We Have Left our Veterans Behind

“If you think it’s too expensive to take care of veterans, then don’t send them to war.”- Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

All eyes have been on the Department of Veterans Affairs the past month, as allegations of mismanagement by administrators in VA hospitals have surfaced. Democrats, Republicans and veteran groups alike were all appalled and demanded immediate action. Some from all three groups went as far to suggest that Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign for his negligence on the issue. Others, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have asked for patience while an investigation takes place before firing anyone. The bottom line that everyone, from President Obama to the head of the American Legion, agrees that this scandal will not be taken lightly and that our veterans deserve better.

But our veterans have gotten the short end of the stick for quite a while. Unfortunately, the VA has always been a center of controversy on both sides of the aisle. Democrats claim that the VA needs more funding, arguing that current levels can’t keep the VA running efficiently; Republicans claim that the VA is living proof that that government health care would be a disaster, pointing to all of the issues that the VA faces. Issues such as long waiting periods, inflexible scheduling for patients, lack of locations and mountains of paperwork. Add in the new allegations of “cooking the books” in order to reduce wait list length, and the VA appears to be a complete failure. These are serious issues which shouldn’t be taken lightly, but neither side is really offering a clear cut way to fix them.

The biggest issue facing the VA is that both sides fail to adequately defend their positions. Democrats continuously ask for more funds for the agency, arguing that they are underfunded. However, since 2005, the budget for the VA has increased dramatically. The budget of the VA in 2013 was just under $153 billion, compared to $71 billion in 2005, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now, the funding might be necessary, and also might need even more. However, Democrats have not presented any reason to increase funding, whether because of new challenges or because of any proof that the additional funds have worked.

They have. The VA finally began to use electronic records starting in the early years of the Obama Administration, cutting the amount of back logging by significant portions. Senator Sanders attests that it has cut the amount of backlogs by over 50 percent, some other surveys suggest slightly lower numbers. Also, it is estimated that troops returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq will contribute another two million veterans to the already bloated system. Yet, despite the addition of more veterans to the entire system, there has been few additions in staff or actual VA facilities since the Obama Administration. Budgets presented by the White House have allotted for additional staff, but those budgets have not been passed by Congress. It’s worth noting that the Department of Defense doesn’t do a great job transferring the medical records of active duty soldiers to the VA following their retirement either, even though both departments use electronic records now, and this is an issue that both departments need to address. While it would be unfair to say the VA hasn’t made some progress in the past few years, the continuous problems that plague the VA outweigh many of these incremental improvements.

So what have Republicans done in order to address these issues? They have drafted their own budgetary proposals, all of which cut funding to the VA. While I do understand they are the party of small government, how will maintaining a system that is government run with fewer dollars but more patients actually solve the issues? The current actions of the Republican Party do not actually promote small government, but instead an obstructed, dysfunctional government. What Republicans currently lack is a specific alternative plan to provide care to veterans. Even the staunchest conservatives have not called for the complete defunding of the VA, which is something I applaud. However, to simply reduce funding to the VA while service is expected to be the same, fix all of the atrocities in the system, and do all of this with more veterans coming into the system just doesn’t make any sense.

This isn’t to say that Republicans hate their veterans, because that is not the case. But it isn’t a lie to say that Republicans haven’t done anything effective to help the veterans since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. Clearly there was not a discussion about the funding necessary to provide care to all of the veterans following our combat missions. Likewise, the Democrats have articulated nothing to the American public about the reasons to increase spending, and while they have argued that more money will solve the issues, there is very little evidence as to what that money would specifically do to address the issues. The only legislation suggested prior to this scandal that was not simply a part of the fiscal year budget was a bill proposed by Senator Sanders in late February. In a vote of 56-41, with only two Republicans voting for it and one Democrat not voting, the bill failed. The bill’s mission was to provide emergency funding specifically to add more staff to VA facilities across the nation.

Senator Sanders appears to be the only member of the United States Senate who is serious about addressing the issues within the VA, which is why I mention him frequently in this article. Luckily, as the head of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, he appears to be in a position where legislation can be crafted. He has presented legislation to the floor before, but I wonder if he can do it again and actually have it get passed.

In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans need to get serious. Democrats can’t just ask for random amounts of money without a well thought out reason. I want to see Democrats explain where money has helped, where it hasn’t, and where these proposed increases will be apportioned. Otherwise, I am skeptical of any serious change coming from the Democratic Party. Republicans need to make their case too. If they genuinely believe that the VA is an awful system and government health care is a failure, it is time for them to present an alternative system to help provide the health care that we promised our veterans. If they can’t come up with a plan (something I am also skeptical on), then they need to stop obstructing the current system.  

The current system is being ignored and slashed, so it isn’t even government health care. A real party advocating for small government wouldn’t stop funding government agencies and demand them to perform the tasks, they would just remove the entire agency and keep government out of it. But that’s not what is occurring in the United States, it is instead a very dysfunctional system where government is involved but has hardly enough resources to perform any duties effectively. Democrats need to provide specifics and Republicans need to choose if they want to fund the system, be the party of small government, or continue to be the party of obstructionism. Until both parties can concede their faults, I am unsure if any major overhaul will occur. Yes, incremental improvements will continue, but the dire issues will become worse. We have already left our veterans behind, and it is a shame.

Happy Memorial Day










A (Hopefully) Fair Primer on India 2014 – Part 2

For those of who don’t know, there’s a definite sense of post-electoral euphoria in India. I described earlier why the Indian National Congress Party lost its place in government; they are, at this point, a fairly disliked entity and their ouster has triggered understandable public celebration.

So who now has stepped into the light? The BJP, more particularly Narendra Modi, their Prime Minister Designate and the man around whom their entire campaign was built, now dominates the Indian news cycle.  Indeed it’s strange to those familiar with American politics, but Indians generally don’t see candidates around whom entire elections are run. The INC for example has a long-standing policy not to officially name a Prime Minister until after an election.

Despite these traditions, the reasons Modi arose are far easier to understand. “It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville’s infamous 1992 byline, couldn’t be more appropriate to this election. Modi, Gujarat’s Chief Minister since 2001, is renowned for Gujarat’s economic progress during his tenure. Dubbed the “Gujarat Model,” the state’s economic policy focused heavily on fostering a friendly business environment that could draw in investment both from domestic and foreign sources: lower tax rates, more accommodating regulatory policy, investment incentives, etc. Its second plank is an emphasis on development projects, mostly vast infrastructure and construction efforts that include things like power generation, power distributional systems, roads, bridges, dams, etc. In short, Gujarat’s model is a textbook case of modern “neoliberal” prescriptions for economic growth. It’s also matches the BJP’s preferred economic policies, generally dubbed as “pro-business” and center-right because of their emphasis on increasing growth rates to draw in investment capital. The INC, on the center left as it were, has a stronger preference for social welfare programs that they believe should adjust growth to be more equitable. Which brings me to my next point.

Gujarat has drawn in large amounts of business investment, tackled various infrastructure problems, chief among them being electricity, and generally been hailed across India for its sound economic management (a direct contrast to depictions of the Congress record eh?). But the Gujarat record is not without criticism and ironically draws similar complaints to other areas where these “neoliberal” policies have been tried. The main criticisms generally concern the distribution of wealth (the charge being that the policies disproportionately help the rich and upper middle class), and a lack of progress on key social indicators such as health and education.

In the current context, this ongoing academic economic debate (think Amartya Sen vs. Jagdish Bhagwati) between growth and social programs is moot. Modi won the political debate when he won the election. And unlike the last American election, economic ideology was never the central focus; both the BJP and the INC’s economic policies use varying combinations of development projects, social programs, and private investment. Changes in government generally indicate a new or adjusted combinations of these variables alongside previous best practices. Prime Minister Vajpayee (BJP) built his economic platform on Prime Minister Rao’s (INC) initial reforms and subsequently had his better efforts continued under the now departing Prime Minister Singh (INC). The difference between political debates on the economy in India versus those in the United States is not really one of ideology for now; it is one of competence, corruption, and governance. The INC stood no chance against Modi, a man who the electorate saw as superior in each of these three categories.

So why the fuss? Genuine concerns exist about Modi and to understand them, you must understand his party and recent Indian history. Basic South Asian history in most American classrooms will generally mention the partition between India and Pakistan as the basis for modern Indian politics. In the political vacuum that followed, the INC took control of Indian politics for the next six decades. However, following Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial turn in 1975, India saw the initial signs of brewing opposition. Between 1977 and 1980, a coalition called the Janata Party, led by Prime Ministers Moraji Desai and Charan Singh respectively, formed a government from the political fallout caused by the Emergency. Both it’s rise to power and eventual doom came because it was a coalition of parties from across the political spectrum; one of its notable constituent parties was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), a Hindu Nationalist group that had formed back in the 1950s. When the Janata government fell, the BJS ended as a formal organization and would go on to become today’s BJP, eventually forming its first major government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee a decade and a half later in the 1990s following the failure of numerous Congress-associated coalitions.

Both the BJP and its predecessor are associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a national volunteer organization in India with a stated Hindu nationalist philosophy. Think of boy scouts with a far more ideological and militant focus that also spreads its activities and membership into adulthood. Like the INC, they’ve existed since the British Raj and, while outwardly neutral in politics, their membership has always been aligned with the more nationalistic parties. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Narendra Modi, and a nunerous other BJP leaders are all members of the RSS.

This is where Western concerns start to arise. While entirely separate as an organization entity, the BJP draws much of its ideological influence from organizations like the RSS and is also an outwardly Hindu nationalist party. Vajpayee’s government never held an absolute majority in parliament but Modi has been granted a mandate that BJP stalwarts of decades prior could only ever dream of. His campaign focused largely on economic policy, sound governance, etc. but it’s still up for debate how much his party, the RSS, or his base intend to focus on these controversial issues.

  • A Uniform Civil Code. The BJP opposes India’s peculiar legal system that grants separate religious and ethnic communities the right to use their own personal law in areas like marriage for example. They wish to replace this system with one civil code that covers every single community. It’s certainly a necessary eventuality and one that the Indian constitution specifically recommends; however concern has arisen the effect on India’s minority communities. Other’s retaliate by pointing to the aftermath of the Shah Bano case in 1985 as proof that India needs a Uniform Civil Code.  
  • Hindutva. This phrase, associated with a kind of Hindu cultural nationalism, identifies the BJP’s desire to advance and promote Hindu culture and interests. Potential Hindutva influence could pervade education policy, national monuments, the structure of any new civil codes, etc. 
  • Ayodhya. Ayodhya is a famous city in Hindu mythology. In 1992, a mob destroyed the Babri Mosque which they claimed was built on holy ground. Ever since, there’s been a land dispute regarding whether Muslims would get to rebuild a mosque or if Hindu sects could build their desired Ram Temple. The BJP has expressed support for the Hindu elements in the past. 

The Ayodhya case in particular caused riots in many parts of India and was blamed for contributing to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that took place at the beginning of Modi’s tenure. These riots resulted in the retaliatory killing 1500 Muslims for the killing of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya. Modi was heavily criticized for his response, complacency, and potential responsibility during the riots by human rights activists, foreign NGOs, and by the international community. The British and American governments even banned him from receiving travel visas to their respective countries (a ban which was lifted in the wake of the 2014 elections). 

Eventually, the Indian Supreme Court determined there was not enough evidence to indict Modi for what happened in Gujarat. Clearly, the Indian electorate also felt the same; the efforts of the INC and the Gandhi family to go after the BJP for communalism, inciting sectarian divisions, and the abandonment of secularism failed miserably. So why did I mention it?

I did so because the BJP, owing much as it does to Narendra Modi, now has to answer two questions: will this new government address India’s economic problems and how much will it be influenced by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist elements? Modi’s personal history and huge impact on this race signifies the broader debate surrounding these key questions. It would therefore be impossible to fairly describe the position of India’s new, politically powerful, government without mentioning controversies that could arise when the post-election euphoria inevitably dies down. 

There was one final purpose. As much as 2014 realigned Indian politics, it did not create a blank slate. This primer cannot make guesses on what the new government will do; it is here to serve as a reference for analyzing those actions. It was far more difficult to write than part two if only because the BJP hasn’t had a record to be judged by for ten years. But I hope it will grant some familiarity with the issues that pervade modern Indian politics to those who’ve only ever had to read Western sources. 

It has been my pleasure to write it for you and if it allows you all to more easily comprehend Indian news, I’ll be satisfied. Make sure to keep track of the news as May 26th, the day the new government officially comes in, approaches. 


P.S. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of our articles on India. We’ll be welcoming our newest writer, Steven, next week. He’ll be joining me in exploring various aspects of Indian politics from an editorial perspective. I’ll be on break for the next two weeks so make sure to give his work the warm welcome it’ll deserve! 





The Challenge We Face: Re Segregation

It has been sixty years since the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that swept the nation and shocked the South when Chief Justice Earl Warren, along with the rest of the Supreme Court, unanimously struck down the precedent of “Separate but Equal” that was provided by the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson.  This ruling was the effective end of de jure, or legal, segregation in the public school system in the United States. The process was painstaking and the decades following there was a massive shift in the demographic makeup of schools, especially in urban areas and the South.

The United States has changed significantly since 1954, as de jure segregation has been virtually eradicated. That does not, however, mean that all schools today are currently integrated. Following the court decision, many urban areas saw the rise of the suburbs, with the concept of “White Flight”. It is the concept that when integration was mandated by the courts, many white families moved to the suburbs in an effort to avoid integration. The frenzy of purchasing homes in the suburbs made the house prices skyrocket, effectively segregating minorities due to the fact that many minorities made significantly less than whites at the time. This is not to say that anyone who is white and living in the suburbs right now is a racist, but it is an acknowledgement that due to White Flight, the suburban and urban demographics are very segregated. We are now left with a public education system where de facto segregation, that is, segregation by cultural practice instead of law, is now in effect.

Throughout the decades following the Brown decision, school districts made attempts to integrate their schools in a variety of ways, despite White Flight. In North Carolina, the city of Charlotte attempted to bus students in order to achieve racial balance back in the 1970’s. The case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg specifically allowed the city of Charlotte to go through with their busing plan, and set a precedent for the rest of the segregated South to follow. As the years passed, a new generation had come to power and there was a naïve belief that integration had been achieved (to some extent) and that the mandatory practice of busing was dragging children out of their local communities, costing thousands of dollars for the school district, and being an inefficient system. Many districts successfully removed busing, persuading parents that their tax dollars could be spent on their child’s education, not the bus ride to school. The end of busing began a very dangerous trend.

What has been this trend in the past twenty years or so is the slow transition from integration to re segregation. Only this time, the segregation is not driven primarily by hate or by law, but by the housing patterns of the United States. Overall, African Americans struggle to find employment or make as much as their white counterparts do. Due to this, these minority families wind up in the cheaper districts, many of which have several issues with their public schools. These schools lack some of the basic tools to succeed, leaving these students with very little opportunities to achieve at a high enough level to escape these neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the cycle of limited opportunities has slithered into each generation and maintained its status as a powerful force, unlike integration.  It would be almost impossible to integrate some of the schools I am talking about. These schools are in some cases so undesirable that a push for integrated schools by pulling students from the more successful suburban schools and placing them into the struggling urban schools would be a waste of time.

Now, it would be reckless and irresponsible to justify any type of segregation. A plan to integrate without a blueprint in place with objectives and goals to help structure the plan, however, would most likely fail. What I would suggest is a plan that would help break the cycle, and lead to a more integrated housing situation, by offering an equal opportunity to every student, regardless of race. The plan would call for a change in the way property taxes are allocated.

Instead of a portion of property tax dollars going directly to the local schools, the State should collect these taxes and spread them across the entire state. This would ensure that poor districts would receive additional funding, since many of their schools are underfunded due to a lack of wealth in the community to draw from. In order to offset the inevitable deficits for wealthier school districts that rely on the high income residents of the district to cover the costs, each state would need to adjust their budget accordingly. Some states may utilize programs already in place, such as toll ways or lotteries to offset the cost. Other states may need to slash parts of their budget to find the funds. I will concede that this is not an easy task, and that there are potential obstacles in the way, but there are political benefits to my plan to help ignite support among legislators. This would be a perfect chance for Republicans to audit their state government to find where inefficient programs could be cut, and allow Democrats to champion legislation to reduce inequality. Both parties would also be able to claim credit and be the party of Education. Most important, every student would have a chance to succeed.

The objective of such a restructuring would be to provide a better Education in low income areas, giving more opportunities to the students of these districts. The addition of new opportunities will allow these students to go further in their educational careers and help them acquire a job that requires education levels at a high school degree and beyond. This new system promotes more opportunity, and with that new opportunity social mobility will increase. Once there is more social mobility to minority groups, these groups will begin to close the income gap that has emerged between whites and minorities. The increase of incomes will mean more housing opportunities across the state and the nation. The combination of in-state migration along with migration across borders will integrate communities as the barrier of wealth will decline. This is not to say that all people will have equal wealth, but it will ensure that those who work hard will actually see results, regardless of where they were born or the color of their skin.

Overall, the goal is to integrate housing patterns without something overbearing or unrealistic. Legislation to directly integrate neighborhoods is nearly impossible to write, and I doubt any of it would be Constitutional either. Once the housing patterns have become more integrated, perhaps my plan above could be re-evaluated or eliminated. The caveat I will give is that my plan takes years to implement. Results will not occur in a year, five years, or maybe even ten years. It will take an entire generation, possibly two, for the full effect to take place. Adjustments will need to be made over the years as well; my plan is not inflexible nor is it demanding. But it does require commitment.

I am committed to the elimination of segregation. The battle over de jure segregation is mostly over, but the fight to eliminate de facto segregation needs to be intensified. To truly end segregation, we need to acknowledge that it occurs not by necessarily our own but the actions of those before us. But allowing the effects of those actions will be what we are remembered as; the generation that enabled segregation, rather than stopping it. I don’t want to be a part of that generation. The Brown decision did its part to combat segregation, and now it is our turn to do our part to eliminate segregation of all forms, so we can finally achieve equal opportunity for every child.

Thank you,






A (Hopefully) Fair Primer on India 2014 – Part 1

After a full month of voting, the 2014 Indian election cycle has come to an end. To my peers here in the West, this first part of this primer will focus on the incumbent party because a look at them will give you some insight into the issues that led to today’s results.

But first, the results. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) crushed the incumbent Indian National Congress Party (INC) and became the first Indian political party since 1984 to win an outright majority in the Indian parliament. It’s the first opposition party to ever do so at all without the need for a coalition against the INC, a political force that’s dominated Indian politics almost uninterrupted since India gained independence in 1947. The only other time when India had an alternative government that actually lasted for a decent amount of time and managed to implement a stable governing agenda was from 1998-2004 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP prime minister.

All this should give you an indication of just how powerful the INC was. I say “was” because their total count in the 546 seat Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament) shrank to a measly 45 seats, 62 if you count its fellow coalition members in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). By comparison, the BJP holds 284 seats, a majority of the lower house seats, and that’s without even counting the additional 55 held by its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.

So clearly the INC’s stranglehold on Indian politics, caused in large part by their prominent role in the Indian independence movement, has come to an end. For that, right or wrong on policy, the party can only blame itself. People have, and will continue to, write books listing their decades worth of grievance against the party, but here’s a common short list.

  • Dynastic Politics. A member of the Nehru-Gandhi family,     descended from India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has either been leading the party from behind or as its prime minister for essentially its entire organizational life.
  • Sonia Gandhi. This Italian-borne chairwoman of the UPA coalition, widow of former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and mother to the party’s unofficial PM candidate, Rahul Gandhi, manages to antagonize essentially everyone not in the UPA coalition (did I mention dynastic politics yet?). Part of the angst comes from the fact that many don’t see her as legitimately Indian. The main thing is she’s thought to be the true power center as opposed to the incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh. This is actually a mainstream point of view and continually leads to Singh being described as weak, docile, a puppet, etc. 
  •  History. Being a nearly a near-sixty year old ruling party has granted the INC some nasty historical legacies that stretch beyond its current tenure. Nehru’s brand of socialist economics shackled India’s economy for nearly half a century under the ironically named License Raj. What’s more, his  daughter’s premiership saw Indian democracy come within inches of death during what’s dubbed the Emergency, a period when Indira Gandhi held near dictatorial power in the 1970s. Human riots violations included political arrests, rule-by-decree, as well as sterilization campaigns by another of her sons, Sanjay Gandhi.
  • The Economy. The biggest issue. India’s growth has slowed down in the last two years, inflation, particularly on food prices, has risen to its highest point in twenty, and India just barely etched out a currency crisis involving a declining rupee, rising twin deficits, and vanishing foreign direct investment. Need I say more?
  • Corruption, more of it anyway. Prime Minister Singh served two terms. Once the second term came, a barrage of upper-level corruption scandals hit his government alongside all the bad economic news. The government also oversaw a fiasco involving a major anti-corruption measure, the Jan Lokpal Bill, which proposed an independent investigative body for the Indian government. It’s introduction also caused a massive activist campaign represented by people like Anna Hazare.
  • Incompetence. Need I say more? Throw all these issues to a weary electorate and you get a picture of a party that seems intellectually, morally, and institutionally bankrupt. Unsurprisingly, those parties don’t seem capable of governing effectively.

There were plenty of important grievances I haven’t touched on: foreign policy; India’s strange set of personnel laws and legal schedules that distinguish between various castes, religions, and ethnic groups; the terrible situation for Indian women (look back on one of my previous articles for a tidbit example); and the INC’s general association with the Indian elite were all hurdles it had to cross. Combine that with the BJP’s lightning rod of a PM candidate, Narendra Modi, and Rahul Gandhi’s overall failure to steer his party through a modern campaign, and you get an overall electoral drubbing. 

The drubbing was bad enough to where the Congress Party may not even have enough votes to become the official opposition within the Lok Sabha. But believe it or not, there are arguably good points that came out of Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Singh himself will likely not be associated as much with the 2014 disaster due in part to the Gandhi’s toxic reputations. He’s a renowned economist, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, who’s fame initially came about following India’s economic crisis in 1991. Under the tenure of another of India’s former Prime Minister’s, P. V. Narasimha Rao, Singh served as Finance Minister and was the architect of numerous liberalizing economic reforms that  are today credited with kick-starting India’s startling economic transformation. 

Indeed, his first term government saw economic growth hitting as high as 9%. None of this is to mention the general improvement in social indicators, the UPA government’s numerous social programs and initiatives, or the Civil-Nuclear Agreement with the United States that got India recognized as a nuclear power despite its failure to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (take that Iran).  

As I’m sure those critical of the INC will notice, much of my focus on “the good” has been largely on Prime Minister Singh. There’s a reason. Not much saving grace can really be given at this point to either the INC or the Gandhis. Even Singh hasn’t escaped the electorate’s wrath and there’s much to be said for his complicity in the failures that plagued the last ten years, no matter the degree to which the Gandhi family may or may not have had influence. 

At its heart however, there was one final proverbial straw for the INC, a straw common to many emerging economies. India has a world renowned growing middle class. As any political economist will tell you, rising prosperity engenders rising expectations. The failures of the last couple of years, indicative as they were of so many of India’s past failures, brought about with them a wave of justified anti-incumbent fever. The economy, infamously entrenched corruption, incompetence, dynastic politics etc. were all seen as roadblocks by the growing Indian populace, particularly the youth, to achieving a sense of economic fortune and security not thought possible for decades.

I admit, writing the first part of this election primer was actually easy. Being an Indian-American and visiting India as I do each year, it wasn’t difficult to stitch together a (very) basic narrative of why things went so wrong for the Indian National Congress Party. The harder part will be describing who exactly it is that’s now about to form the new government because its a picture that still needs to be painted, both in terms of who exactly these figures are and what they intend to do. It’s something, I hope, to bring into greater light in part 2. 



Protecting the Rights of All Arkansans

 At the end of the day on Friday the country was astonished to see that Arkansas’s Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage had been struck down by Circuit Judge Piazza. The ruling was one many viewed as inevitable, but still years away for the Natural State. Recently, a string of court cases have attempted legalize same-sex marriage in states all over the country, but the hardest challenges have been in the South. Only three of the eleven original Confederate states have witnessed their ban on same-sex marriage be repealed. But this is where Arkansas’s ruling is even more intriguing; marriages were performed the very next day.

            In his ruling, Judge Piazza did not issue a stay on his ruling. Saturday morning, a handful of marriages were certified up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. While many counties witnessed opposition to handing out certificates, Eureka Springs chose to hand out as many as possible for one day. The amount of marriages were minimal at best, but they did become the first official same-sex marriages to be performed in the South. While Texas and Virginia both have had their bans on same-sex marriages struck down, both states are appealing the decisions. It is worth noting that Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, is arguing for the repeal of his state’s ban. Comments by Arkansas’s Attorney General, Dustin McDaniel, suggest that the ruling in Arkansas will be appealed as well. Earlier in the week, McDaniel had voiced his belief that same-sex marriage should be legal, but that he would do his duty to protect the state’s Constitutional in court.

            Just a decade ago, the ban passed with the support of almost three out of four Arkansans by a ballot initiative. Yet, Judge Piazza ruled that the amendment was unconstitutional. It is a step towards marriage equality and identifies a perfect example of why the court system is necessary.  The courts serve the purpose to ensure that laws do not infringe upon the rights of citizens. The rights of Arkansans were being infringed upon by upholding the ban, and the repeal of the ban is a step towards a more equal America. The issue that some have with this ruling is that is directly contradicts the will of the voters. To be clear, a voter initiative can still be unconstitutional, even if the initiative overwhelmingly passes.  It can be unconstitutional the same way a law passed by Congress can still be unconstitutional.

            The will of the majority should not be allowed to stand if in the process it removes the rights of individuals. Not everyone who voted against the ban was gay or lesbian, but they were individuals who believed that marriage equality is the appropriate measure in society. This is the conclusion that many of the justices came to when they ruled the same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. While there is a religious component to marriage, there is also a legal component that is recognize in the United States. The way to officially have a recognized marriage is to obtain the marriage license from the state, otherwise the benefits will not kick in. In terms of the legal benefits of marriage, religion plays no part.

            That is why it is not wrong for Judge Piazza to have struck down the ruling. The ruling does not require religious institutions to recognize same-sex marriages. But it does require the state to recognize them, along with providing all of the benefits associated with them. This ruling does not infringe upon the rights of Christians, but also gives equal rights to Same-Sex couples that wish to be married and received all of the legal benefits that are associated with marriage. We live in a country of different beliefs, but the written law does not discriminate by beliefs. Everyone has the right now (briefly) to get married in Arkansas, regardless of sexual orientation. Everyone still retains the right to choose who they marry too, since that hasn’t changed. The expansion of marital rights in Arkansas protects citizens from being legally discriminated against. I am sure the repeal will be appealed by the state, but hopefully the appellate process will be quick, ending with a ruling in favor of marriage equality. Arkansas now leads the South on marriage equality, and hopefully will remain a shining example for other Southern states to follow in the coming months.





The Death Penalty: The Forgotten Issue

Recently, the death penalty has been in the news following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, where it took him over forty five minutes after being injected to die. Witness testimonies can confirm that his death was not peaceful, and many called it “inhumane”. Yet, the overall public disgust regarding this botched issue appears to be centered on the time it took to execute Mr. Lockett, rather than the actual execution itself; this is the current state of the death penalty issue in America. 

I have always been puzzled on the lack of discussion on the death penalty in social. The issue clearly crosses paths with the Constitution and morality, so it would almost seem inevitable to be center stage in the social debates along with very vocal factions such as the Tea Party and the Pro-Life Movement, both of whom should be adamantly against the death penalty. Rarely though is the issue discussed, and surprisingly the conservative sweet hearts of America such as Rick Perry whole heartedly endorse the death penalty as a power that the government should have. My only question is why?

The death penalty is a Constitutional issue because it directly challenges the eighth amendment, stating that “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be administered onto any U.S. Citizen. Often I think we forget that the inmates on death row are still Americans and deserve their rights, despite being some of the worst members of our society. That is why we have prisons and life sentences though, to protect our communities from these villains. The Constitution does not give the government the right to kill its own citizens, regardless of the severity of crimes committed. If the Tea Party movement wants to gain any form of legitimacy once again, one of the issues it must overcome is the contradictions it consistently makes. One of these contradictions would be to stop supporting pro-death penalty candidates, since this is a direct threat to our Constitutional rights.      

This isn’t just a Constitutional issue though, it is also a moral dilemma. How could anyone truly be pro-life unless they acknowledge that the death penalty takes life? It is difficult not to cringe when Governor Perry identifies himself as “pro-life” but continues to allow the execution of Texans each year. Since the legalization of the death penalty in the United State in 1976, Texas has executed over 500 individuals. That is over 400 more deaths than the state of Virginia, which is second place in the United States for the most deaths. It is difficult at times for the pro-life movement to gain momentum, as the abortion issues tends to stagnate at different times in the political world for one reason or another. Other issues in the morality faction such as drug legalization is actually beginning to sway the opposite way. The death penalty wouldn’t be like these issues.   

Even I, a proud liberal, oppose the death penalty. I have both a Constitutional and moral objection to it. The practice makes us no better than a third world country in this regard, and the idea of the government having the right to execute its citizens does not sit well with me. If you could get me and a member of the Tea Party Movement to agree on anything in principle, it would be this issue. Principles don’t translate into reality, however. There is currently a disconnect from the rhetoric being said and the actions being taken.

“As an American, I am calling on my fellow patriots to stand together to uphold their Constitution.” This could have easily been an excerpt from a Tea Party rally, if their principles were also their actions. “Murdering an evil individual doesn’t bring a good person back.” This is a line of the pro-life movement, if the movement was truly pro-life. The death penalty is both unconstitutional and inhuman; that line is from me. It doesn’t matter how far left or how far right you are, the case against the death penalty draws points from all ideologies. Despite the evidence that factions that normally would never cooperate would be able to find common ground on this issue is encouraging. So why not have the debate front and center? Let’s go back to the table and discuss this, and perhaps put an end to such a cruel and unusual sentence, before it becomes appropriate and regular. To me, it already has.





Worried or Naw? – Slow Growth and a Rising China

So in the past couple of days there have been two big economic news stories. Both were featured fairly prominently across the business sections of mainstream news outlets. But when it comes down to it, the stories were either a) not surprising, or b) nothing to panic over. We’ll start with the former.

U.S. Growth Rates

Q1 growth in the United States was absolutely abysmal with the economy barely etching out a 0.1% growth rate in the first quarter, a full percentage point below the expectations of most economists. It gets even worse. Business and residential investment also fell 2.1% and 5.3% respectively. It’s debatable how much we should panic over these rates and it’s certainly too early to say whether the U.S. economy could fall into recession (two consecutive quarters of negative growth) again, but please, please, please don’t be shocked at these rates. If anything, they’re a reflection of recent trends in the economy and a stark reminder of the fiscal medicine we keep neglecting to take.

Essentially, we’re still stuck in the post-crash rut. Interests rates are at all time lows, but consumers and businesses don’t look like they’re about to start spending massive sums of money any time soon. In this kind of environment, the only economic entity capable of spending enough to support higher growth rates is the government and that’s why we should be extremely worried. 

If you click on the first Quartz link I’ve provided below, you’ll notice another indicator that also declined: government spending. No matter what the President or members of Congress may say, further government support of the economy is a dead horse. Spending is declining at the federal level, state spending has been in retrenchment since 2010, and even the Federal Reserve is starting to taper monetary stimulus.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis National Income and Product Accounts Table 1.1.2 – Retrieved from Josh Bivens’ Post on the Economic Policy Institute’s Working Economics Blog – 4/30/14 (Link Below)

What’s the result of all this? The economy is moving at a snail’s pace. If you click on the chart above, you’ll notice that federal spending is now at a point where it’s actually subtracting from GDP growth. The state level cuts since 2010 impeded President Obama’s stimulus efforts. By the time the debt ceiling crises had come and gone, Federal spending ceased to provide any additional support. Absent any major changes in Federal policy or the economic environment, growth will continue to reflect these problems. Of course, the big story in this particular case was how slow growth actually compared to economic projections. It may indeed be the case that Q2 growth will be higher. But the pattern during President Obama’s tenure has been repeated up and down swings in growth forecasts with little change felt by the average citizen. As a result, surprise isn’t really called for anymore.

The Chinese Economy

The other major story of the week involved the World Bank’s International Comparison Program declaring that China’s economy may surpass ours as early as this year. The particular measure they used was the Purchasing Power Parity of our respective economies. What’s different about this particular measure is that it doesn’t just rely on exchange rates to adjust for the dollar size of our economy against theirs. It tries to do an evaluation of how much our two economies are capable of purchasing based on a shared price level, in this case price levels calculated from 2011. By that measure, the ICP estimated that China’s economy was already 87% the size of ours three years ago.

Yet despite this clear milestone for the Chinese economy, there really is nothing that the United States needs to be panicking over. For one thing, the Chinese seem to be rather  wary of this report; they denied its findings despite having participated in the data collection phase. Lily Kuo had an interesting piece on Quartz (linked below) regarding the diplomatic implications of an economic status change; it would increase the pressure on them to undertake key market reforms, aggressively tackle environmental problems, and possibly address the Yuan’s exchange rate. They would find it harder and harder to classify themselves as a developing country thereby excusing themselves from further reform.

For another, at some point this was going to be inevitable. China has a population more than three times our size and has been undergoing a rapid economic transformation for the past three decades. That progress has paid huge dividends to their burgeoning middle class while bringing millions out of poverty for the first time; translation: it’s a good thing. To anyone who wants to point out China’s ownership of U.S. Treasury Bills, I say this. 

China has accumulated Treasury Bills totaling about 14% of our total national debt. It did so by running massive trade surpluses and then having no where else to invest that extra cash in. It picked U.S. T-Bills, the safest investments on the planet, not because we needed a banker, but because China had no where else to put its money. In exchange, we got a plethora of cheap economic goods from them. If China ever decided to upset this relationship, we’d lose cheap toys and they’d lose the whole basis of their economy. You tell me who needs to worry now? 

Of course the United States has serious problems, not least of which is our refusal to rescue our own economy. But China’s achievements (presuming we completely accept the ICP’s pronouncement) in no way tolls any kind of bell for America’s future. That destiny remains as it always has: in our hands.