Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


“Something That God Intended”

I'm sure you've all heard by now that a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, is in hot water over a reply he gave during a debate this week. He was asked if he'd allow abortion in cases of rape, and he said he believes "life begins at conception" and that "life is a gift from God." All life? You bet. "I think," he continued, "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

I hesitated before including Mr. Mourdock's party affiliation here, because I wasn't sure it was relevant and I don't want to come off as partisan. Ultimately, however, I decided to note that he's Republican, largely because it follows on the heels of several ill-advised remarks from other Republicans on the topic of rape. These comments have many female and/or feminist voters wondering whether the GOP has it in for women. In states like Florida, recent polls suggest the female presidential vote leans toward Obama while the male vote leans toward Romney, so this is no minor issue.

If the GOP has, shall we say, a more traditional view of women and what makes them tick, that shouldn't surprise anyone. By definition, conservatives tend to like things the way they used to be; the only real variation is whether they want to regress to 1900, 1950, or 33 A.D. Being a woman who's Republican these days is kinda like being a black guy who's a Klansman. Now, before that enrages you, please don't misunderstand: I get why a woman might be fiscally conservative. I get why she'd oppose bloated government or a staggering deficit. I can even understand why she'd be pro-life. I just pity her for all the nonsense she has to overlook to be in her party of choice. Whether it's Henry Aldridge and Todd Akin believing a woman's uterus contains anti-rape sperm stompers, or Rush Limbaugh (what a wonderful sense of humor he has) quipping, "I love the women's movement--especially when walking behind it," or Clayton Williams advising rape victims to "lie back and enjoy it," or Jon Kyl claiming "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" is abortion (try 3 percent), then having his office tell CNN this "was not intended to be a factual statement," you conservative women must live in permanent cringe mode these days.

So yeah, it kind of is a party thing. I tried to find equivalently stupid things Democratic candidates have said about rape but came up empty. If you know of one, please, post it below. I know liberals say imbecilic things all the time--Joe Biden is everyone's current favorite example--but not on that subject. What I will admit about liberals is we take abortion too lightly. If life did begin at conception (more on that in a moment), then abortion would be the leading cause of human death in America. It's not just some occasional thing. If you believe a day-old fetus is a person, then yeah, abortion is genocide. I can see why you'd be incensed about it.

I have to say, though, I've thought about this issue very deeply, as deeply as most in the pro-life camp. Indeed, I used to be pro-life myself, at least until well into my 20s. Without getting into specifics, it's touched my family (though not me directly) in a personal way. I've walked down a line of museum displays of zygotes and fetuses and embryos and tried to determine exactly when I believed those lumps of cells qualified as a human. I couldn't do it. It was somewhere to the right of the start and left of the end. I go around and around on this, and I don't blame anyone for being undecided about it, though I disregard any claim that life begins either at conception or the instant the baby sees daylight. That just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to say life begins at conception, why stop there? A sperm or an ovum is still a potential life; in fact, it's already alive. If you're a man who's ever masturbated or a woman who's ever menstruated, you've terminated sex cells that could've been babies nine months later. If God wanted every sex cell to become a baby, He wouldn't have created a reproductive system that blithely dispenses with so many possible lives. On the other hand, it's pretty much impossible to look at a seven-month-old fetus and not see it as an infant in training. We have to understand these issues are not cut and dry, and even well-intentioned geniuses like you and me can disagree with good reason.

Now. Back to Richard Mourdock. I want to commit liberal heresy and let this guy off the hook.


Listen, Mourdock is simply wrestling with a problem as old as religion itself, the problem of suffering. If you believe in a loving, all-powerful God Who can see into the future, eventually (say, age seven) you're going to wonder why He doesn't do something about suffering. And your authority figures, who never quite figured this one out themselves, will say something soothing about "God's will" and the "divine plan." Later, as you get older, they'll develop this argument to contend that when Jesus died, this somehow fixed the problem of suffering. Then Mom or Dad or Pastor Smith will tell you to go outside and play before you can ask the obvious question, which is why we're still suffering and dying two thousand years after Jesus died. The problem of suffering, or, to use its smartypants name, "theodicy," is an insurmountable paradox. Now, generally speaking, when scientists discover a paradox in earlier thinking, they realize somebody made a mistake. Religious people have a harder time doing that, but it still comes up surprisingly often.

Epicurus said, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?" Or, as Archibald Macleish put it more succinctly in his play JB, "If God is God, He is not good / If God is good, He is not God." Martina McBride developed this line of thought further in her song "Anyway" (written with the Warren Brothers): "God is great, but sometimes life ain't good. When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should. But I do it anyway." To ask these questions is not blasphemous; they're basically the subject of the Biblical book of Job. And hey, if you think you worry about suffering, try being a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Some of those folks gave up on the whole question of whether God is good, preferring instead to concentrate on why we should be good and leaving God to deal with His own conscience.

That's a valid response. When scientists wonder where all the time travelers from the future are or run up against the "grandfather paradox," they tend to conclude time travel is and always will be impossible. That doesn't prove time travel is impossible, of course. It may be that time travelers are here right now, disguised as insurance salesmen or TV news reporters or pedantic bloggers. Likewise, the fact that evil exists may not be sufficient disproof of a loving, omnipotent God. It just doesn't help.

So when Richard Mourdock says if a woman is impregnated by a rapist, that tragedy must be God's will, he's simply beating his head against a very old paradox, and no more nor less successfully than most Christians. Mr. Mourdock's Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly, of course, seized on Mourdock's remarks, insisting, "The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in does not intend for rape to happen, ever." Well...that's debatable, actually. I know, because I'm about to debate it.

Are you familiar with the Biblical term "concubine?" Do you know what it means?'s kinda like a wife, right? Kinda, in that concubines had sex with men and Israelites (especially kings) were allowed to have lots of them. Solomon famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). The English word "concubine" is a popular (because it's evasive) translation of pilegesh, a word Hebrews borrowed from the Greeks. What it actually means is women who were captured or purchased to use as unmarried sexual partners. But wait, you say, that can't be right. Isn't that fornication? Well, it is, and yes, God forbade it, but only if you were a Jew who had sex with an unmarried Jewish woman. If, however, you were a Jewish man and she were a Gentile captured in battle, no problemo! Not to put too fine a point on it, many concubines were sex slaves. Consider this passage from Leviticus (25:44-46), a direct quote from Yahweh:

"As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness."

Yeah, 'cause that'd be mean.

If you want a real hair-raiser, check out Judges 19. Just read that chapter from the woman's perspective. Spoiler alert: there's a twist at the end! So that's how the Bible feels about rape: it's terrific unless it happens to Jews or your sex slave, in which case it's best to kill the victim. Who, by the way, has been your victim all along anyway, so awesome job.

The fact is, in the Old Testament at least, God is pro-rape. I know that's not a fact that's going to sit well in your head. If you doubt me, please do the necessary research. You'll find countless Bible apologists who say, well, it's all part of "be fruitful and multiply" or "some concubines were treated like wives" (as if that were a supreme privilege in the B.C. 1000s), but none who can make Leviticus 25 or Judges 19 go away. You can also find Christians who say Jesus came to negate the filthy "morals" of the Old Testament, but none who can change the fact that Leviticus 25 is a direct quote from God (see verse 1). I say again: if most Hoosiers believe in a God Who's anti-rape, then they're ignoring the fact of God-endorsed concubines in the Old Testament. They're also ignoring the questionable relationship between the Roman centurion and his "servant" (Greek pais--better translated as "catamite" or, not to put too fine a point on it, "boy sex slave") in Matthew 8. But that's okay; Jesus ignored that relationship, too. He said nothing condemnatory about it, even bringing the pais back to life at the centurion's humble request. And yippee, what a life!

I know my own way around this eternally intractable problem. After decades of thought, I concluded that if there is a God, then the Bible writers had Him/Her/It/Them all wrong. God may indeed possess cosmic power, but I see no evidence that God intervenes in the day-to-day events of our lives or preserves earthly justice. That'd be like asking a biochemist to make life in a petri dish fair. Of course, I'm not telling you what to believe. I know my opinions sound dark-hearted or devil-possessed to some of my readers. But do yours make any more sense than mine? Do Richard Mourdock's? I'm just saying maybe we should cut the poor guy a little slack. There's nothing dumb about wondering why God lets evil happen. Indeed, Mourdock's efforts at armchair theodicy put him in the company of such great minds as Russell, Voltaire, Augustine, and Leibniz (who coined the term theodicy 35 years after, oh, inventing calculus). Like many Christians, Mourdock settled on the rationale Joseph gave his murderous brothers in Genesis 50:20: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Awwww.

Still. That Rush Limbaugh. What a dick.

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My Night in the Wreck Room

What we have here is my fourth podcast, except that this one's a tiny bit different. Unlike previous installments, I decided to record it in one take, uninterrupted, and post it with no edits. All I did in postproduction was slap some music on it and covert it from WMA to MP3. This is the raw feed, straight from my thinky (and feely) place to you. Thanks for listening.

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And That’s the Word

If you caught my vlog of a few days ago, you might find the video below, from The Colbert Report, amusing. It covers much of the same ground. Big difference: he's a professional comic with a team of professional comedy writers, and I'm just some schmuck with a webcam. Enjoy!

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Sink or Swim
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

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Easy Math You Can Use!

This week's vlog is about math, but I promise it won't fry your a bad way, at least!

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Yay, Birth Control!

Yesterday a group of 43 Catholic organizations across the country sued the Obama administration to keep from having to include birth control among their insurance provisions. I'm not oblivious to the deep offense they feel at being "encouraged" to allow parishioners to violate papal commandments, and on their insurance companies' collective dime. But let's remember a few facts.

1. The Bible never says anything about birth control. Never. Not one thing.

2. It does command Adam and Eve to fill and subdue the Earth, but hey, mission accomplished. By any rational consideration, the human population on Earth is already excessive, as is our impact on the environment.

3. The Adam and Eve story is nonsense anyway. It's a myth. Even the Vatican acknowledges that.

4. The Pope is not, in fact, infallible when he speaks under any circumstances. Even Catholics know that, which is why...

5. Even by the most stringent criteria, two-thirds of Catholic women are on birth control.

How much do Baptists really care about keeping Catholic women off the pill? I think it's readily apparent that Republicans, most of them Protestant, are goading Catholics to object to this tiny aspect of health care reform in order to keep us from remembering that health care reform is terrific. Remember Sicko? Remember how we were all begging for health care reform a few years ago? Anyone out there nostalgic for the good old days of preexisting conditions? You, sir? Nobody?

The GOP knows what most voters do not: that when Obamacare kicks in for real in 2014, most people are going to love it. It solves so many problems and creates so few new ones. Of course the Affordable Care Act is in jeopardy in the sharply divided Supreme Court, but even then some new policy will survive. And the louder Fox News yells about it, the clearer it becomes that there will be much rejoicing in 2014. It's the kind of sweeping improvement to all our lives that could make things really difficult for Republicans in elections for years, especially after the lingering embarrassment of the Bush-Cheney era. In fact it exemplifies the positive change Obama promised in 2008, and which even many Democrats claim he's failed to deliver. But he did, despite years of monolithic opposition, and your parents (or you) may live longer because of it...and without being forced to declare bankruptcy.

Also, prohibiting birth control is stupid. I know it's totally gauche to call somebody's heartfelt religious beliefs a name, but this sincere belief is stupid. If you have that belief, and you're a friend, I'm not calling you stupid. I'm calling the Pope stupid, on this point if no other. Don't be stupid like his stupid belief. If you have that belief and you're a reader but not a friend, accept what I'm saying as knowledge almost everyone possesses but is too polite to tell you. Birth control prevents overpopulation, and God is not in favor of overpopulation. Birth control regulates menstrual cycles, and God doesn't want you to have weird menstrual cycles. Birth control allows people to enjoy marital sex without having to raise a new baby every year. One baby is delightful. Two babies is fun. A dozen babies is gross.

Granted, most religions are opposed to premarital sex, but most religious people actually aren't. That's why 80 percent of young evangelicals have premarital sex. Heck, even Brigham Young students have premarital sex. If you're a Protestant or Catholic Christian reading this and trying to work up a case of high moral dudgeon, take a deep breath and remember: you had premarital sex. Did it kill you? It did not. Did God curse your family unto the sons of your sons? He did not.

We don't believe premarital sex is bad anymore. I know we have to pretend we do when we're talking to other people in our churches, but we don't believe that...because it isn't...if you're careful. And birth control is how people who have premarital sex go about being careful. And smart. Premarital sex is how people shop for a sex partner they can stand having sex with for decades, aka a spouse. That's not immoral. It's just basic common sense.

Democrats like to call birth control "family planning," as if the whole point was to have kids. That's disingenuous. The point is to not have kids until you want and are ready to have kids. Call it "life planning" instead, fellow thinkers. And Catholic pundits, let this one go. You just sound stupid when you talk about it.

It's not nice to call any religious belief stupid. I know that. So why am I doing it? Because it's even more offensive to cost women their health or life plans just to score empty political points against a president you dislike. Also, this particular papal belief is incredibly stupid, which is why almost nobody has it.

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The State of the Union, February 2012

I hesitate before posting anything about politics, even more so than about religion or sex. It's not that I don't care about politics; I do, very much. But I have numerous conservative friends and acquaintances, and some of those fine folks (Chris Clark, I'm looking at you) feel obliged to counter every statement I make with the Hannity response. I already know the Hannity response, thank you. I've seen Fox News, too. And it's not that I mind defending my beliefs, but there's little point in arguing with anyone so wedded to his or her lifelong beliefs. If you think George W. Bush was a better president than Barack Obama, then okay, I get it. You're empirically wrong, of course, but if you're absolutely determined not to see that, then I won't be able to change your opinion. What could I possibly offer to convince you that the previous eleven years haven't?

If there's any chance whatsoever of persuading you that we've actually been blessed with a fine president in Mr. Obama, then this article in Rolling Stone makes a pretty good case. Of course, there's that skyrocketing national debt to consider, and we liberals have to admit it's a problem. (We didn't expect our "hope" president's reelection slogan to be "I sure hope we can pay off that debt!") But as I've pointed out a few times before, there's not a reputable economist in the world who doesn't advise massive spending as a path out of serious recession. Paradoxical as it may seem, impending doom is no reason to turn tightwad. Conservatives should also acknowledge that Obama inherited most of his economic woes, including bank and auto industry issues and two needless wars.

As of this writing, the president's approval rating has tipped past the 50% mark. Try as it might, Fox News and its Aussie tycoon owner have failed to convince at least half of us that we're in worse shape now than we were in 2008 or that things aren't getting better. Meanwhile, TARP is on track for total payback with interest, taxes are at a generational low, unemployment is down, and thanks to the Occupy movement, people are beginning to wonder whether their financial difficulties stem more from corporate greed and a ludicrously polarized Congress than from anything Barack Obama has done to hurt them.

I didn't say it's all good. It isn't. But it is a lot better, and all the GOP has offered in the way of competing ideas are the same bad ideas that contributed to our financial free fall in the first place.

Which brings us to the 2012 presidential race: can we be honest and admit it's shaping up to be kind of a blowout?

Look, I'm a big believer in a free intellectual marketplace. I want conservatives to step up their game and offer smart perspectives and brilliant ideas. Party favoritism aside, if any candidate of any stripe knows a better way to do things, then I want to hear it. My libertarian friends think Ron Paul is the man with the plan, but I'm unconvinced. Meanwhile, there are those troubling newsletters to consider, including such homophobic and/or racist statements as "I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in [Washington, D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal," which Paul may have penned and certainly proofed and approved. I'd be willing to overlook these remarks if he faced them squarely. If Paul would just say, "Look, I said those things because I was still, you know, kind of an idiot; I've grown as a person since then, and I'm sorry I behaved like an ass 20 years ago," this would likely blow over. But he hasn't, and he won't, so it won't. Like so many politicians these days, his tactic has been as follows: Step 1, deny. Step 2, deny adamantly. Step 3, blame the remarks on a nameless staffer. Step 4, claim they really weren't that bad after all. And finally, Step 5, the dreaded "I misspoke"--as if he meant to say, "I support equal rights for black Americans," but he got tongue-tied and "95 percent criminals" came out instead. Besides, there's no way Fox News will ever rally behind a libertarian. "Free to be you and me? Not on my watch, pally."

There are awesome Republicans out there. We can all agree on that. They just didn't run for president this year, and surely we can agree on that, too?

But that's not what fascinates me about the 2012 election. I refer you to an article that went largely unnoticed. Please take a few moments and read this now.

That article was about one of the earliest primaries, in conservative Iowa (which somehow beat Washington state to the punch on gay marriage--wha?!), but self-declared evangelical voters haven't rallied around anyone since then. If you're an evangelical Christian, your best options are Rick Santorum, a Catholic who wishes we'd all get off birth control, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon who bashes Europe despite being fluent in French thanks to his France. And let's face it, evangelicals believe Mormonism is a cult. They're less critical of Catholicism, but they still don't place Catholics in the "one of us" category. With nutty Michele Bachmann and rootin'-tootin' Rick Perry gone, there's no Republican candidate simplistic, jingoistic, anti-science, or pro-yelling enough to appeal to the churchiest among us. Serial adulterer Newt Gingrich and his pointless, illegal moon base campaign just won't cut it.

So here's the deal, smart Republicans: You probably aren't going to vote much this year. Am I right? You're probably going to do the sensible thing and avoid the polling booth, then do the polite thing and tell all your friends you voted for Romney or Gingrich or Santorum or whoever your candidate turns out to be--and let's face it, that candidate will be Romney, because Santorum's a throwback and Gingrich can't rely on widespread attacks of amnesia about his dismal behavior in the '90s. So you'll talk a good game and put up a yard sign or two, but come on. Your heart won't be in it. Except for South Carolina, turnout is slipping in Republican primaries. With no one as charming and Protestant as Mike Huckabee in the 2012 race, you'd just rather stay home and watch Fox and Friends bitch about President Obama.

I feel your pain, to be honest. (We progressives had our Dukakis year, too.) Ol' Dubya fouled the waters for years, and the very group you thought would save your bacon, the Tea Party, turned out to be a magnet for hypocritical yahoos with a gift for screaming about America's faults but no practical idea how to fix them. I know some of you look at Barack Obama and feel we elected a, well, how shall I put it, "un-American" type to the White House. I'm not lobbing the rhymes-with-bassist accusation here, but...Obama just doesn't feel like a guy who's qualified to be president to some of you, does he? He kind of feels like a Muslim from Kenya who invaded our highest office, and no Hawaiian birth certificate will ever change your mind about that. Okay, fine. It is what it is, right? But hell, I'd elect a potted plant to the White House if it managed as gracefully under fire as Barack Obama has. He's faced one of the most divided Congresses in history, and he's still managed to steer us onto what has been mostly, and undeniably, a course of improvement. I know people who were certain he'd initiate the Apocalypse. They visualized our president and his street gang of czars (ooh, scary) hosting pickup basketball games for al Qaeda. Not so much. About the most un-American thing about Obama turns out to be his unnervingly MILFy First Lady.

It's a measure of how well Obama turns out to be doing that Rick Santorum's persistent complaint about him is "he thinks he's smarter than the American people." Well, Ricky, you're talking about a guy who went from the 'hood in Chicago to editing the freakin' Harvard Law Review. You, on the other hand, once blamed the Catholic sex abuse scandal on Boston liberals, so...Not to put too fine a point on it, but Barack Obama is smarter than the American people. And that's terrific! No, it is! Our problems are really, really hard to repair, made even harder by the necessity of persuading hundreds of people who want his job to approve and adopt his consistently moderate decisions.

In sports, when a lineup sucks as blatantly as the GOP's current parade of hapless candidates, commentators call it "a rebuilding year." So rebuild, Republican friends. Please take this as constructive criticism. You have good people in your ranks. Let them run next time. Don't dismiss a candidate just because he or she thinks Obama was born in Hawaii or that we may have evolved from creatures who were 98.7% genetically identical to us. Pick a candidate for his or her ability to do math, not based on church affiliation. As for Democrats, the next four years will be pivotal. Either the Obama plan will continue to improve the country in record time and Hilary Clinton will be our next president (put your hand down, Joe Biden; you've got to be joking), or the national debt will have skyrocketed for no good reason and we'll be desperate for better answers from your side of the aisle.

P.S.: Those better ideas aren't "go easier on the suffering superwealthy" or "pray louder and let God sort it out."

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Follow the Money

I don't talk about politics on this blog as often as my friends might expect, and there's a reason. Every time I express my viewpoint, I have a handful of readers who feel compelled to contradict me, usually with arguments I've heard before--because I watch Fox News, too--and could dispel with brutal speed were I in the mood to do so. I don't enjoy hurting people's feelings, and if comments and emails are any indication, liberalism offends some people even more than agnosticism. Perhaps it's because their God isn't as physically close to them, nor as important from day to day, as their money. I'm really just speculating here.

But be that as it may, every once in a while, my opponents on the greedy nut-bar right push me farther than I'm willing to be pushed. Case in point: This morning, the GOP announced...well, I'll let CNN tell you the rest.

"Senate Republicans promised Wednesday to block legislative action on every issue being considered by the lame-duck Congress until the dispute over extending the Bush-era tax cuts is resolved and an extension of current government funding is approved.

"All 42 Senate Republicans signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, vowing to prevent a vote on 'any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase that is currently awaiting all American taxpayers.'

"'With little time left in this congressional session, legislative scheduling should be focused on these critical priorities. While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate's attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike,' the letter said."

And you can read the rest. Look, there are two big problems with this. First, there are, in fact, pressing matters that might, rather sooner than "ultimately," be "worthy of the Senate's attention." Among those matters are "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bans people from serving their country as soldiers for the sole reason that they're gay; a plan to give illegal immigrants citizenship if they join the military or get into college; and oh yeah, a food safety bill. Hey, good luck, burger fans! Daddy Warbucks needs a new pair of silverback gorilla fur shoes!

But the much bigger problem is this idea that somehow, preserving the Bush tax cuts will create jobs. They haven't yet, so why would they magically do so now?

I'm going to do something I try never to do here, which is speak in generalities. One of my core philosophical beliefs is that all generalities are wrong (cough, cough). But I also have to hand it to the GOP: Republicans are really good at talking to undecided, mostly uninformed voters in sweeping over-generalizations that look good on bumper stickers. Remember "Death Panels?" The Democrats have tried it, too, but halfheartedly and with minimal success. I'm thinking of Representative Alan Grayson, who was lambasted for saying, "The Republican health care plan for America: Don't get sick....If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly." The only significant difference here is that Grayson's over-generalization was only mostly accurate, while the phrase "Death Panels" was accurate to the extent that there will be some sort of panels.

Anyway, here's a sweeping, demonstrably untrue oversimplification: Rich people want to keep their money. Here's another: And that doesn't leave any for you. Look, I realize there are exceptions to this statement. I saw four of them (Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, and Bill and Melinda Gates) being touted for their generosity on CNN this weekend. I imagine Turner's ownership of CNN was somehow relevant, but perhaps that's just cynical. On the other hand, surely they were being congratulated because their generous contributions of billions of dollars make them the exception that proves the rule? Also worth noting is the fact that after those generous donations were made, they still had billions of dollars. Ted Turner laments the fact that he lost eight billion dollars in the recession, which elicited quite a bit of sympathy in me until I discovered that he now has a mere two billion left. Gosh, I hope his kids will eat.

See, what amazes me is how blatant the GOP gets to be in this country. It makes no secret whatsoever of its goal to retain all the wealth. At no point do Republican leaders offer more than lip service to the idea of their elite constituents (dare I say "bosses") sharing their vast wealth with you; rather, they denounce such Christian sharing as--and I hate to lower this conversation with the newest American swear word--"socialist." If only we could erase all the vestiges of socialism in this country! Oh, but wait, that would actually cost us forty-hour workweeks, snail mail, and our volunteer military.

When people think about the economy and how to fix it, they seem to labor under an understandable misconception. We think of our boss as a bit richer than us, his boss a bit wealthier than him, and so on. We forget this isn't Mom and Pop's Grocery World anymore. This is the twentieth-century corporatocracy, where CEOs are paid outrageous multiples of their bottom-tier employees' salaries. My boss at Warner Bros. made something like thirty times my salary, and he wasn't even a CEO. I know he believes he deserves his stratospheric wages by virtue of working harder and knowing more. Fine. Except we arrived at work the same time each day, and we left at the same time, and while he does know more than me it's largely by virtue of experience he gained working in his daddy's theater chain. In point of fact, only about thirty percent of folks on the Forbes 400 list are truly self-made. True wealth is usually inherited rather than earned. So here we have men--almost all men, in fact, a point for another day--who were born on third base but laugh at us for an occasional walk onto first.

For several years now, a third of the country's money has been in the hands of a single percent of its citizens. More disturbingly, the least wealthy ninety percent of Americans own less than thirty percent of all its wealth.

Consider the following graph:

That's the distribution of income in America by percentile for the year 2005. Notice the median income, the average American pay for a year, is somewhere around $50,000. Notice also that both pre- and post-tax data are provided. If we look closely at the graph, we notice that the horizontal axis is somewhat deceptive. It doesn't move smoothly from increment to increment. Rather, it bunches eighty percent of us together, than starts breaking us down by five percent, then one. Even so, there's one hell of a spike around the ninety-ninth percentile. Even after taxes, the orange bar representing that top percentile of Americans outmasses all the other bars put together. The ninety-ninth percentile starts at $250,000 a year, but it doesn't stop there. There are only about a hundred billionaires in America, but those hundred people make more money between them than hundreds of millions of the rest of us put together. It isn't fair. So here's my next sweeping generalization:

You are outvoted, and to a depressingly large extent owned, by the rich.

For one thing, you're in debt to corporations owned by the rich. The average American is $11,000 in debt to credit cards alone. Ask yourself how much help the Bush tax cuts have been with that. This is also the argument against blowhards who say, "I have to balance my budget, so why shouldn't the government?" You don't balance your budget, meathead. You owe on your credit cards and your house and your car and your kids' education, and you do so because you're gambling on a better tomorrow. Guess who decides the outcome of that roulette wheel? Hint: It isn't you or me or the poorest ninety percent of us. Does that help narrow it down?

By the way, the Obama administration plans to repeal the tax cuts only for that top percentile, and that's if the Democrats don't fold under pressure, which they almost always do. But if we only correct the tax rate on that single wealthiest percentile of Americans, meaning people who make a quarter of a million dollars a year and up, well, their rates will indeed go up by...less than five percent.

Now. The next time some GOP politician or commentator tries to tell you we need to "get off the backs" of people making $250,000 a year, please remind him that no one makes a ladder high enough to reach those backs. An income of $250,000 a year, let alone anything higher, is five times higher than the average income in America. I've actually heard people claiming "a million dollars isn't that much in America anymore." Really? Then give it to me. I'll do my best to get by on it.

So who's working for you, America? Who's looking out for you and your family? Follow the money. Then you tell me.

I said at the beginning I don't discuss politics as often as I might because I don't want to argue about it with those who feel duty-bound to contradict me. Well, this is one of the few times I don't want to debate you in comments. Please don't tell me to be nicer to rich people. Seriously. I doubt you're even in that top percentile, and if you are, then I'd happily trade problems with you in a New York nanosecond, and you know that. So if you disagree with me on this one, then the truth is I'll have to believe you're just a pretty lousy person. And I don't want that.

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Beyond the Deepwater Abyss

Note: This is the first draft of an essay for The Weekly Volcano. It's right at three thousand words, too long to be published there as is. I'm posting it here, though, by permission of editor Matt Driscoll (thanks, Matt) because I like everything in it, and I hope you'll have time to read it before such time as he runs it in its abbreviated form.

"There's an old saying in Tennessee--I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee--that says: Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me...You can't get fooled again."--President George W. Bush, 17 September 2002

This is an op-ed piece. It is not the news. You already know the news. As I write this, we're over two months into an ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, precipitated by an industrial explosion that killed eleven workers and wounded seventeen others. Numerous attempts to cap the broken oil line at the wellhead a mile below have failed, and we're still a month away from the completion of relief wells that’ll probably terminate the flow.

We've known for some time that running our country on fossil fuels invites clear and present danger. The question is how big an oil spill we’d need to get our attention. It turns out a spill in the Gulf of Mexico is incredibly difficult and expensive to cap, and its repercussions are devastating in both immediate and enduring timeframes. Thousands of endangered birds and turtles drown in sludge. Tens of thousands of barrels flood the Gulf each day, and chemical dispersants are ineffective and damaging in their own right. Costs for containment alone cross a hundred million dollars, but that won't begin to pay for ecological repairs or the economic damage to fishing communities. By the time the spill is fully repaired, a hundred and forty million gallons of oil will have escaped into America's favorite fishing hole. It's an ecological nightmare scenario that plays out over an entire summer. Surely that's enough to convince us to take immediate, meaningful, sustainable action, right?

Except it isn’t. We know because it didn't. Here's the punch line: That paragraph wasn't about the Deepwater Horizon spill. It was about the Ixtoc-1 spill, which occurred in the Gulf's Bay of Campeche thirty-one years ago. It began on 3 June 1979 and released an average of twenty thousand barrels a day until it was finally capped 23 March 1980. That’s no secret. People watched it play out on the news over dinner, night after horrible night, till the story lost its sex appeal and everyone simply forgot about it. I chose the Bush epigraph above not to mock him, but to say we were, in fact, fooled again. The BP spill is our "again." Surely we won't need a third cataclysm to impel us, at long last, to take serious action?

It amazes me that after two months, we still have politicians and commentators scrabbling for anyone to blame who isn't British Petroleum. Let's be clear: The Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire of 20 April--two days before Earth Day, sadly--did not come as a surprise to every interested party. Granted, the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service was satisfied by a 2009 BP report that found it "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur." If such a spill did occur, according to the BP report, some oil might reach shorelines, but "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected." That's good enough for us, said the federal watchdog agency. When the Deepwater well exploded fourteen months later, four executives from BP and Transocean (the contracting company that owned the Deepwater Horizon offshore platform) were on board to celebrate their fine safety standards. But warning signs had been noted on a daily basis, and BP staffers communicated those warning signs clearly by email. The writing on the wall had been so undeniable that when the drill column blew that tragic day, Transocean installation manager Jimmy Harrell screamed, "Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig's on fire! I told you this was gonna happen!"

If British Petroleum was deplorable for its sloppy, dishonest safety protocols, it was downright damnable for its attempts to hide the extent of the spill. On the day of the explosion, BP announced the well was leaking a "mere" thousand barrels a day. A barrel of oil contains forty-two gallons. Three weeks later, BP acknowledged there may be as many as five thousand barrels escaping per day, but insisted there was no way of judging for sure. Well, there is a way of judging for sure. It's a branch of math called particle image velocimetry; and when Purdue engineering professor Steven Wereley ran the numbers, they added up to sixty thousand barrels a day. At this rate, physicist Eugene Chiang calculated, we'd be looking at an Exxon Valdez disaster each week--maybe two or three. BP officials said those numbers were ridiculous: They were based on erroneous data. The mathematicians objected they used BP data for many of those calculations. On 27 May, the experts agreed which data to use; and thankfully, the spill was downgraded to fifteen thousand barrels a day. Those same experts doubled that number two weeks later. At time of writing, their best estimates are back up to sixty thousand gallons a day. That’s over two and a half million gallons of oil each day, seventy-six million gallons a month, for at least four full months. And while relief wells almost certainly will bring the spill to an end, David Rensink, the president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, says it’s a trial-and-error process and that the odds of success on the first attempt are “virtually nil.”

In a Senate subcommittee hearing, BP chairman Lamar Mackay was asked if his company lowballed those estimates in an attempt to minimize losses. Mackay said he didn't know; and besides, it didn't matter because BP was committed to paying for the spill, no matter how high its price tag. Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Representative who asked him that question, noted later that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 does mandate fines based on volume of oil spilled, a fact Mackay knew all too well. "I think they were hoping they could fix it before they would be forced to allow the world to measure it," he mused.

How toxic is oil, anyway? A single part per million is toxic to wildlife, and one gallon of oil can cover four acres of ocean surface. That's bad enough, but BP insisted on using the chemical dispersant Corexit, which many experts believe is more toxic than oil alone. It's deeply hazardous to wildlife, and if we believe numerous reports from Gulf cleanup workers (and responders to the Exxon Valdez spill of ’89), it makes humans sick, too. It causes nausea and fainting in the short term, kidney and liver damage if allowed to accumulate. BP rejected the use of safer compounds because the company "does not have a stockpile of the other dispersants...and the manufacturers tell us that they cannot produce the requested volume for 10 to 14 days or more." The cleanup, of course, will take much longer than fourteen days, but BP stands by Corexit for the whole job, even after clear EPA demands. Why? This is probably a coincidence, but Corexit is manufactured by Nalco Holding Company. Rodney Chase, a board member at NHC, is also on the board of British Petroleum, and BP bought NHC's entire inventory of Corexit in early May. NHC's stock rose sharply as a result. As dangerous as Corexit is to animals and humans in the Gulf, we can only guess at its long-term effects--because some chemists believe it’ll return in the form of "toxic rain" throughout North America.

Almost immediately after the spill began, commentators on both the right (Rush Limbaugh, e.g.) and the left (Harry Shearer) characterized it as "Obama's Katrina." Some believe the administration's response was slow and/or ineffective. I believe its logistical response was the best we could rationally expect given the fact that Obama is not President Gandalf. His political response, on the other hand, may have been poor; he's a calm, measured, intellectual speaker, but in crises most Americans seem to prefer the monosyllabic slogans of a Michael Bay action hero. Either way, this is not Obama's Katrina, as the disaster isn't a hurricane or even an insufficient levee designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It's an oil company screw-up. No reasonable person expects the federal government to keep equipment on hand to repair every possible industrial disaster, nor do we expect the president to be a petroleum engineer or the headmaster of Hogwarts. We have, however, given him the power to impose his (our) will on BP's North American operations, courtesy of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Thus far, no one seems to agree what the exact course of action should be, though, other than to "fix it!" and "make the oil go away!" And that, of course, is much easier said than done.

The Deepwater Horizon spill is not Obama's Katrina; it's his 9/11. Remember the mood of the country on 12 September 2001? We were angry beyond words--even customary peaceniks like me wanted the heads of the guilty set on pikes in Times Square--but we were also united. We knew al Qaeda was responsible. We knew we had to rally behind our leader, even if that leader couldn't express a common aphorism. We set political differences aside in pursuit of one necessary cause. Polls have shown the American people are similarly united with regard to the Gulf spill. A USA Today poll found almost three out of four Americans hold BP primarily responsible for the spill and its repercussions (though slightly more than half of us place secondary blame on the president). So we’re angry, we know whom to blame first, and we’re ready to do something about it--but what? Both the USA Today poll and an ABC News/Washington Post poll suggest we've reached a tipping point with regard to our view of fossil fuels; for the first time, a majority of respondents said they support reducing domestic oil production in favor of alternative energy sources.

We get it, folks. We do. So why have a growing number of Republicans rejected the memo? Representative Joe Barton--the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, by the way--notoriously apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for an Obama-mandated twenty billion dollar compensation fund for victims of BP's mess, calling it "a shakedown." Should we be surprised to learn Representative Barton received almost one and a half million dollars in campaign contributions from the oil industry since 1999? Barton later apologized under pressure from GOP, but only for "misconstrued misconstruction." In other words, he's sorry we didn't understand what he meant by, "I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a twenty billion dollar shakedown." We were confused by his vague sentiment. Silly us, we thought he felt sorry for BP. Incidentally, Joe Barton was a consultant to Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Co. in the early 1980s--but again, that's probably just a coincidence.

Representative Barton isn't alone in siding with British Petroleum against the American people. Representative Steve King said, "I think Joe Barton was spot-on when he called it a shakedown." Representative Michele Bachmann said Obama was using the fund as a "permanent ATM card"--"a redistribution of wealth." Rush Limbaugh called it "extortion." Representative Tom Price said, "These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration’s drive for greater power and control." Granted, no less a liberal pinko than Bill O'Reilly argued vehemently against these BP apologists. But Randy Brogdon, currently running for governor of Oklahoma, made it unmistakably clear why he's against our government imposing penalties on British Petroleum: "This is a perfect example of why government should never be involved in the public sector...Government is not the solution. It's the problem. The more government tries to get in and regulate the free market, the worse things become."

We didn't misconstrue Joe Barton. He expressed himself perfectly and meant every word. Congressman Barton and others on the right believe the government should never intrude on the freedom of any business to do exactly what it wants, even if it jeopardizes public security. I disagree, most disrespectfully. I believe freedom is a concept that must be applied only to a feeling entity. Yes, an animal may have freedom. People can and should receive freedom, assuming they’ve earned it. A corporation is not a person, however; nor is it a feeling entity, though the people who run it may well be. In Jaws, the Richard Dreyfuss character, Hooper, describes a Great White thusly: "[W]hat we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine...All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all." Like Dr. Lecter, I quote Marcus Aurelius: "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" A corporation is a machine that hunts for profit, and that's all. It has no intrinsic conscience or compassion. We therefore require our government to keep the predatory nature of corporations from impinging on individual freedoms and "the general welfare." When government fails to impose the interests of The People on big business, we all suffer. Animals suffer. The environment suffers. And when any politician, conservative or liberal, argues for total deregulation of the "free market," he or she ignores both the stated intent of that machine and that it is not a feeling entity, automatically guaranteed freedom.

So what can we do? What power, ultimately, do private citizens possess in an environmental disaster perpetrated by a global megacorp? Sarah Palin, among many others, threw her folded hands in the air and suggested we pray for "divine intervention." In other words, she's banking on a miracle. Bless her heart. I have two responses: First, we should keep careful watch on Ms. Palin's influence on the Big Man Upstairs; if she has any, we could use her back in office immediamente. Second, I believe we can do something more directly pragmatic.

We do, after all, bear some measure of culpability here. If the Obama administration failed to monitor Big Oil sufficiently, we did, too. Every president since Richard Nixon has expressed the need for greater investment in alternative energy sources. Did we listen? Did we care? Now that we care, how should we respond? It's foolish to argue for the demonization of Big Oil in toto. Over nine million Americans work for the oil and natural gas industries. Bill Maher compared those nine million people to workers in the "kiddie porn" business. That's low, unfair and misguided. Yet we can and should insist the fossil fuel business regulate itself more carefully, prepare sufficiently for cataclysmic blunders, invest in alternative energy R&D, and help guide the country into an era devoted to non-petroleum energy sources. How do we insist? We use the only voice big business can hear: our collective wallet. I sincerely doubt British Petroleum is the only unethical member of the oil industry, but it is the one currently spilling millions of gallons of oil into our Gulf, so start there: I ask you to join me and thousands of others in an indefinite boycott of British Petroleum and its subsidiary companies, including Amoco, Arco, Castrol, ampm convenience stores, and the gas pumps in Safeway parking lots.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP hurts the "small business owner" who runs, for example, an Arco gas station, but BP is not a small business. Even now it has an enterprise value of over a hundred and twenty billion dollars. Y’know who is a small business, though? The owner of a shrimp boat in Venice, Louisiana. Teaching ethics to corporations requires the strategic application and withdrawal of money. Pleading alone won't do the job. BP can, however, end our boycott quickly by making significant changes in the way the company does business, thus supporting its franchise managers.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP is like setting one’s house on fire because a mouse ran behind the refrigerator. Yeah, we’re overreacting. That sounds reasonable.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP will have no appreciable impact on BP's bottom line. That is true. It will, however, inspire ongoing negative press about the company, which will crater its stock sales. British Petroleum's stock price has already fallen about forty percent in the wake of its assault on the Gulf.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP is an attack on the free market capitalist economy. This would be true only if "free market" meant a company could only increase profits. We capitalists have the right, nay, the freedom to discontinue patronizing an unethical business. Indeed, it's the only real check on such companies individuals wield, which makes it something of a responsibility.

Some will snort that we're all liberal wack jobs who want to stick it to business, any business, just for the "sin" of its success. Well, BP has been nothing if not successful. In the first quarter of 2010, even as those much-denied oil plumes billowed, BP was earning about sixty-six million dollars a day in pure profit. That's your money. Any further money we give BP makes us complicit in the single most catastrophic environmental disaster ever witnessed in American history. It’s a moral abyss, a deepwater event horizon.

Finally, in a last-ditch effort, some will claim, sobbing insincere tears, that a boycott of BP "hurts America." That's true only if the two hundred million dollars BP spent last year to convince us its first letter stands for "Beyond" rather than "British" worked. If America represents some irresponsible, mendacious, multinational conglomerate over the natural beauty of the Gulf or its hardworking residents, then what the hell are we even doing? Why the hell are we trying?

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