Paul Ryan As VP Pick: Why Both the Left and the Right are Cheering

One cannot underestimate the value of a vice presidential nominee during election season.  With a shrewd vice presidential pick, a candidate can effectively mask his or her flaws and fill crucial gaps in public opinion.  And with the Republican nominee still eliciting a lukewarm response from his own base, his VP pick couldn’t be more important.

Mitt Romney with Rep. Ryan.  Photo Courtesy: Christian Science Monitor

Paul Ryan has been in the spotlight long before his name was floated around in conjunction with Romney’s.  Elected as a to the House at age 28, he represents conservative politics in every respect–from abortion to foreign policy, from the size of government to alternative energy.  His consistent voting record helps mask that of Romney, often noted as contradictory and “flip-flopping” on the most black-and-white issues, like access to abortion.  In addition to Ryan’s voting record, his image and rhetoric are those of a conservative with no doubts of his views.  With these, he gives Romney the respect, and possibly the votes, of more hard-core conservatives.  Representative Ryan also counters Romney’s image of a profit-driven businessman with his own resume: a lifetime of public service, whether working behind the scenes for others or holding public office himself.  He is seen as a generally honest man who strives to better his country in ways he deems necessary.  Another voting constituency Romney has had trouble with, the conservative base, appreciates these attributes, and will likely judge Romney in a more forgiving way with Ryan on the ticket next to him.

But one would be foolish to disregard the numerous faults of Mr. Ryan.  It takes an electorally ignorant person to view Ryan’s plan to privatize social security as a plus; one of the most historically significant swing-states, Florida, also has the highest number of residents who are seniors.  And in a country where 79% of voters believe that “social security has been good for the country” and 84% of seniors believe that calling social security “a failure” is inaccurate, this poses a major problem1.  While Ryan’s image as a clear conservative is helpful in some respects, it sets Romney back in others.  By choosing Ryan as his running mate, Romney has made a conscious decision to try to win over conservatives, rather than independents, who tend to have more liberal views on social issues especially2.  Representative Ryan is unlikely to aid Romney in winning votes in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin because Wisconsin has historically voted for Democrats in presidential elections, and with the recent reawakening of the labor fight there, Ryan’s 7% rating by the AFL-CIO does not give him the working class support Romney desperately needs.  Finally, on a superficial yet relevant note, Mr. Ryan’s Roman Catholic faith only widens the gap between Mormon Romney and evangelical voters.

Paul Ryan is a divisive character.  In choosing him as his running mate, Romney has certainly isolated some voting blocs, while improving his image with typical conservative ones.

So while both sides claim this pick as a victory, one should keep an eye on the opinions of those who truly matter–the voters.

 

 

Sources

  1. http://www.pollingreport.com/social.htm
  2. http://www.pollwatchdaily.com/2011/05/07/305/
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Gun Control: A Fight Worth Resurrecting

In the wake of the brutal shooting of 71 people in a Colorado movie theater, many are experiencing feelings of shock and disbelief.  But upon examination of gun laws in this country, that feeling of disbelief may start to melt away.

James Holmes, the alleged shooter, bought both his guns and ammunition legally.

In most parts of the United States, it is relatively easy to buy both a gun and ammunition. Who could forget that scene in Bowling For Columbine, where Michael Moore opens up a bank account and with it, receives a free gun?  Scenes like this are often put down as being ridiculous and specific to that one instance, rather than being representative of a nation in which gun violence is rampant.  In Colorado, where this brutal shooting took place, the only requirements for buying a legal firearm are being at least 18 years of age and not being a criminal.  Owners are not required to register guns, there are no limitations on assault weapons and magazines, safety training is not required, and there are no consumer safety standards on guns1.  Finally, besides some restrictions set by the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, there are no state restrictions on legal gun owners carrying firearms in school zones.  If nothing else does, this last item should catch your attention–13 years after the Columbine Massacre, there are no state regulations on firearms in Colorado schools.

Supporters of gun control, however, are wary of trying to create and pass stricter gun control laws because of the obvious political repercussions.  From slogans like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to the successful lobby of the NRA, it is clear that the 2nd Amendment freedom movement, as some call it, is incredibly strong.  And the most frequently used argument by the movement is just that: the 2nd amendment.  By restricting gun possession and usage, one is restricting the civil liberties of the American citizen.  The fascinating part of this argument is the fact that most Americans don’t make a fuss about other civil liberties restrictions the way they make a fuss about gun rights.

NRA

Every once in a while, the local news channel will run a story about the TSA’s new policies, perhaps noting that they could be construed as “invasive”.  But, to be frank, most discussions about airport security infringing on Americans’ civil liberties end up with a few recycled jokes, not an office on K Street.  A much more serious test of civil liberties’ restrictions, Bush’s Patriot Act, certainly had its share of protesters, but now is largely out of the spotlight; in 2011, President Obama extended three key parts of the act, including wiretapping and searching business records, without creating much of a stir.  So why do Americans so readily give up so many of their civil liberties and cling to just this one?  Perhaps the need to own a gun is linked to fear or weakness.  Perhaps it is solely out of an interest in weapons.  One thing is clear: the culture in the United States is one that is both celebratory of guns and gun ownership, and one that is prone to gun violence at levels up to 12 times that of other Western nations­2.  It is possible to have gun ownership without such violence, but more stringent gun laws must be enacted in order for this to occur.

Banning certain guns, magazines, and ammunition, like the extended magazine clip used by Jared Loughner, the man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords among others in the Tucson shooting, has been proven effective in eliminating the banned items from use.  More extensive background checks that include criminal records and mental health records have also been proven effective in lowering gun violence3.  If a prospective gun owner does not have a criminal record or records indicating poor mental health, then he or she should not feel distress over such laws, as they would not restrict his or her access to legal firearms.  Politicians and lobbyists are forced to compromise on most issues and this can no longer reamin an exception.

Representative Giffords before and after the Tucson shooting.

American citizens need to weight the costs of stringent gun laws against the benefits.  Are we as a country willing to accept the astonishing amount of gun violence that terrorizes our communities so that we can take our gun with us on an evening walk?

So that we can take it to the movies?

 

 

Sources:

1. http://www.coloradoceasefire.org/Col-state.htm

http://www.rmgo.org/images/stories/Gun_1-Pager.wpd.pdf

2. http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=6166

http://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2012/jan/27/jim-moran/rep-jim-moran-says-us-gun-homicide-rate-20-times-h/

3. http://www.thecommunityguide.org/violence/viol-AJPM-evrev-firearms-law.pdf

Con Edison Shuts Out Workers

Saturday July 14th, 2012 NY, NY

On July 1st­­ 2012, after yet another fruitless negotiation session between Consolidated Edison and union representatives, the company decided to lock out all 8,500 union workers.  Two weeks later, the workers are still locked out and 5,000 managers with little training have temporarily replaced them.  The battle began over the 4-year union contract, which was up for renewal.  Con Edison wanted to make changes to the contract that the union was not fond of; reducing medical care and changing pensions to a cash balance plan are the two that seemed to have the most workers up in arms.

Many news outlets have omitted this story from the news cycle completely, and those that do cover it do not do so in any meaningful detail.  If only out of my own curiosity, I went down to talk to some of the union members on “picket duty” in New York yesterday and learned a great deal.

Image

The immediate concern of the union at this point is that a deal on the contract be reached that does not compromise the beliefs of the union and the needs of its members.  This would preferably be done soon, as they are not being paid at the moment.  Many members have already applied for part-time jobs because of this.  The two main problems with the contract that the union has are the cutbacks in health care and the change in the pension plan.  The reason why a Con Ed worker would need solid health care became even more apparent through explanations of the incredibly heavy uniforms that must be worn in the summer, which often lead to “sweat pouring out of the rubber gloves”, and the lack of insulation these uniforms offer in the winter.  And, of course, the job of a Con Ed field worker can be dangerous.  Said one man, “Everything we work on is live–this way, we don’t need to take a whole block out [of power] to do a small repair”.  While this certainly provides convenience for Con Edison customers, it does increase the risk of electrocution for the workers.  Concerning the pensions, the previous contract had a traditional pension plan that Con Ed now wanted to change to a cash balance pension plan.  The difference between the two is described as such by the United States Department of Labor:

Traditional defined benefit plans define an employee’s benefit as a series of monthly payments for life to begin at retirement, but cash balance plans define the benefit in terms of a stated account balance. These accounts are often referred to as “hypothetical accounts” because they do not reflect actual contributions to an account or actual gains and losses allocable to the account.

(For more information on cash balance plans, here is the link to the Department of Labor’s FAQ page: http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/FAQs/faq_consumer_cashbalanceplans.html )

As to any animosity towards the company, one man said, “I don’t blame them [Con Ed].  This is a business making business decisions.”  He went on to say that he did not think the decision to cut health care was one made out of malice, but rather frugality.  However, he noted “the company has been bragging about $11 million profits*…and we want to be fairly compensated for our work.  It’d be nice if we could get reasonable compensation [for such] a dangerous job.”  And speaking of a dangerous job, how are 5,000 management workers going to do the work of 8,500 union employees?  Not very well, the same man said.  “First of all, if these guys ever had any training at all, it was years ago.  Con Ed has management, many of whom are older, doing 6-day shifts.  [Their being out of practice] will significantly impede their ability to perform.”  He described in detail the amount of time and work it takes to train one union employee to work in the field.  In most cases, the training process takes years and is done through a graduated system.  But the training Con Edison has given to these 5,000 management workers?  “It’s a crash course, for the most part.”  Taking a step back from his explanation, the man looked up.  “The company is playing it a little on the dangerous side regarding management.”

When it came to updates on the story, one worker said, “we’re as much in the dark as the public is” (the union’s website did note that as of today, Saturday the 14th, Con Edison has agreed to reinstate health insurance retroactive to July 1st, when the workers were first locked out).  Because of the lack of media coverage on the shut out, the union does want to make one thing clear: this is a shut out by Con Edison, not a union-led strike.  And as much fun as the 16 hours a week on “picket duty” may seem to those who are not part of the Local 1-2 Utility Worker’s Union, that same man summed up his own feelings nicely: “I just hate being here.  We’re not getting paid.”

Despite its obvious importance to New Yorkers in the days before an incoming heat wave, this story also has significance in the politics of modern labor.  In 2011 only 6.9%1 of private-sector unions were unionized, as opposed to 35% in the mid 1950s2.  And while public-sector unionization has increased, one cannot ignore the recent increase in political support for Right to Work laws (laws that make it very difficult for unions to exist), like Scott Walker’s infamous SB 11 in Wisconsin.

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States with Right To Work Laws in effect (either by way of legislation or the state constitution)

Where does this comparatively small labor fight fit in?  The main take-away from this shut out is lack of media attention to the issue.  Surprisingly, even local news has not been investigating much into the matter, although many New Yorkers may find themselves out of power as the heat rises.  Lack of coverage of small disputes like this one helps to keep unions hidden from the public view.   And in a country where labor is not on the mind of the everyday American, bills like Wisconsin’s SB 11 are much more easily developed, passed, and set into motion.

News media have a responsibility to inform the public on information that affects them, and with the modern implications that disputes like this have, I strongly suggest they start investigating.

Sources:

1. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/opinion/a-civil-right-to-unionize.html

*The following sources reference a $1-1.1 billion profit for Consolidated Edison (2011):

http://mycrains.crainsnewyork.com/blogs/greg-david-on-ny/2012/07/is-con-eds-1b-profit-a-sign-of-greed-no-way/

http://www.lohud.com/article/20120704/NEWS/307040055/Con-Ed-workers-call-bosses-greedy-1-200-without-power-Armonk

Stop-and-Frisk

On Father’s Day thousands marched silently in New York City to protest the NYPD’s Stop-and-Frisk policy.  This police strategy allows officers to stop and frisk, as its name indicates, anyone who looks criminal or suspicious.  The idea, to stop criminals before they commit a crime, is certainly commendable.  However, the reality of this policy is that is relies on profiling.  The June 17th march protested this reality.  For example, although Blacks and Hispanics make up only 53.6% of the New York City population*, 87% of reported stops by police were for black or Hispanic people.  A minister at Riverside Church, Rev. Stephen Phelps, said “I don’t know a single black or Latino male who doesn’t say he is basically afraid to be out on the streets.”

The silent march

Among those who attended the march were all major candidates in the New York City mayoral race, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, and the SEIU.  An unlikely partnership evolved out of distrust for the policy–the NAACP and local LGBT rights groups.  One of the main issues for LGBT people seems to be the profiling of trans women as sex workers.  After the devastation of the AIDS crisis, both the black and gay communities specifically have done much work to try to promote safer sex practices.  This includes encouraging sexually active individuals to carry condoms with them.  However, another policy of the NYPD allows officers to arrest any person carrying more than one condom under the suspicion that this person is a sex worker.

Photo Courtesy: Melissa Kleckner

On the two Sundays leading up to the march, Mayor Bloomberg visited two separate predominantly black churches, speaking on behalf of the Stop-and-Frisk policy.  At one of his visits he said, “Policy Commissioner Kelly and I both believe we can do a better job in this area…[but] to borrow a phrase from President Clinton…the practice should be mended, not ended.”  However, with a combination of public distrust with the policy and all major mayoral candidates stating their own dissatisfaction, the future of Stop-and-Frisk looks bleak.

* According to Census 2010

Eradicating Political Apathy

64% of Americans voted in the last presidential election1. 41.8% voted in the 2010 congressional election2.  In the most recent French presidential election, there was more than 80% voter turnout3.

These numbers convey what is arguably the largest problem plaguing American politics today: apathy.  A large portion of the American public is entirely indifferent to political affairs. This puts our country in a dangerous situation in which a maximum of 2/3 of the country is making decisions for the entire population.

The American public can be divided into three groups: those who already care about the issue at hand, those who are inherently uninterested, and those who are not inherently interested, but can be swayed into caring.  The latter, often the largest group, is the target.  How does one get this group to pay enough attention to politics that it votes?  There are two solutions.

The less immediate of the two is to target the youth population, particularly at the high school level.  Research has shown that the earlier citizens are introduced to politics and the democratic voting system, the more likely they are to participate consistently in elections throughout their lives.  The process of registering to vote appears mystifying and complicated to many who aren’t registered.  Having a registration booth at high school job fairs or club fairs makes the process easier and therefore gets citizens involved in politics earlier.  Incorporating the democratic process into everyday school life is beneficial too.  School elections are an obvious way to incorporate this.  In 2011, Rock the Vote developed “Democracy Day” in which teachers across the country committed to devoting one class period to a Democracy Class, a “program that uses video, a classroom discussion and a mock election to teach young people the skills to navigate the election process and engage as active citizens4.”

The class encourages students to name local and national issues that affect them, teaches the history of voting rights in this country, and ends with a mock election in which each student creates a platform of issues he or she supports and “runs for office”.  All of this garners interest and enthusiasm for the democratic process in high school students.  Creating an environment where the rights and duties of a citizen are discussed early on increases the likelihood that students will be politically involved throughout their lives.

Political apathy can also be eliminated through simple alterations in our political language and discussions.  Policies should be discussed in terms of how they affect citizens’ lives.  By personalizing each issue, people will be more inclined to be informed and vote for candidates who support their opinions.  The initial, and enduring, low approval rating of Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act can be partly attributed to the fact that it was never fully explained in terms of effect on daily life of Americans; a Reuters/Ipsos poll found the following:

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Once broken down into its provisions, the Affordable Healthcare Act, excluding the individual mandate, was appealing to most people.  However, the overall support for the act was low, lower, in fact, than the support for the least well-liked piece of the act–the individual mandate.  A more recent poll, by the Pew Research Center, serves as a testament to how politically unaware our citizens are, even on major issues.  30% of those interviewed did not know the outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Healthcare Act.  15% thought that the act was struck down6.  Most bills in Congress affect most citizens, either directly or through a family member or friend who is directly affected.  Through a shift in our political language, people will come to realize this, and will consequently pay more attention to politics and create more informed opinions.

Apathy does not have to be a permanent part of American politics.  Through targeting the youth in our country and further explaining each policy and bill we can begin to garner a genuine interest in political affairs.  Sustained awareness about and participation in politics will lead us to a country in which government acts in a way more representative of the people’s needs and desires.

Sources:

1 http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/voting/cb09-110.html

2 http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/publications/p20/2010/tables.html http://activecitizen.tufts.edu

3 http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/06/world/europe/france-election/index.html

4 http://www.rockthevote.com/about/democracy-class.html

5 http://m.static.newsvine.com/servista/imagesizer?file=steve-benen7E111609-608B-74FC-7167-F305002B5963.jpg&width=600

6 http://www.people-press.org/2012/07/02/division-uncertainty-over-courts-health-care-ruling/