Saturday, August 31, 2013

We Don't Need No Stinking Papers!

Why are we still using paper?

Look on the desk of any office assistance, secretary, or administrative assistant and you'll probably find reams of paper scattered across it. Ditto for the desk of most teachers. We use far more paper than we really need to in the modern world. A decade ago, I was working as a media specialist for the Job Corps. Even back then the standard method of communication between centers and offices was email. But the administrative assistant, upon receiving an important email from headquarters, would immediately print it out and file it away in one of the many file cabinets that cluttered the back room. It's just the way she had always done it: file things in cabinets. She could have saved time, effort, and paper by simply filing it within the computer's file system.

And now, a decade later, my daughter works as a substitute teacher through a company that still uses paper forms, three of them, that must be dropped off in the office after each assignment to provide feedback about how she did. This company uses online interactive forms to make teaching assignments, but they revert back to old paper forms for feedback. Wouldn't it be simpler, faster, and use less paper if this type of feedback could also be done online?

I waited in line at the grocery store the other day while some older lady in front of me paid for her groceries with a check - a personal check instead of using a debit card! It was maddening. About the only thing we should be using paper for these days is to jot the occasional note. Granted, most schools still do not hand out laptop computers or even tablets to every student, so they still need to be given paper worksheets and quizzes, but the things we need to use paper for these days is almost non-existent.

Electronic transfer of information can replace paper in all these cases and more: Checks, forms of all kinds, grocery lists, notes, letters, receipts, bills, surveys, and contracts. And mostly, these electronic devices are being used. It's hard to fill out a job application, for example, without doing it online. But it's not 100 percent yet and that should be the goal. The only thing our printers should be used for is to print the occasional photograph.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Economic Balance that is not Balanced Enough

Mark Zuckerberg is leading a campaign to make the Internet available and affordable to everyone on Earth. Pres. Obama pushed through his signature domestic policy initiative of providing affordable health care to all Americans. It falls far short of the health care access provided by most other modern countries, but it's better than nothing. But what do these two, seemingly disparate pieces of news have in common? They both are efforts to provide low-cost availability of essential services to the population at large. And that is a critical consideration for a functional society.

The world has struggled through two extremes in economic theory: One of them, communism, seeks to provide complete equality of condition for all its citizens through government-controlled output. The other allows free enterprise to run amok so that some people are so vastly wealthy that they could never spend all the money they have while others are so poor they are literally starving in the streets. Modern democracies and welfare states try to strike a balance between those extremes. But in the U.S. the balance struck is still not equitable. There are still far too many hungry and homeless people. There are still too many who can't afford basic services.

Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, they say, but government-assisted equality of condition is anathema to them. And so, we have a great divide in this country among those who have and those who do not. We have people who are homeless, begging in the streets for their very survival, let alone access to the Internet. On the other hand, we have those who can afford to buy and sell entire companies without batting an eye. Some have multiple homes, a slap in the face to the homeless. But, conservatives tell us, the rich have earned their way to the top. They deserve what they have. Sure, there are those who were born into money (or married into it), but ultimately someone earned it and is willing to share it with their family members who did not. And that's their right. And, besides, those who are well off are responsible for job creation so that others can also make a living. The vast wealth of a few will eventually trickle down to everybody else.

I admit; I used to believe that. And if the rich would spend the same proportion of their wealth on goods and services as the poor have to, perhaps there might be a little truth in the trickle-down approach to economics. But that's not what the rich do with their money. They invest it. They save it. They hoard it. Very little of it actually percolates down through the economy and lands in the pockets of paupers.

The system of capitalism we have in the U.S. today cannot be sustained for long. As the divide between the rich and poor widens ever larger, something is bound to give. Do we really want to go back to the type of society that existed in the nineteenth century, such as that depicted in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Sure, we have a social safety net, but there are holes in it big enough to filter through a whale. We have a safety sieve that allows too many to pass through. What we need is a shield that protects everyone from poverty.

And here's how to build one:

Make it the policy of the U.S. that essential services are available to everyone at a cost that is commensurate with each person's ability to pay. If that means providing free broadband Internet to those who barely eek out a living, then that's what we need to do. If that means providing free and unlimited health care to those who can't afford insurance, then we need to provide that. If that means building and maintaining public transportation systems that are cheap enough for everyone to afford then we need to build them. If that means providing free public education all the way through the college level then we need to provide it. And if that means providing every family or even every single adult with enough, dare I use the term, welfare subsidies so that they can survive without begging for money on the streets, then we should provide it.

We can't afford to do all that, you say? I say we can't afford not to. Yes, there will be expense involved, but just imagine the results: No one will be homeless. Every sick person will be attended to. Every child will have a free education through college. Everyone will be electronically connected through the Internet. Everyone will be able to commute to work and back home without having to worry about the expense. Poverty will be a thing that we read about in history books.

Yes but won't that just make people lazy? Why should those who work and make a good living have to subsidize those who want to lay back on the couch and play with their free Internet and eat the food they bought with their government handouts? And I admit that this image is maddening. It isn't fair for some to have to work hard in order for the lazy among us to eat well. I completely understand that. But providing a minimal living to the poor will not make them lazy. People are lazy already or they're not. More importantly, just because you provide someone with a minimal living doesn't mean you don't require something in return. For every food stamp or welfare check that's given to someone, they must give something back. If they are able, they must work at a government job. If they are not able to do manual labor, they must be assigned some type of community service work that they are physically able to handle.

In addition, there must be a wide enough gap between the subsidies they receive and the minimum wage so that those who have temporarily hit upon hard times will be compelled to actually look for a job rather than just accept what the government gives them. If they can make just as much from government assistance as they can from a minimum wage job, then most of them are not going to take the job. But make even the minimum wage an improvement over welfare, and most people will feel compelled to find work if they are able to work. And for those who can't, or even for those who won't, that then becomes part of the price for a social system without poverty.

This is not socialism. Socialism is where the government owns all businesses and hires all workers. Capitalism can still reign supreme. But for those who find it hard to climb the ladder of success from the basement, it means a boost to the second rung. It means they will be able to save a little money instead of using every penny for sheer survival. And the rich will still be rich. They will still be able to afford whatever they want to buy. Maybe it means buying a smaller yacht or buying a home with one less swimming pool. But it's a redistribution of wealth that would be good for society as a whole. And it would be a system that would be the envy of the world.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are Christian Values Being Endangered? You Bet They Are!

Christian conservatives love to complain. But do they really have anything to complain about? The answer to that question is yes, they do.

They complain that this country is losing its once-strong focus on Christian values, that organized prayer has been kicked out of public schools, that atheists won't let them celebrate Christmas because they can't display their nativity scenes in the public square, nor can they post the Ten Commandments on public grounds.

They also complain that godless liberals are trying to remove any reference to God from our currency and from the Pledge of Allegiance. They complain that schools who teach all religions equally in social studies classes are following a liberal agenda that tries to teach students about heathen religions in place of the one on which this country was founded, Christianity. They fear that homosexuals are gaining respect, gaining rights and that gay marriage is actually becoming a thing. They worry about the loss of biblical values and the suppression of God's laws. And they are very concerned about the loss of young people from the fold, as more and more of them choose secular ideals over Christian values.

And all of the things they fear is happening is really happening. They are correct to be worried that their young congregants are leaving the church, because they are leaving in droves. They are correct to feel anguish that more Americans than ever before are choosing the "no religion" label. They are right to point out that guided prayer is not allowed in school anymore. They are rightfully concerned that their symbols of Christianity are being banned from public display all over the country. They are correct when they lament that the once-dreaded homosexuals, who, in the 1950s were vilified in TV public service announcements, are now accepted by the majority of Americans as upstanding citizens. And they are correct to assume that our system of laws are becoming less and less based on biblical morality (thus, the reduction in the number of blue laws).

What Christian fundamentalists fear is the breakdown of society due to the turning away of this country from God and the bible. And, although they are correct to fear that this country is beginning, slowly, to turn away from a reliance on biblical morality, they are wrong to fear society's breakdown because of it. Theirs is just one point of view among several, but the contrasting point of view is the one that I hold: That we should welcome with open arms the rejection of biblical morality. We should disregard any dictums made by the bible. We should ignore God completely when it comes to public policy. We should embrace the ideas of gay marriage and equality. We should embrace women's rights to make their own decision regarding reproduction, including abortion. The only morality we should legislate is the one code of conduct that says we should not do anything to restrict any citizen's right to do anything he or she pleases, as long as that does not also restrict someone else's rights to the same. Now, I understand there are certain things that should be regulated, especially with regard to business and industry. Unbridled capitalism does no one any good except the ultra-rich. Certain laws are needed solely to protect the public welfare and to redistribute wealth as necessary. And, of course, the government has to be paid through taxation. But mostly, the government should take a hands-off approach to personal and social choices.

The fear the Christian conservatives feel is warranted. They are a dying breed, even if they are dying slowly. I welcome the death of Christianity, even though it is not likely to die, or even become moribund, within my lifetime. Hopefully, my two children will be able to witness the demise of religion. But it explains why the fundamentalists are being so vocal and annoying these days. Their religion is in its death throes and all they can really do about it is whine and complain.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is God an Angry Ogre?

This article might be funny if it weren't so serious.

It concerns a debate over whether or not a gospel song written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty called "In Christ Alone" goes too far in emphasizing God's wrath over God's love concerning the atonement. Presbyterians want the line in the song that mentions God's wrath to be changed so that it stresses God's love instead. The Baptists chimed in and said let the song lyrics stay the way they are. But one Baptist believes the Presbyterians have a point. Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper sided with the Presbyterians, which got him a tongue lashing from Baptist leaders.

“Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down,” Terry wrote. In reply, the president of the Alabama Baptists Assembly wrote, “As Alabama Baptists seek to be true to Scripture, we affirm the essential and historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement." In other words, sure, God was indeed an angry ogre who needed a human blood sacrifice to settle his nerves.

The song’s original lyrics say that as Jesus died on the cross, “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian committee wanted to change that to “the love of God was magnified.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville agrees with the Alabama Baptists. He said anyone who thinks that those who want to change the lyrics to remove the line about God's wrath have "bad theology." And therein lies the whole problem. Two leaders of different Christian denominations can't agree on something as fundamental as the character of God. What kind of a god would set us up with such diverse opinions about who God really is and then expect us to all believe the truth or go to hell?

Was God wrathful in the Old Testament and Loving in the New Testament? Was Jesus really God? Was Jesus really just a man? Was he both at the same time but 100 percent so? Was Jesus resurrected in body or just in soul? Was he resurrected at all? Was Jesus an apocalyptic preacher and prophet or was he a political zealot? Did he exist as God's son only after his baptism or from his birth, or perhaps from time eternal? Are the stories of the Exodus, Noah's Ark, and Jonah as told in the Old Testament literally true or allegorical? Did Moses write the Pentateuch? Did Moses even exist?

These are just a few of the questions about God, Jesus, and the bible that Christians - yes, real, believing Christians - disagree about now or have disagreed about throughout Christian history. And everyone who believes a certain way also believes that every other denomination has bad theology. But since God, if he even exists, apparently did not make it clear what we should believe, it is no wonder that people are leaving the Christian cult in droves. What else can a thinking, intelligent person do?

This little scuffle over the lyrics to a Christian song only amplifies what is really wrong with this whole believing-in-ancient-superstitions scenario. Since no one can prove, or even provide empirical evidence, for their side of the belief, there is a considerable divergence of opinion about just what God really wants us to do. The side that most Christians tend to ignore, though, is the side that would settle the whole matter once and for all: God doesn't exist, so why believe anything at all about him?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Which Came First, Religion or Low Intelligence?

A meta-analysis shows what most people already know, that the more religious you are, on average, the less intelligent you are likely to be. Of course religious people are less intelligent in general. But the real question is why? Do they start off less intelligent and therefore are easier to be seduced by superstitious nonsense, or is an initial belief in superstition that they were indoctrinated into during childhood hindering the development of critical thinking skills, thus making them seem less intelligent? Or maybe some combination?

Take the poll.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is Texas using Back-Door Discrimination to Disenfranchise Hispanic Voters?

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is suing Texas for allegedly violating part of the Voting Rights Act, claiming that Texas Republicans redrew district boundaries purposely to alienate Hispanic voters. Texas responded by saying they didn't redraw the boundaries to alienate Hispanics but to make it more difficult for Democrats to get elected. And if Hispanics tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, well, that just makes them collateral damage. So, I guess the question then becomes, Is it legal (moral, ethical) to discriminate against a minority group simply by virtue of their political preference? Isn't this really a form of de facto segregation?

In 1970 the Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that schools that were segregated only because local neighborhoods tended to be segregated were still denying equal education under Brown v. Board of Education. The majority interpretation was that Brown was a charge to integrate schools rather than a charge to no longer segregate. Voting districts are not schools, but this type of de facto segregation exists in the voting districts and Holder may have the rule of law on his side.

On the other hand, four years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that school districts were under no obligation to force integration if schools were segregated due to the existing segregation within the neighborhoods but only if the schools themselves had a prior policy of segregation. Again, we're not dealing with schools here, but parallels can be drawn.

The basic question is, If the people of Texas choose to live in a certain neighborhood in order to be closer to their own ethnic group and if that ethnic group tends to vote a certain way, can the district maps be redrawn in such a way that it disenfranchises them due to their voting record even if that means it also disenfranchises them due to their ethnicity, which is clearly against the law?

I guess we'll see.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Another Example of People being Honest

I was doing a little shopping at Walmart today and at checkout I used the Debit Card option because I needed some cash back to use at the State Fair. But I was so preoccupied with making sure I recorded the transaction on my checkbook app that I forgot I had ordered cash back. I started to walk away. There was no one behind me in line but I heard some gentleman in the next aisle call out, "Sir!" I turned around and he pointed at the cash dispenser. There was my $60 just hanging there. It could have been a nice windfall for the next person up, or for the guy who noticed. But he decided to be honest, as I'm sure most people would. I offered my thanks, took my cash and went on my way, knowing that had it not been for that honest stranger, my day could have gone so much worse after I had gotten to the fair.

What would you do in these hypothetical scenarios?

A. You find a $20 bill lying on the floor of the supermarket, no one around. Would you keep it or take it to the customer service desk?
B. You see a shopper in front of you at the checkout drop a $20 bill on the floor and didn't notice. No one else noticed but you. Would you keep it or give it back?
C. The cashier accidentally gives you $20 too much and doesn't catch it. You catch it after you have left the cashier and head out of the store. Would you just keep it or take it back?

As for me...

A. I would keep it. There is no way to identify the owner of the cash and if you don't keep it where would it go?
B. I would give it back to the person who dropped it. I know where it came from.
C. I've done it both ways, but not with as much as $20. But typically, I would keep it. The cashier will not be docked for it because that is illegal. She might be reprimanded and even fired if it keeps happening, but that's all on the cashier, not you. It was his/her mistake. Just enjoy a little schadenfreude and keep the cash.

Study Shows Outside Smoke is Bad Too

It can be just as annoying to have to breathe someone's nasty cigarette smoke outside as it is inside. Indiana has banned most smoking inside public buildings, but it is still permitted in parks and outside dining areas. The next step should be for the state to ban smoking in these areas, too. The ONLY place that it should be legal to smoke is inside your own home (sans kids) or on your own property or in a smoking-designated area.