection to such a corrupt – and, in the end, pointless – organization.)

———

Word is the Lincoln Theatre on U Street is running out of funds, and needs a quick injection of $500,000 (give or take) to continue operation. This historic building is owned and operated by the District, and I’ve seldom seen it actually host events. From what I can tell, this so-called “hybrid community-commercial venue” is mis-managed, in part by its non-communicative board of directors (who apparently haven’t directly asked the Mayor for assistance, or even a meeting to talk), and in part by its insistance on hosting “multi-cultural experiences and programming.”

Here’s the problem with the latter portion: this charter is essentially code for preserving a culture that has long since left the U Street corridor. Yes, it was the “Black Broadway of DC” in its heyday, a magnet for performers like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. And the majority of programs booked in the Lincoln try to preserve the historic African-American heritage of the U Street corridor, or play to international arts events.

But over the past 15 years, U Street has changed. It is no longer a neighborhood dominated by one culture, but a melting pot of urban renewal. The old guard establishments, like Ben’s Chili Bowl and Bohemian Caverns, has been joined by thriving new ventures, like Marvin, Nellie’s, Busboys and Poets, and numerous other restaurants, bars and shops. International music and theatre is embraced by performance venues like GWU’s Lisner Auditorum, Warner Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s two indoor performance space, as well as other venues in the greater DC area. As people are priced out of the U Street housing market, they often take the culture with them to their new neighborhoods.

A quick study of how many nights the Lincoln is booked for events shows it booked an average of 30-36 days per year – less than ten percent of the time. For any performance venue, this is not an admirable record. And the few times the Lincoln hosted events that were a bit outside of their typical bookings – a LGBT film festval and fringe theatre events, to name but two – there were many obstacles that stood in the way of any perception of success. These obstacles included veiled prejudice with regard to the LGBT festival and mainstream music bookings, as well as negative neighborhood perception on the part of fringe theatre. And those who have worked at the Lincoln have few positive things to say about the management and staff at the facility, ranging from cries of indifference to non-timeliness of essential technical staff.

To put it bluntly: the place is mismanaged on many levels, to its detriment. And DC is now in the midst of renovating the old Howard Theatre, likely embarking on the same path to disrepair.

The solution? The DC government should convert the Lincoln into a stand-alone, non-profit entity. It needs to be weaned from the teat of the DC taxpayers and find its own feet. Such a quality venue, with lovely architecture and a size that’s bigger than many clubs and fringe theatres, yet smaller than places like National Theatre, would be best managed by a firm like IMP (which already does occasional bookings for the facility) or a local guild of theatre companies. This facility needs to be booked more than 65 percent of the year to be relevant or solvent, and it needs management that actually is in tune with the people who now frequent the U Street corridor.

I’m not advocating complete abandonment of the mission of preserving the history of U Street. I’m simply encouraging the Lincoln to embrace the changes, as well: to offer all of Heinz’ 57 varieties of wares, not just things that no longer resonate with the locals.

As far is the Howard is concerned: partner with Howard University and a firm like IMP now, get a game plan in place that is forward thinking in terms of the needs of the city and neighborhood, and don’t step on the toes of your U Street neighbor to the west.

———

The DC government also announced that, unless a little over $300,000 can be found in the budget, it will shutter MLK Library on Sundays, thus closing the only DCPL location that operates on said day. While I grew up in a city where the public library was never, ever open on a Sunday, MLK is a vital “third space” for the DC community.

So where can $300,000 be found? Well, Councilman Harry “Tommy” Thomas, Jr., wrongly spent approximately $300,000 of city funds on his own, non-constituent expenses. He has promised to pay them back, so why not have him pay them directly to DCPL to keep MLK open? Seems like common sense, and makes lemonade out of lemons.

(And naturally, since this makes sense, the DC Council won’t do it.)

———

And finally: I’d really like to see Tommy Wells get more aggressive within the Council. Sure, the rest of the Council let you down, and in a perfect world it would be wise to sit back and let wounds heal.

But if the culture of corruption and ineptitude that has been the hallmark of the current Mayor and Council is any indication, now is not the time to be quiet, Tommy. Get angry! Get aggressive! Carry that big stick and use it. Your constituents didn’t vote you in to be a soft voice, but to call out the bullshit when you saw it. So….

Just do it!

Hold your colleagues accountable! Point out when things don’t make any sense! Be a champion for sanity in government! Take on the mantel of moving the city into the future, while many of your colleagues want to drag it back into the past!

Seriously, Tommy, you’re one of the few – if not the only – Council member with whom I don’t really have a beef (the same definitely can’t be said of my Ward’s Councilman, Jack Evans). You’ve had plenty of time to lick your wounds and brush off the dirt from being smacked down – now is the time to get back to fighting!

Ahem….

a note regarding the impending federal government shutdown

To all my friends out there who may be cheering the impending shutdown of the Federal government:

Please note that this shutdown will also shutter most of the District of Columbia’s city government. We have no control over our own money, so Congress’ petulant bickering will result in trash not getting collected, many social services shutting their doors, streets not being kept up or repaired, and a lot of citizens of DC being furloughed for at least a week. DC is one of the United States’ last colonies: we pay taxes but have no representation for us on Capitol Hill.

So this means that DC’s government has to pick and choose which programs are essential and hope that we have the money to do it. Sure: police, fire and EMS will still be on duty in full force. But other services that many would deem essential in a civil society will be curtailed. An example: hot meals for housebound elderly residents of the District. So senior citizens? You’re not essential. And public libraries? Nope – reading isn’t, it turns out, fundamental. Want to lodge a complaint against the DC Police Department? Sorry – the complaints department isn’t essential.

And it’s at times like these that the stupid riders that Tea Party followers insist on adding to otherwise necessary federal belt tightening measures in the budget make me want to remind these so-called “tea partiers” that the *original* Boston Tea Party existed to help people like the residents of DC, not people who don’t have a clue about what high taxes actually are and who, frankly speaking, aren’t paying nearly enough taxes given the number of Federally-funded entitlements they use each and every day.

Sincerely,

A taxpaying resident of Washington, DC, who is still treated like a colonist by Congress

can we just send the committee of 100 out to sea?

Seriously, that the Committee of 100 has influence on DC politics is frightening. They wield power over old-school DC politicians in a way that drags the District and its citizens down by the balls, advocating governmental moves that would hurt the city and its potential for future growth and livability.

Here’s how they describe themselves:

“The Committee of 100 advocates responsible planning and land use in Washington, D.C. Our work is guided by the values inherited from the L’Enfant Plan and McMillan Commission, which give Washington its historic distinction and natural beauty, while responding to the special challenges of 21st century development. We pursue these goals through public education, research and civic action, and we celebrate the city’s unique role as both the home of the District’s citizens and the capital of our nation.”

The thing is, both the L’Enfant Plan and McMillan Commission failed to predict how DC would develop in the post-WWII era – in other words, they’re still married to the “car is king, damn the cyclists and pedestrians” and “big box stores and strip malls are the best thing for retail” schools of thought.

And just yesterday, they asked Vince Gray, the Mayor-Elect of DC, to fire Gabe Klein and Harriet Tregoning, two of the best assets from the outgoing administration of Adrian Fenty. They argue that moves made by Klein and Tregoning were made unilaterally, without community input and without a vision for sustainability.

While I appreciate their right to express an opinion on these matters, they are wrong and what they suggest would not benefit the District or its citizens.

In particular, they single out Klein’s multi-modal approach toward running the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Klein is the first DDOT head to think beyond the single-occupant car, and he has made the District a safer place for those who use mass transit, bicycles and their feet to get around their neighborhoods and the city. In a world where petroleum prices continue to rise (and one where the supply of crude oil is declining at an ever increasing rate), Klein’s philosophy is somewhat self-sustaining: safe and reliable mass transit, protected bike lanes and safe parking for bicycles, and well-paved and properly-lit sidewalks and multi-use paths allow the citizens of the District to minimize their use of private automobiles for day-to-day transportation. Sure, there are parts of the city where the idea hasn’t quite caught on, but cultural change takes time.

But the Committee of 100 thinks that such change is irrelevant, even dangerous. They seem to move forward by looking squarely in a rear-view mirror. And what else would you expect from an organization whose membership is comprised entirely of old-time DC political cronies who relish having one of their own taking over as Mayor? Give a little bit of relevance, a little bit of power, and watch DC’s government become increasingly out-of-touch with reality.

So, in trying to be honest about their goals, their mission should read:

“The Committee of 100 advocates reactionary and irrelevant land misuse in Washington, D.C. Our work is guided by outdated values inherited from the L’Enfant Plan, McMillan Commission and the 1980s, and seeks to keep Washington mired in 20th century design philosophies, while responding to outcries from citizens who still think that Marion Barry was the best Mayor the District has ever had. We pursue these goals through public misinformation, rhetoric and public shouting matches, and we celebrate the city’s unique ability to be both the dysfunctional home of the District’s citizens and the crumbling capital of our nation.”

Frankly, the best place for the Committee of 100 is on a barge, floating somewhere in the Atlantic where they can’t insert spanners in the gears of progress.

And if you’re reading this, Mr. Gray, I hope that you have a fair enough mind to ignore the Committee of 100’s suggestions about Klein and Tregoning. If we lose their intelligence and vision, the future of DC, both short-term and long, is far, far less bright.

austerity 101 for dc politicians and voters

Let’s make this really simple:

The District of Columbia is in a financial mess. We’re spending like mad, yet not bringing in enough revenue to pay for every commitment we have toward programs large and small. This situation stands to leave the District in a long-term financial hole unless something is done to make ends meet.

This is a matter of simple budgeting, from the simplest point of view: more money needs to come in, while less money needs to be spent (i.e. go out). It’s the same kind of budget balancing that most people do in their daily lives.

The problem lies in the fact that, when others’ money is involved, most people don’t see it as a big deal if programs bloat out of control while folks who can afford to pay more into the system continue to get a kid glove treatment. And these programs come in all shapes and sizes, from those that are smart long-term infrastructure investments to those that are tired systems that need to be retooled, rebooted or cut altogether.

Adding a further spanner to the works is that this is an election year for half of the DC Council, as well as the Mayor’s office. So there are certain issues that are political “third rails,” even if these things are necessary.

I’m glad that I’m not running for office, because this is what my budget would’ve proposed, in part:

  • Creation of new tax brackets for those earning $100,000 and up, with brackets lines at $250,000, $500,000, 750,000 and $1 million plus. Those brackets would pay higher taxes than now, thus bringing more funding into the government’s general fund. CM Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) proposed something akin to this, but was shot down.
  • A per-ounce tax on sodas (both sugar-sweetened and diet sodas, as neither formula has any nutritional benefit) that would fund higher quality school lunch programs that cook fresh, seasonally-appropriate food. CM Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposed this, and it is in the current budget proposal.
  • A 10¢ per bottle fee for all non-reusable plastic containers, whether for beverages, detergents, etc., that would be used for implementation of clean energy technologies throughout District infrastructure. This expands on a proposal that was bandied about by CM Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).
  • A complete overhaul of Department of Motor Vehicles and DDOT auto registration and parking fees. Double base registration fees, and calculate the base fee not only on gross vehicle weight but also EPA fuel economy, with small discounts for use of hybrid, electric and ULEV technologies. Increase annual residential parking pass fees to a minimum of $150 per year, and charge extra for parking permits for cars over 16 feet in length (e.g. $250 for many mid-size SUVs, $350 for full-size SUVs and trucks). Use these fees to fund the development of alternate transportation infrastructure, including bike lanes, bike racks, streetcars, Metrobus/Metrorail, and pedestrian-only zones in Downtown and other high-traffic zones.
  • Do a complete analysis of each DC government department’s staffing and infrastructure, cutting redundancies and shoring up shortcomings without any spending increase.

This list could go on and on, but the basic gist is this: when a city is in a financial mess, sacrifice and austerity are needed. More money needs to come into the city’s coffers, and less needs to be spent.

Politicians don’t particularly like the concept of asking sacrifice from voters. Sacrifice isn’t popular, and voters like to rally around the pet projects and services they support. Voters are swayed by emotion and direct impact on their lives, and when proposals to cut back or eliminate programs are made it’s seen as political suicide.

Yet in times of financial crisis, doing the right thing for the long-term success of a city trumps short-term placation of the electorate. Get the house in order first, invest in long-term infrastructure, share sacrifice and make sure that everybody in the city is involved.

These are the truly hard decisions. This is what separates future-looking, pragmatic leaders from those who would rather cash in short-term benefits at the expense of long-term stability and growth.

Why am I on this kick? Because there is a choice in the race for Mayor of the District of Columbia (which, in all fairness, will be determined in the Democratic primary in September). One candidate is an often-controversial, sometimes remote and aloof incumbent who has made some incredibly hard choices for the city to help improve its long-term prospects. The other is a more old-school DC politico who, while a popular consensus builder within the Council, is touting a platform that would largely reinstate the same old and tired brand of DC pseudo-populist politics that brought the city to its financial knees many times before.

And the latter introduced a budget before the Council this morning that sacrificed essential infrastructure improvements and needed tax bracket reform to try and win a few votes come September. It was a move that was calculated, and one that failed miserably in the public perception.

And it made cemented my decision on who to back for Mayor: Adrian Fenty.

leaving a better world for the future

Reading stories like this one about how a growing number of U.S. citizens question man’s role in global climate change has me worried about not only the future of the world, but also the level of intelligence and education amongst not only the doubters, but also the legislators who seem to be guided by short-sighted monetary concerns.

Global climate change is real. The scientific community, which used to be somewhat varied in their conclusions on man’s role in accelerating climate change, is now fairly unified in the conclusion that mankind’s largely unchecked desire for big industry and big money has resulted in massive shifts in the ecosystem. The level of pollutants and other substances being introduced into the ecosystem by man overwhelms the earth’s ability to react to these activities, and as such the global systemic balance has been tipped.

According to most scientists, we are at a crucial, final point where global climate change can be slowed down to more “natural” levels, so long as countries engage in serious systemic and behavioral changes. And many countries have started to change their ways and be more future-thinking.

Sadly, the United States has never been willing to be part of needed change, even though we are one of the greatest consumers of climate-negative goods and practices. Why has the U.S. been on the wrong side of this argument? Greed and misinformation, much of which has been perpetuated by non-stop fear mongering on the part of conservative politicians, big (polluting) industry, right-wing noise media, and disreputable scientists.

Americans, by and large, fear sacrifice and change. They may say that “change is good,” but when asked to truly change behaviors and routines, there’s often a sense of “it’s not my problem – let the other guys battle it out.” And the fear mongers lap this up, trying to debunk sound science via obfuscation and the threat that “all the jobs will go away,” or that “your taxes will go up,” or that “you won’t be able to afford the cheap crap you get at Walmart.”

The saddest part is that the supporters of these politicians and industries lap this all up and parrot these ideas AS LOUDLY AS POSSIBLE, as if volume levels were synonymous with truth. It’s a very sad state.

I’m most enraged with the politicians who buy this bunk. They could be leaders, they could think beyond their next electoral cycle and ask the question: are you making the world a better place for future generations? And I honestly believe that very few of these politicians ever ask that question of themselves, or that they truly care about their constituents beyond getting their votes the next time they’re up for election. My message to these politicians: grow a set, be willing to be leaders and vote for the future, not the present.

Yes, there will be sacrifice. Behavioral change isn’t easy, especially on a societal level. There are a lot of modern “conveniences” that are destructive, at least as they are practiced now. However, when asked to sacrifice in the past, the people of the United States have been able to adapt and, in the process, discover that the new ways of doing things are often better and, amazingly, more logical and convenient. It’s simply a matter of being creative, taking initiative, thinking about more than just personal preservation in the here-and-now, and realizing how finite everything really is in terms of the hunk of rock we all inhabit.

I try to do my best to ensure that I leave the world in better shape than it was when I was born. Bit by bit, I’m changing the way I interact with the world to try and minimize the negative effect a modern lifestyle has on the environment. If it means that I pay a bit more to buy food that is produced by more eco-friendly processes, I’m willing to do it (and I do). If it means that I need to pay more taxes to help subsidize the construction of more mass transit and railroads, or to fund the development of cleaner energy sources, I’m happy to do so. If it means that I take fewer long-distance flights, that’s fine. If it means adapting to the different quality of LED and CF lights, bring it on. And if it means not driving my own car for every errand, visit, business trip or vacation, that’s just fine by me.

And I know I’m not alone.

And I hope that President Obama takes charge at the Global Climate Conference. We are at the final bail-out point before climate change will accelerate beyond human control, and the United States has a chance to be a true world leader once more – and to show up the Congressional naysayers who should question why they dare call themselves “leaders.”

sick to my stomach

That a basic, seemingly inherent human and civil right – the right to equality under law – can be put up for a vote is abhorrent to me.

And that rights that have been granted by government can be taken away via referendum is doubly abhorrent.

The scary side of referenda reared its ugly head last year in California, with the passing of Proposition 8, overturning the right of same-sex couples to marry and be equal under the law and to the majority of society. Reactionist and fringe groups rallied support against equal rights, and stripped the rights of millions of Californians via a simple vote.

Human and civil rights, denied.

And it seems that the voters of Maine have done the same tonight, in the form of Proposition 1. Maine’s governor and legislature granted the right for all couples, regardless of gender, to have access to civil marriage. In the same measure, they also preserved religious freedom by not requiring churches to perform marriages that run counter to their tenets.

But on November 3, 2009, slightly over 23 29 percent of registered voters in Maine decided to strip the rights of their fellow citizens. They decided that discrimination is just fine, and that the United States Constitution is wrong, and that all men (and women) are not created equal.

It makes me angry that anybody would vote to deny rights to people simply because they don’t agree with genetics. That anybody would be so twisted with hate, fear or confusion (or a combination of all three) to declare via one of the most basic responsibilities a United States citizen has that there is an under-class of people who don’t deserve the same access to a public and legal expression of love and commitment is something that does not compute with me.

I understand that a belief in God, or in the literal word of The Bible, or in a set of morals and beliefs that denies full inclusion for all members of society is a reality, and that many people ascribe to a life molded around such a code of conduct. But when these people have such myopic views and insist on forcing these views upon all others, I have a problem.

I grew up in a theocracy, where such practices are commonplace throughout the state and local government. As an atheist, I feel most unwelcome in places that force such beliefs and practices upon me.

I believe that love is the answer, that love makes a family, and that a family is not defined by a ratio of women to men. If two people love each other, are committed to each other and are willing to legally declare their love and commitment to each other, who am I to deny them that right?

Indeed who is anybody – individual or government – to deny that right?

Society should embrace those who love each other with true commitment and responsibility. They should allow them to be married – in a civil marriage. Marriage need not be religious to be legitimate, but it needs to be marriage. A civil union, seen by many conservatives as the “equivalent” of marriage, is separate but decidedly not equal under the law or under most societal definition.

I hope that DC’s pending legislation to legalize same-sex marriage equality (with protections for religious freedom) passes into law, and that all people in DC will embrace a society where all men and women are equal under law.

But tonight, Maine just makes me sad, angry, and wishing that fear and division were a thing of the past. Indeed, I feel sick to my stomach over this.

To the voters of Maine who voted NO on Proposition 1, I send my heartfelt thanks, and urge you to continue to fight the good fight.

To those who voted for Prop 1, I hope that you open your eyes to love, equality and acceptance of all people. Because fear, bigotry, hatred and myopia will get you nowhere in this world (or, according to friends of mine who are believers, the world after this one).

standing up with the courageous and the crazy

Last night I decided to take part in DC politics for the first time in a while.

The subject matter? Whether the ability to marry should be extended to all couples, both gay and straight. As anybody who knows me can attest, I’m a staunch advocate for marriage equality – as well as a vehement opponent of theocracy at any level. The bill introduced by the DC Council – B18-482, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009 – provides marriage equality via universally accessible civil marriage, while allowing churches to choose to only perform marriages that conform to their core beliefs. The bill isn’t perfect (a sunset clause regarding domestic partnerships should be removed), but it opens the door to equality for my gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer friends and family.

My basic stance is that marriage should be available to all as a basic, inalienable civil right. And civil rights are self-evident and do not, in my mind, require any sort of referendum to affirm. Kirstin and I choose not to marry, even though we have been a committed couple for 14 years, because our GLBTQ friends and family are unable to enjoy the same right as us. Marriage is about love and commitment, and some of the most loving and committed couples I know are denied the right to marry. Sure, civil unions have been offered as an “equal form of compensation,” but as with every similar battle in the history of human rights, separate-but-equal is not truly equal.

This quote, heard recently in Maine where a referendum on same-sex marriage will be on the ballot next week, is my base-level, non-dogmatic response to those who seek to deny the right of marriage equality:

“If you don’t believe [equal rights] are for everybody, then have some of yours taken away and see what happens.” – Paul Roeddicker, Maine resident, Vietnam veteran, devout Catholic.

Testifying in front of the DC Council on October 26, 2009

Testifying in front of the DC Council on October 26, 2009

So I watched the early testimonials as they were streamed over the internet and heard a lot of supporters of this legislation – the final ratio of bill supporters to opponents was in the 8-to-1 zone – and most were passionate without being combative. By and large, the only folks to truly raise their voices were those opposed due to religious beliefs – reaffirming my notion that being loud does not equate to being correct. The chairman of the hearing, Councilman Phil Mendelson, kept the hearing moving at a good clip.

I arrived at the Council chambers just before 7 pm, and there were still some 50 witnesses yet to testify. As the evening rolled along, the testimony continued to pack an emotional punch, both from those who want to have the right to marry and from those to whom same-sex marriage is an abomination. The courage amongst the speakers, both pro and con, was moving: from couples who want to marry, to those who married out-of-state because it was their only option, to clergy and private citizens on both sides, and to the father who brought his young daughter to the hearing to teach her a lesson about how discrimination is wrong (and how the government is there to help the people). It was impressive, to say the least.

Even the most contentious interactions were, for the most part, cordial and professional. The most heated exchange during my time in the room was between the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and Councilmember David Catania, co-sponsor of the bill and himself a gay man in a committed, long-term relationship. The parries and gamesmanship were fun to see, with the Archdiocese wanting more leniency to discriminate against GLBTQ citizens, lest they sue to get the right, and Catania saying simply “we’ll see you in court.”

I was not on the evening’s speaking list, but there were a handful of no-shows, and CM Mendelson is known for allowing others to get in their views. So I joined three other people at the panelists’ table to make my opinion known. I was the second to testify, after another supporter of marriage equality took his turn to grill another Councilmember, Yvette Alexander from Ward 7, on her priorities and her definition of civil rights.

It wasn’t my best speech. It was impromptu, with no notes, and I was tired and in need of food, but I came across well to both those in the audience and folks watching from home.

But I sounded downright coherent compared to these two women who followed me.

I really can’t summarize accurately their rambling testimony – you need to watch, listen, and then watch again.

The first woman, a marriage counselor, had a fistful of pictures and papers with her. The pictures were of her family, and one of the papers had some “scripture” on it that resembled the treatise-cum-diatribe on the labels from Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap, and she spoke of families, and marriage is there for procreation only, and how things like condoms are “unsacred… dirty, with that slobbery stuff in it…. that can make you sick and itch,” and how God is great and all that, and how it’s important to show kids the mating season at the zoo, and…. and… you get the picture. It was a ramble: disjointed and very much a complementary piece to Dr. Bronner’s label, albeit with less soapy goodness.

But the second woman, Ms. Ernestine Copeland, was the hit of the internet today. She started a sermon that became more and more loud and crazy by the second. I think she was associated with the previous woman, as the testimony turned into a call-and-response show. Ms. Copeland’s God is all about reproduction, and apparently she was in the presence of the devil by being in the room with all of us “heathens.” How about a quote:

”Sodomy and Gomorrah, I keep saying that…. Now how in the world did you get my sisters and brothers to follow your evil and corrupt ways? The demons has showed up! … Mr. Wells, is that your name? Mr. Contella (sic), Mr. Mendelson — y’all sure put the fire to them Christian folks and they buckled. But i will not buckle, this is the word of almighty God. And I tell you what about same-sexual unions, what would they do: They will destroy our society! … Shame on you, shame on you for not standing up for the holy word of God. Shame on you demon, Demon Wells, Contrella (sic) — just ’cause y’all want to practice y’all corrupt and immoral ways….” (trasncript courtesy of MetroWeekly

I could go on, but really, she’s a trip, and is best experienced in full, technicolor glory.

I did my best to keep calm and collected, as did the members of the Council who witnessed this woman’s descent into complete lunatic diatribe. Eventually, her microphone was shut off, and security kept an eagle eye on her after the meeting adjourned for the night.

Those of us who were in a bit of a stupefied awe shared a good laugh and a huge sigh of relief. The hearing certainly saved The Crazyâ„¢ for the end. The DC Council should be mindful of this and sell popcorn and other concessions for the continuation on November 2 – they could make a nice bit of cash from it.

monday musings (tuesday edition)

Since we last met, I’ve been skiing in Colorado (great time – proper post coming soon, though the new header image is from this trip) and spent a weekend in Chicago, where sprite had her annual meeting (inconveniently planned to occur on her birthday). There are plenty of pics from both adventures over at my Flickr page, so have a look around.

Let’s muse, then:

  • So it seems that Chrysler – who already received $4 billion in loans from the TARP fund – needs an additional $5 billion to stay afloat. GM wants another $16.6 billion. Sorry, Detroit dinosaurs, but we need to cut you off. Y’see, I remember how things used to be in the land of business: those that could adapt to changing circumstances survived, while others failed – no bailout needed or expected. Note that you don’t see Studebakers, or Cords, or Nash Ramblers in the dealerships these days – there’s a reason for that, as their parent companies failed. And yes, many people lost their jobs as a result of these failures. But somehow, the United States survived, and the fittest of the automakers lived on to see another day.

    The issue, as I see it, is that the “Big Three” of Detroit failed to see the folly of their ways. When customers demanded fuel-efficient and reliable cars, the folks at Ford, GM and Chrysler kept on producing big, hefty, inefficient, unreliable cars that didn’t appeal to many buyers. Sure, there was a certain pride in “buying American” (a trait to which I don’t really subscribe in these modern days), but the buyers looked to the cars that looked forward: Honda and Toyota hybrids, well-engineered German models, and high bang-for-your-buck units from South Korea. All the while, Detroit over-expanded and watered down its offerings.

    Even now, the “Big Three” refuse to do a proper culling of their models and workforce to appeal to the modern economy. If they would simply specialize in their unique strengths (Ford = trucks, Chrysler = vans and the basics of the Jeep brand, GM = ummm, something), plus one “character car” (Ford = Mustang, GM = Corvette, Chrysler = Viper or some very-capable Jeep), then perhaps there would be reason to have optimism. And this wouldn’t require any federal funding to happen: it’s just a matter of cutting costs – and personnel – at all levels, top to bottom.

    Furthermore, the UAW is standing firm on post-war, sweatshop-based tactics toward job protection, moves that do not endear them to me or to the economic realities of today. Look at the most productive and motivated auto workers these days, and you’ll see that they work for Toyota, Honda, Nissan and BMW – most of which are not beholden to the UAW and its yesteryear-leaning tactics.

  • And this leads to my next point: unions need to look long and hard at how their European counterparts handle employment and worker protections. Note that the European labor unions do not rule the roost at the places where they are active. Membership is optional, and you’ll see both union-affiliated and non-union workers standing side-by-side at factories, all happy in their choices. Compare that to the United States, where unions like the UAW create all-or-nothing situations for potential employees.

    Unions have served a purpose throughout the history of the United States. They helped improve worker conditions and defend workers’ rights during times of sweatshop tactics and excessive child labor. They helped set proper safety standards, and helped negotiate living wages. Like the “Big Three,” however, most unions in the United States have failed to adapt to the new realities of the market, both locally and globally. They are paranoid and protectionist to a fault, and while there are some that still act as fair players in the grand scheme of business and societal welfare, there are others that fear any change.

  • And that brings me to the basic reality that the United States now faces: change. The voters called for it in the 2008 elections, and the current economic crisis demands it of all citizens, rich and poor. The America many have known is a relic of a decadent past, and we need to move forward to a leaner, more efficient, more inclusive and less divisive way of life. It means walking instead of driving to the store, it means less spending on frivolous items, it means setting up the basics that many societies take for granted as true civil rights – universal healthcare being paramount above all else, especially for those 18 and under. It means investing in the future: in post-oil energy, in mass transit and infrastructure improvements that will connect our neighborhoods without requiring low-occupancy cars to get from point to point.

    These are all changes to the old “chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage” post-war dream that continues to be bandied about by nostalgia buffs and social conservatives. It was a great dream, but it’s time to wake up to reality – and reality demands that we change our ways. It will involve sacrifice, no doubt. But these changes are simple to integrate into daily life: walk, bus, train or bike to places you would normally drive; use canvas, cloth or reusable composite bags for shopping needs; turn off lights, computers and appliances that aren’t in use; set thermostats lower in the winter and higher in the summer (dressing in layers is chic, after all); eat locally and in season whenever possible; hang dry your clothes. These are just a few things – little things – that most people can, and must, do in order to help enact real, tangible change.

  • And speaking of reusable bags, the Trash Free Anacostia movement is one I really support. It calls for a 5 cent fee for any plastic or paper grocery bag issued by a store, thus encouraging reuse of bags instead of introducing them into the ecosystem, where they often end up as waste – in DC’s case, that’s usually in the river ecosystem of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.

    Frankly, I think a 5 cent fee is too low – it should be more like 35 to 50 cents per bag – and should be used in conjunction with a 5 to 10 cent credit for bringing your own bags to the store. This kind of system works well in Europe (where else?), and has really changed how people shop: they buy only what’s needed, and think about what they realistically can carry. Yet this isn’t necessarily a limitation; rather, it’s a call for personal creativity.

    And while people will grouse about this adversely affecting the poor: it’s a one-time charge to get a reusable bag (most retailers change between $1-2 for fairly large, durable bags), and in DC, it’s not difficult to come upon tote bags and duffels, as they’re handed out at myriad free events throughout the District.

    So I applaud Councilman Wells’ efforts on this, and am in support of this first step toward a new mindset in American commerce – one bag at a time.

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