Saturday, December 31, 2011

Charles C. Haynes: Religion story of the year: anti-Muslim bigotry in America

  The recent decision by Lowe’s Home Improvement to pull ads from the reality TV show “All-American Muslim” caps a very successful year for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.

  So successful, in fact, that anti-mosque protests, anti-Shariah laws, and anti-Muslim hate crimes could easily fill any list of “top five” religion stories in 2011.

  Lowe’s withdrawal from sponsoring a show about the daily life of five American Muslim families was apparently in response to objections to the program from a conservative Christian group called the Florida Family Association.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sally Steenland: 12 New Year’s resolutions for the 112th Congress in 2012

  Many of us start off the new year with resolutions to break bad habits and pick up good ones. Although these lists are usually personal, there’s no reason an institution can’t come up with ways to do better in the coming year. In fact, there’s good reason to do so if, like the 112th Congress, your likeability ratings are hovering in single digits and you’re paralyzed by inaction.

  So here are 12 proposed New Year’s resolutions for Congress in 2012.

1. Cut out junk food: Get rid of tax cuts for millionaires. The revenue from just one week of tax cuts for millionaires ($866 million) will more than pay for one year of nutrition assistance for women, infants, and children ($833 million).

2. Make new friends: Pass comprehensive immigration reform. Without a fair commonsense federal immigration law, states including Alabama and Arizona have passed harsh, inhumane laws that cast suspicion on neighbors, weaken the state’s economy, and spur homegrown talent to move away.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wendy McElroy: Wisconsin invoices the exercise of rights

  Despite a proclaimed opposition to new taxes, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has advanced a policy that amounts to a new and draconian tax. People will have to pay the state for the “privilege” of free speech and assembly. To exercise those rights in or outside state facilities will entail permits at least seventy-two hours in advance and potentially prohibitive fees. The policy took effect on December 8 and is expected to be completely phased in by December 16.

  State permission for various types of protest has long been required in the form of permits; in recent years, some locales have further limited freedom of speech by restricting it to “designated areas.” But Walker's measure goes a leap or so beyond the standard government policies on protests.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: The 2011 Rewind

  As the world turns in Alabama politics another year is fast coming to a close. Dr. Robert Bentley is completing his first year as governor. He inherited a ship of state that was analogous to walking onto the deck of the Titanic. His predecessor, Bob Riley, did not do him any favors. Riley depleted every rainy day account available. In addition, the manna from heaven that came from Washington in the form of stimulus money has now run its course. The state coffers are in dire straits. The cupboard is bare and the state is facing financial problems unseen in state history.

  If the state’s financial crisis was not devastating enough, Bentley was awakened on April 27 with the worst natural disaster in Alabama history. A record number of killer tornadoes ravaged the state. Some of the worst damage occurred in Bentley’s hometown of Tuscaloosa.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Peter Juul: U.S. military strategy shifts focus

  The final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq marks the end of a year that has seen a remarkable shift in U.S. military strategy abroad. From the war in Libya and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to the end of the war in Iraq and the beginning of a military transition in Afghanistan, the era of large-footprint counterinsurgency and nation-building operations is coming to a close. In its place, the Obama administration is instituting an approach focused on using targeted operations conducted by airpower, special operations forces, and the intelligence community, alongside cooperation with partners to achieve its objectives.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gary Palmer: The Christmas that saved America

  Given the current condition of the American economy, there might be a temptation to view what Americans are spending this Christmas as the Christmas that saves the American economy… or at least keeps it from going deeper into recession. But regardless of what Americans spend this Christmas, you would have to look farther back to find the Christmas that saved America.

  By the end of November 1776, American independence was on life support. Gen. George Washington had just suffered a devastating defeat and lost the city of New York to the British.  Not only was New York City entirely in British hands, Washington made a strategic blunder by not evacuating his forces from Fort Washington and Fort Lee, on the Hudson River.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: The Probate Judge

  We are in the midst of the holiday season with Christmas just around the corner. However, we are also in political season. Traditionally we have held our primaries in June but earlier this year in a cost saving measure the legislature changed the date of our primary. In order to have one primary instead of two they combined the presidential and general election primary into one date. That day is March 13. Thus, qualifying is fast approaching. The last day to qualify for the March 13 primary and November 6, 2012 general election is January 13. Therefore, you might be seeing campaign ads rather than holiday greetings on television and you might be getting a campaign solicitation letter with your Christmas cards.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Michael Josephson: What is a good Christmas?

  Will this be a good Christmas?

  How will you measure it?

  For lots of kids, the answer may be embedded in the response to the question, “What did ya get?”

  On the other hand, retailers and Wall Street investors will look to sales and profits.

  What a pity that the spiritual and social potential of this a holiday can be so easily lost. To observant Christians, Christmas is a profoundly important day of worship, and so a “good” Christmas must include a meaningful religious connection with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Joy Moses: The Facts about Americans who receive public benefits


  Gross misperceptions about who receives public benefits and for what purposes are leading the nation toward debates that distract from the real problems facing middle-class and low-income Americans. Most public benefits spending is for participants, largely senior citizens, who have paid for the services via a lifetime of work. This is far different from the picture painted by many conservatives of public benefits being for lazy poor people who do not want to work. These misperceptions put all public benefits programs at risk, including those that reach the middle class. They also derail benefits programs that specifically target people living in poverty and help them to join the middle class.

  The facts about public benefits detailed in this issue brief help shape the real debate Americans should be engaged in—how to fund and shape public benefits programs that largely serve the middle class and those living in poverty for the long haul.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Charles C. Haynes: A plea to politicians: Tell the truth about ‘school prayer’

WASHINGTON — The latest attack on the “godless public schools” — a staple of Republican primaries past — is a new ad in Iowa by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign proclaiming there’s “something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

  Advocating for “school prayer” is, of course, a poll-tested winner for politicians seeking to stir voter outrage — and establish Christian conservative bona fides.

  Michele Bachmann also took up the cry at a recent town hall in Iowa, declaring that government censors religion in public schools. She added a new twist to the charge by saying that Muslims get to practice their faith in schools, but “Christian kids aren’t allowed to pray.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Richard Schwartzman: A Bill of guarantees

  The best document ever written to preserve the liberty of a free people isn’t a complete document at all, but just a part of one. It’s the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

  Those ten paragraphs capture the essence of what it means to govern a government. Are they perfect? No, but how much in life is?

  While the body of the Constitution is simply a framework or schematic diagram of the body of government, the Bill of Rights was an attempt to put chains on that government instead of letting the government put chains on the people (as is usually the case).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sarah Jane Glynn: Out-of-work Americans are struggling and need benefits

  There’s never a good time to be involuntarily unemployed. But today’s conditions are among the worst in decades. For every new job created there are four people looking for work. With supply and demand this out of whack, it is not surprising that the average length of unemployment for a worker who loses his or her job is a little more than 10 months. But in the midst of this troubling scenario, House conservatives are proposing that the government should reduce the length of time people can collect unemployment insurance by 40 weeks.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: The Drama of redistricting

  The 2012 Legislative Session is looming. It begins in two months with the paramount issue being the reapportionment of their own legislative districts. All 105 House seats and all 35 Senate seats will be on the drawing board. They may have all been singing out of the same songbook last year but this issue will cross party lines. Redistricting gets personal. They will lay down their partisan badges when it comes to self preservation. As former Speaker of the House Jimmy Clark once told me, “Steve, old boy, the cardinal rule in political redistricting is you take care of yourself and the hell with everybody else.”

  The U.S. Constitution, and concurrently the Alabama Constitution, clearly call for all congressional and legislative lines to be redrawn every 10 years so that each district has the same number of people. Thus, every man, woman and child has the same equal representation in congress and the legislature. That is why the census is taken every 10 years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sarah Jane: Poor economic conditions in Alabama will get worse with new immigration law

  Alabama’s state motto, “We dare defend our rights,” seems particularly ironic given the recent passage of their new immigration bill, H.B. 56. The draconian new law includes provisions that require police to verify the immigration status of individuals they stop if the officers have ”reasonable suspicion” that the drivers are here without documentation. It also makes it a felony for undocumented immigrants to conduct business transactions with the state, which includes services such as providing running water to a home.

  The law has the potential to be so damaging to the state that even Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange advocates repealing parts of it.
  Given the current fiscal and economic woes of the state, including the recent municipal bankruptcy of Jefferson County, and the negative economic impact of the law—which will come out of the pockets of Alabama residents—Alabamians should be asking whose rights are being defended—and at what cost.

  We examine those woes here, along with how the new law will make them worse. Clearly the state cannot afford it.

Law’s economic benefits are an illusion

  Proponents of the law argue there are positive effects for Alabamians as the result of the bill. Most notably, they claim that the recent drop in Alabama’s unemployment rate—from 9.8 percent in September to 9.3 percent in October 2011—is a result of the law. Unfortunately for them, a closer look at the numbers proves them wrong.

  Alabama did see an increase in the number of employed people in their state. In October there were 3,578 more people with jobs than in September. But the drop in the unemployment rate was due more to the fact that 6,258 people left the labor force during the same time period. In order to be counted among the unemployed, an individual has to be actively looking for work. People who have been out of work for a long period of time and have given up on looking for a new job thus no longer “count” as unemployed.

  Take, for instance, Baldwin County. Its unemployment rate dropped from 8.7 percent to 8 percent from September to October 2011, in spite of the fact that there were 106 fewer jobs in the county in October. But during the same time frame 720 people left the labor force, so even though 106 jobs were eliminated, the unemployment rate still fell. Conecuh County experienced a similar event: The unemployment rate dropped from 15.2 percent to 14.5 percent, even though the number of employed individuals did not change at all. The drop was simply due to a reduction in the size of the labor force.

  Overall, Alabama’s unemployment rate has been higher than the rest of the nation since January 2011.

Things were bad before the law

  What’s more, Alabama has been suffering economically for years for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration.

  The state has historically scored worse on economic indicators than the rest of the United States. In 2010, for example, 15.1 percent of Americans were living in poverty compared to 19 percent of the population of Alabama, placing it 47th in the nation. And that was at a time when Alabama’s unemployment rate was lower than the national average. The median household income for Alabamians in 2009 was $40,547, nearly $10,000 less than the national average.

  The effects are particularly devastating given the economic instability of its residents, and the fact that only slightly more than half of those who are out of work receive unemployment benefits.

Jefferson County’s bankruptcy ups the economic pressure

  The passage of Alabama’s new immigration law could not come at a worse time for Alabama residents. Not only do they have to contend with the bleak economic picture just described, but the impact of Jefferson County’s recent bankruptcy will be felt across the state, and the negative economic impacts of the new bill—including high legal fees, increases in the costs of services, and extensive new costs to law enforcement—will pile on top of the negative impacts from the bankruptcy.

  On November 9, 2011, Jefferson County—the most populous county in the state—filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States with a debt of $4.1 billion. There are several factors that contributed to the county’s financial problems, the most notable of which is $3.2 billion of debt resulting from upgrades to the county sewer system.

  Jefferson County was ordered to upgrade its sanitary system in 1996 because it was polluting rivers and streams with runoff. The entire process was plagued with corruption, and it resulted in criminal convictions for five former county commissioners. Most of the debt from upgrading the system was refinanced in the early 2000s, which resulted in higher interest rates after the nation’s financial collapse in 2008. Negotiations to reduce the debt were unsuccessful, and the current Jefferson County Commission “concluded that filing [for bankruptcy] was the best way to protect the County’s limited cash and restructure the County’s debt obligations."

  The full effects of the bankruptcy will not be known for some time, but there is little doubt that it will be bad for both Jefferson County and the state as a whole. The credit rating of Jefferson County will certainly be downgraded, leading to higher interest rates on money it may need to borrow in the future, and the economy of the county will likely be further depressed. An outside firm has been hired to provide legal services to the county, and estimates of the legal costs associated with the bankruptcy filing are as high as $1 million dollars per month.

  So what does the bankruptcy filing in Jefferson County have to do with immigration and H.B. 56? In some ways, they aren’t related at all. The financial problems facing Jefferson County are the result of corrupt public officials and the Great Recession, neither of which have any connection to the 2.5 percent of Alabama’s population that is undocumented.

  And yet in an unfortunate twist, the negative impacts of the bankruptcy exacerbate the negative economic impacts of the immigration law.

  At the same time that Jefferson County is paying lawyers $1 million a month to move forward with the bankruptcy, the state will also need to defend H.B. 56 in court. In the first year after the passage of Arizona’s similar—though less extreme—law, the state spent $1.9 million defending its legality in the courts. The Alabama law has already been challenged, and it will likely end up costing at least as much, if not far more, to defend.

  Both Jefferson County and the state of Alabama will need to bring in more revenue to cover their legal costs. But by driving immigrants, both documented and undocumented, out of the state, tax revenues will drop. Undocumented immigrants in Alabama paid an estimated $130 million dollars in state income, property, and sales taxes in 2010.

  Alabama’s tax code is seemingly contradictory: The state taxes its residents on a lot less than any other state in the nation. Yet at the same time, Alabama has the highest tax rates for families at the poverty line. So now, when rates are likely to increase even further and increase the burden on the state’s most vulnerable residents, Alabama is doing its best to remove residents who pay into the system but almost never receive any services back.

  In addition to higher state taxes, Alabamians are also likely to see higher costs for services. Residents of Jefferson County already pay sewer rates that are more than three times what they were in 1996, and these rates will only continue to rise as a result of the bankruptcy.

  Alabama’s new immigration law will also contribute to increases in the cost of public utilities. Customer bases will shrink as immigrants leave the state, and public utilities companies, which operate on an economy of scale, will have to raise their prices. The provision in the law that requires public companies to verify the immigration status of their customers will require substantial additional labor that will need to be funded, most likely by passing that cost along to consumers.

  At present, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office is making do with refurbished cars and used vehicles because there is no money to replace them. The office roof leaks, and there are not enough funds to repair the poorly running HVAC system.

  If the county is unable to find at least $40 million of new revenue, budget cuts will result in layoffs of sheriff’s deputies—and 101 deputies are currently scheduled to be laid off in 2012. Officers are already operating under tight budgets, and because the new immigration law forces them to become de-facto immigration agents, this will necessarily result in new costs and complications.

  The chief deputy in Jefferson County has said that his deputies cannot start arresting those who are suspected of being in the United States without documentation because they simply do not have the funding. The state is requiring every sworn officer to undergo special training on how to enforce the law, but there is not yet any word on how much this 16,000-person training will cost, nor how it will be paid for. When a similar law was passed in Prince William County, Virginia, it was estimated that it would cost more than $3.2 million to implement.

Time for a motto change?

  While Alabama’s elected officials may claim they are defending the rights of their constituents by passing a strict new immigration law, in reality they are damaging their communities and forcing residents to foot the bill.

  This law will increase the cost of living at a time when the state is experiencing higher unemployment than the national average, and it will make communities less safe by diverting funds and police protection.

  The residents of Alabama did not cause the Jefferson County bankruptcy, and they did not vote to pass H.B. 56, yet they are the ones who will ultimately suffer as a result. Perhaps it is time for Alabama to either rethink its state motto or actually start putting the rights of Alabamians before political posturing.

  About the author: Sarah Jane Glynn is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

  This article was published by the Center for American Progress.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Michael Josephson: Unkind words are weapons

  With four teenage daughters, I frequently find myself correcting, disciplining, or simply protesting unnecessary and unkind comments certain to anger or wound a sister and evoke counterattacks that fill the air with nastiness.

  Hoping to get them to think before they speak in the future, I often ask, “What did you expect to accomplish by that remark?” and “Did it make things better or worse?” It rarely makes a difference.

  It’s as if their instinct to express anger or utter sarcasm, accusations, and complaints is too strong to allow for wise strategies like “Think before you speak” to operate.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Michael Ettlinger: Drug Testing America: House Republicans have the answer!

  The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives yesterday proposed allowing states to require drug tests for anyone receiving unemployment benefits. I’m not sure why they think that those who have had the misfortune of losing their jobs in these difficult economic times particularly need to be tested for the use of illegal substances. But if they’re gung ho for drug testing, it seems like we ought to be sharing the blood-drawing joy. I can think of plenty of places where it would be much more useful.

  It seems far more important to the nation that members of the House of Representatives be free of the influence of reality-altering substances than unemployed people. After all, when members of Congress make decisions under the influence of hallucinogens, it affects the entire country. Your average unemployed person? Not so much. And truthfully, which group of Americans demonstrates more evidence of drug-induced behavior? If you have any doubts, take a look at the House Republicans’ budget proposals.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Gary Palmer: Stop digging and start drilling!

  There is no doubt the U.S. economy is in a deep hole. And the familiar advice that the first step to getting oneself out of a hole is to stop digging may not totally apply to the U.S. economy … but it does in some respects.

  On one hand, our economic hole was created by reckless government spending. The obvious solution is to stop going deeper in the hole by cutting spending. However, that is not the whole reason we are in a hole.

  Our economy is also in a hole because of U.S. energy policies that make energy costs unnecessarily higher. On September 13th, The Los Angeles Times reported that motorists in the U.S. are on pace to spend a record $491 billion for gasoline. In fact, households with a yearly income of $30,000 to $50,000 use 20 percent of their disposable income to pay for electricity, natural gas and gasoline; households earning less than $30,000 per year use 23 percent.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bart Frazier: Forget reform

  Reforming federal programs that have bestowed upon Americans a multitude of problems would seem to be a good idea, but it’s not. The problem is not only that the programs will never work no matter how much they are reformed, but also that what the programs do falls outside the legitimate functions of government. The programs need to be abolished, not reformed.

  “Reform” has been the clarion call of politicians who have claimed some affinity for “small government” for decades. The reason is simple — such rhetoric gets votes. I suppose there are some in Washington who sincerely believe that the proper role of government is limited to protecting the country from invasion, punishing those who commit violent crimes, and providing a judicial forum in which people can resolve disputes, but it seems they are few. Politicians today call for smaller government and reforming government programs simply because it will help get them elected. But when it comes time to actually take action to shrink government, there are few ‘yeas’ for cutting budgets, and actually eliminating programs never even gets to a vote.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Michael Josephson: Are cynics right? Is lying really necessary?

  What do you think? In today’s society, does a person have to lie or cheat at least occasionally to succeed?

  The question isn’t whether occasional liars and cheats sometimes get away with dishonesty; we all have to agree with this. The question is whether you believe people can succeed if they are not willing to lie or cheat.

  Those who believe lying and cheating have become necessities are cynics. A recent study of more than 10,000 people by the Josephson Institute of Ethics shows that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be cynical. This is important because cynics, regardless of their age, are far more likely to lie and cheat in both their personal and work lives.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Charles C. Haynes: Putting workers to a cruel choice: your God or your job

  In hard economic times, American workers may be willing to forego pay raises and pensions to keep their jobs. Just don’t ask them to abandon their faith.

  Consider the case of Abdulkadir Omar, a former security guard in Kent, Wash., who was told to shave his religiously required beard after six months on the job. Omar refused, was fired — and now is in federal court seeking damages.

  Like many other religious Americans, Omar was forced to make what the Supreme Court has called a “cruel choice” between keeping his job and following his God.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Eric Alterman: Why do the mainstream media like the Tea Party more than Occupy Wall Street?

  Support for the Tea Party is in a free fall. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted between November 9–14 and released earlier this week, 27 percent of the general public now disagrees with the Tea Party, nearly double the 14 percent who said so in March 2010. The number of people who agree fell from 24 percent to 20 percent. And within districts represented by Tea Party-loyal members of Congress, the trend is perhaps strongest: The number of people who disagree with the Tea Party has more than doubled from just 10 percent in March 2010 to 23 percent today. The number of people who agree has also fallen from 31 percent to 25 percent in the same period. Regarding the Tea Party, in any case, it would appear that familiarity breeds contempt.

  These numbers should not be so surprising. (Nor should the fact that if you look closely at the Pew numbers, a good half of America is not really paying attention to the Tea Party one way or another.) In fact, it’s consistent with what we know about who actually makes up the Tea Party movement rather than the overhyped movement that so many in the mainstream media led us to believe was poised to take over America.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Laurence M. Vance: Price discrimination is fair and just

  While on a recent cross-country flight, I looked around at the 200 or so other passengers on the plane and thought, not about the snacks we would be served (pretzels), the movie we would be shown (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), or whether the babies on the flight would cry the whole way (they did), but about economics and economic justice.

  I wondered about the truth of the oft-repeated claim that no one on an airline flight pays the same amount for his ticket as anyone else and the question that is sometimes raised whether that practice is fair.

  Airlines engage in a form of what is known as price discrimination. It is typically defined as selling the same product to different people for different prices on the basis of their willingness to pay and not for reasons associated with product costs.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ken Paulson: Not many exceptions to free-speech guarantee

  “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.”

  That paraphrase of a paragraph in a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Critics of the Occupy movement often point to it as justification for government shutting down protests in public parks.

  Here’s what Holmes actually wrote:

  “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic … . The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”

  The decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that is likely to cause immediate harm to others. It doesn’t say, “The government has plenty of ways to shut you up.”