Representative government and revolution

Through history, governments mainly promoted the power of a ruling family and aristocracy. The theory on which our country was founded, that government should represent the people and their interests, really was pretty radical, although derived from prior English thinking.

Actually the theory was too radical for the 18th century: our Founders set up a system in which basically only white men who owned property could vote and govern. Our national history since then has been a long effort to bring others to full participation.

Historians point out that when economic and political power are misaligned, unrest and even revolution can follow. Thus, the rising influence of the commercial class in 17th-century England and 18th-century France caused conflicts that brought about the unthinkable: the deposition and execution of two reigning monarchs. And exactly 100 years ago Russia, unable to realign power to write the end to the legacy of serfdom and appease its own rising classes, likewise overthrew a long-ruling dynasty.

The current decade shows the opposite pattern: not a rising middle class but a declining middle class. Those Americans and Europeans who felt left behind by change, the scantily employed, those marginalized by inadequate education and global trade lashed out against social change, immigrants, the financial industry, declining standards of living, and the political in-group they held responsible for unwelcome changes. Angry voters have been looking back to the good old days, however they may imagine those to be.

Democrats often lament: why do people vote against their own interests? Why would voters threatened by change cast their lot in with an unscrupulous New York billionaire?

Insecure people confused by events choose desperate solutions. When they feel government caters to others than themselves, they revolt, as in the states, including Pennsylvania, that made the difference in the 2016 electoral college.

Americans expect to be taken seriously. When we have an issue on the municipal level, we complain to our friends, we write a letter or go to a meeting, we try to sort it out with people pretty much like ourselves, basically our own neighbors who have stepped forward to help our town run its services, and we usually feel that democracy is working, locally at least.

But our political life has widening circles of distance from ourselves: municipality, county, state House and Senate, US House and Senate, state and national court systems, the presidency. The bigger the district, the more remote the office-holder seems, the less like ourselves and people we know. The most successful politicians have the ability to narrow that perception of distance.

A lot of Americans felt George Bush would be a good person to walk their dog or share a beer. Obama made many Americans feel their turn had come. And in 2016, desperate people preferred the disruptive candidate who seemed to “feel their pain” and, ironically, not the spouse of the president who practically trademarked that expression. Many Trump voters thought of themselves as revolutionaries trying to take down a hostile regime; and it is no coincidence that Steve Bannon, the man often termed Trump’s Rasputin, has described himself as a disrupter and a Leninist.

Those voters betting all on change will be disappointed once again, of course, but they don’t know it yet. Our system has managed to align economic and political power pretty well, because increasingly, the wealthy who control economic life control political life as well. The final test will be whether the current rules will be able to align perception and reality, not of course by changing reality but by altering people’s feelings about it. through marketing, propagandizing, and tweeting.

The exceptionalism of our democracy lies in inducing people to vote against their own interests and even their own beliefs. Who would have thought the party of “family values” would support Trump?

Today’s “resistance” movement reflects a truly radical idea: that government should represent the actual people who live in our country, in all our diversity of race, religion, socio-economic level, or any other trait. The Resisters believe that our representatives should meet with us in our own communities and listen to us, or else that people more attuned to ourselves, all across the country, should take their places. Thus, everyone should participate, vote, organize, let their views be known, promote candidates, and run for office.

Our country could do a lot worse than trying out that concept, which broadens the Founders’ concept of citizen-farmers doubling as part-time legislators to represent real, un-gerrymandered human communities. If democracy is to carry on, it needs faith that a majority of people can lead the way, making good decisions for the whole social organism.

When Americans feel that people like ourselves are representing us at all levels of government, our system will reach the balance that it has long sought between the individual and the communal, the local and the national.

E pluribus unum, as it were.


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H.R. 610 Choices in Education Act: a disaster if it passes in Congress

A pro-education rally at 21 West Market St. in West Chester tomorrow Friday Feb. 17, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., is specifically directed against House Bill 610, which was introduced in Washington last month.

The bill’s own short description does not do justice to the damage this bill would cause:


This Congress seems determined to undo all the beneficial functions of government, such as promoting public health, protecting the environment, reducing gun violence, or furthering public education.

The majority party is against “choice” until it suits them to use the word as cover for their own purposes. Newly installed (by a vote of 51-50) Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will be very happy with this bill, since she believes that “government sucks.” it will suck even more if HR 610 ever  becomes law.

Title I of this bill would negate all federal functions regarding K-12 education except to give block grants to “qualified” states in proportion to the number of “eligible” children.

In order to qualify, states must agree to distribute each child’s share of these federal funds to parents for use in any public schools, private schools (of which over 80% are religious), or home-schooling.

So, students in rich districts and poor districts, in families of all economic levels, in religious and non-religious schools, special needs and super-gifted students, students with parents realistically capable of home-schooling them or not–all would get the same cut of Secretary DeVos’s pie.

How about students without a fixed parent or guardian or even a stable address? The bill doesn’t seem to do much for them.

Does the bill set any criteria for home-schooling? No, and even though states may have a say, it isn’t hard to guess that a lot of parents will decide they would rather collect the funds than send their child to a school of any sort. Payments “shall not exceed the cost of home-schooling the child,” but who could possibly know?

Does the bill refer to any standards for schools to meet? No.

Does the  bill require the child to be making some recognizable progress? No, just be “aged 5 to 17, inclusive.” So a student age 5-17, even if repeating one grade 3 times, qualifies, but a high school senior aged 18, for whatever reason such as earlier serious illness, doesn’t.

Don’t federal and states standards cover some of these things? Maybe, but none are referenced in the bill.  In a year when you can see regulations falling like dominoes, you can bet that once the door is opened by HR  610, no one will dare turn off the money.

And then there is a constitutional issue.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This has been taken (until 2017, at least) to prevent the US government from subsidizing religious institutions. This bill gets around that by saying that the funds go to the parents, who turn it over to the religious school. But the magnitude of this scheme, and the potential to create more religious schools and shut down non-religious schools, will surely interest the court system.

Similarly on the state level. The PA Constitution I.3 says: “…no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent.”

If our state and school districts are obliged to distribute federal money– just to give an example much in the news these days– to subsidize the extensive charter school network of  Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen (a PA resident accused of orchestrating the recent failed coup d’état in Turkey), does that violate the state constitution? This could be interesting.

Similarly, PA Constitution III.15 says; “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” If the state asks for federal money under HR 610, is it “raising” money? In my view, it would certainly be violating the obvious intent that public funds should not subsidize sectarian schools. Of course, proponents say they would be subsidizing parents, not schools, even though the relevant section of the  bill is titled “Distribution to Schools.”

And then, just as bad, is Title II, called with another counterfactual flourish the “No Hungry Kids Act.” This part would overturn a 2012 Department of Agriculture rule designed to set healthy standards and calorie limits for school food.

All  we have to do is quote the official summary of this bill to see how nefarious this part is, describing the rule to be scrapped:

“In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals; and meet children’s nutritional needs within their caloric requirements.”

In sum, House Bill 610 is a catastrophe and if our representatives in Congress don’t want to talk about it, their constituents have to make them.

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More “times that try men’s souls”

As Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” And women’s and children’s souls as well, he might have added. Those of us whose souls will be tried are a cross-section of our country and will become more numerous as the next few years unfold.

But this country, which was just coming into existence in Paine’s time, has been through much worse than Donald Trump. Buck up, Americans!

The Battle of the Brandywine (that other 9/11 disaster), Valley Forge, the Civil War, the great 20th-century depression, Pearl Harbor–those names will continue to awe and challenge us long after we have survived one disturbed individual in a position of leadership, whose unpredictable impulses will soon have to be restrained by men and women of good will and of all political persuasions who honor our national traditions.

We must resist Trumpism in our personal and political lives, but we must never despair or doubt the future. Our democracy has always been an ongoing creation, the quest for a “more perfect union.” We are all part of that effort, every day, whether we realize it or not.

In Abraham Lincoln’s words spoken in our own state in 1863, we are still today “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; and we are still “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The next few years can give us a new consciousness of what we are and what we can be. We know what Liberty is; we proclaim that all people are created equal. We can act more in accordance with our principles when we see the contrary beliefs, the long delusional undercurrent of our history, openly held up in public life.

Beginning January 20, it will be time to start to take our country back, in the historical sense of becoming truer to our origins and founding principles, extrapolated over time, than we ever have been before.

Declaration_independenceOf course this newish nation can still endure. On July 4, 1776, our Founders declared: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” That is the real American exceptionalism: that ordinary people step forward to take responsibility for the common welfare.

We have done it before and we can do it again. But it does mean we all have to do more than complain to our friends, read and write  blogs, and boycott Trump-affiliated brands and stores.

[From Wikimedia Commons: John Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence,” depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.]

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Yes, Children, there is a Congress but…

December 24, 2016, evening

Dear Children,

It has come to our attention that you may be wondering if there is a United States Congress.

“Why,” some of you are asking, “Should we believe in you when you don’t bring us any presents or do anything nice for us?”

Some of you are wondering if we really exist when you or children just like you go hungry at night, fall sick and can’t see a doctor,  aren’t getting the education you need, and are even being shot at by deranged people in malls and movie theaters.

Please, dear Children, be patient. Some day, you will understand how difficult it is to change anything where we work. We need to run everything by our donors and sponsors, and look at public opinion polls, and see what our party leaders say.

Those of you who, some day, become politicians and millionaires like us will understand better when you are our age.

And then, there are two of us, the House and the Senate, like your Mommy and Daddy, for those of you who have them. We need to agree with each other before we can do anything. You know how that is, not easy. Can’t you just go to your rooms and let us work on it?

You know how it is when you go to the playground and kids start quarreling about their toys and throwing sand at each other. Please believe us, it isn’t easy to play nice in the sandbox. The other guy is going to have to spend more at the eye doctor’s than we are, so there!

Although we aren’t giving you much of anything this year, or any year for that matter, we want you to know that we’ll always be there for you, and our thoughts and prayers are with you. And as soon as you turn 18, we’ll be sending you lots of mail.

With love,

Your Adults in the US Congress

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Media and politics

Who said this and when?

“Today television news is watched more often than people read
newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or
gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy.
With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done
for you.”

That was Roger Ailes, till recently president of Fox News Channel,
way back when he was working for the Nixon administration.

Since then, conventional wisdom has been that television ads were the
prime way to influence pre-election audiences, at least in a larger district such as the presidency.

Accordingly, television was the focus of big Clinton campaign expenditures–a good example of fighting the previous battle.

Meanwhile, Trump was preparing his Facebook game, and putting Clinton on the defensive by tweeting insults and spreading revelations with the cooperation of James Comey, Julian Assange, and the Russian team.

Trump was jumping on the Palin bus by attacking the mainstream media and the Clinton team was standing in middle of the road.

Trump made the George Bush II administration look like amateurs in the creation of an alternate media reality.

Will 2020 candidates still be relying on inventiveness, Facebook and Twitter? Or will some whole new strategy and vehicle be conveying the successful candidate’s message?

And the weightiest question is: will voters learn how to see through news hoaxes and unfulfillable promises? Without better political literacy, our future will be greatly diminished.

On the positive side, perhaps Americans aren’t as lazy as Roger Ailes thought; voters will have a good opportunity to get an education in political realities over the months and years to come.

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Philadelphia’s Big Green Block and why it’s important

On my block in West Chester, last month, workers were boring test holes in the street to discover the best depth for surface water to drain into the subsoil. I said: “But isn’t it all clay down there?” and they said: “No, we are hitting sand and loam at about 5 feet.”

The Borough plans to install, at strategic points, “bumpouts” to absorb storm runoff into garden-like areas and from there into underground holding tanks and into the subsoil. The chief goal is to reduce runoff into streams and consequently reduce erosion and water-borne pollution.

On November 19 I found out more background through a walking tour sponsored by the SE PA Sierra Club in Philadelphia’s “Big Green Block.” My notes from the very interesting tour conducted by Sandy of the Fairmount Water Works show that…

About 60% of Philadelphia has a combined storm and sewage water system, as is common on many older cities. This works fine in dry weather, because in those areas water runoff goes through the sewage processing system and many street pollutants, like drippage from cars and pet wastes, are cleaned out of the water before it goes into the Delaware River. But it is bad in wet weather, when the combined system is overwhelmed and untreated sewage goes into the river from 164 separate overflow points.

Now, along with over 800 other cities, Philadelphia is under federal order to cure the overflow problem. They could do that by separating sewage and storm flow. But that would be extremely expensive and intrusive. So, the city is aiming to cut down on storm runoff into the combined system. This solution has the added benefits of restoring water to underground aquifers, favoring tree growth, and naturally filtering street pollutants.

bumpout-norris-aveSo as a demonstration project, Philadelphia committed some money, got some grants, and reappropriated a very large, basically abandoned block in Fishtown that had been a rail yard. This fits into the city’s comprehensive Green Waters, Clean Streams plan, now in action for over 5 years.

The Big Green Block now houses the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School (the first LEED platinum high school in the whole country), a park for people and one for dogs, a rec center, and facilities specially designed to retain and absorb water: green roofs, playing fields (including underlying geothermal energy fields), rain gardens, tree trenches, a stormwater rain-garden-streetbumpout, infiltration basins, a rainwater cistern, and porous parking pavement.

The special feature that we notice most readily is the rain gardens, which create pleasant habitats for trees, flowers, grasses, and animals like insects and possibly amphibians and reptiles. Rain gardens, fortunately, are engineered not to hold standing water more than a couple of days, to be sure that they do not breed mosquitoes.

We also note that what was once a somewhat rundown area is now a flourishing neighborhood where people meet, walk, study, and play, with many new and refurbished buildings.

Meanwhile, West Chester is working on its own green infrastructure. You can see a rain garden on Dean St. and a series of catchment basins east of New St. on the WCU campus where Plum Run once flowed (a concern if the proposed new building there diverts additional drainage water into the stream). And demonstration features are planned in the Borough Hall grounds.

The Borough now has a Stream Management Program designed to control rapid runoff, including (as of January) a Stream Protection Fee that impacts property owners (including ones that otherwise are untaxable) in proportion to their amount of impermeable surface or, in other words, the amount of precipitation that potentially flows away without being absorbed. Proceeds will be used to upgrade the aging storm water drainage system and install features like rain gardens and bumpouts.

This is all to the good. Cities like Philadelphia and municipalities like those in Chester County need to be good citizens by reducing runoff, thus improving stream quality and the lives of downstream communities that drink that same water.

Could a Big Green Block be good overall element in the Borough’s still-undeveloped Wyeth property? One can dream….

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Eight election epigrams

1024px-white_house_06-02-08Half the country hopes he meant what he said and half hopes he didn’t. Just like 8 years ago, but not the same halves.

There’s right, wrong, and politics. When questions have only two answers to most voters—right and wrong—politicians beware!

The Democrats’ hoped-for version of 2010: if it doesn’t come in 2018, will it ever?

A white woman to follow a black man? That was asking more than many Americans could handle.

Workers white, black, Latino, female, male, undocumented: what do they have in common and how can men of ill will pit them against each other? US history—from the beginning to last week—shows how: it’s not the worker part. Divide et impera, as the ancients said.

All things to all people: enough people believe that a candidate is listening, hears their needs, and will work for them in office. A track record can be too long. Then, all things to all people quickly turns into some things to some people, and the equation becomes: “all minus some = disenchantment.”

If the only thing to fear is fear itself, what is the only thing to hate?

Logic 101:”A includes B” does not prove that “B includes A.” Thus: white supremacists may support X, but not all X supporters are white supremacists. Fortunately.

Offer a 70-year-old man the chance to become a good, empathetic, rational person? The triumph of hope over developmental psychology.

(Photo: public domain, from Wikimedia Commons)

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