The Pandemic, Time, and Not Letting the Moments Go

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SARASOTA, Fla. — The Lyft driver pulled up to the curb at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport early in the afternoon on a late September day. I’d only been standing there for a couple of minutes, and my shirt already clung to me in the Florida heat. I threw my bags in ahead of me, and piled into the backseat, where I was hit by an arctic blast of air conditioning.

“What brings you here?” Will, my driver, asked. He was a wiry, well-tanned man, probably somewhere in his 70s. And like every ride-share driver, he was chatty. Really chatty. But after nine hours of travel that had started at 4 a.m. that morning, several hours of masked confinement on a pair of flights, and one seemingly interminable layover, I didn’t really mind.

I was down there to visit my mother, who’s lived alone in Sarasota for the past decade since my father died. It was my visit since before the start of the pandemic. You always figure there’s going to be plenty of time, until there isn’t. It was a trip that was equal parts vacation, long overdue catch-up, and a tag-up with the roots I never knew I’d planted in southwestern Florida.

The reunion was all that you might have expected it to be. Hugs. Laughter. Some tears. And because I’m Italian on my mother’s side — don’t let the Slavic surname fool you, I consider myself more Italian than anything else — plenty of food, and no small amount of wine. Now well into her 80s, my mom’s as sharp as ever. And she can still talk the legs off of a donkey. I’m not sure which one of us finally called time. But I’m almost certain it was me.

Conversations with people into their ninth decade are, necessarily, more retrospective than they are prospective. Yes, she asked about work. Yes, she asked about my wife and daughter. But we talked more about our shared topography: parenthood, her childhood and young adulthood, my childhood and young adulthood. Much of it was gauzy and nostalgic. But behind it all, there was the sense that there was a clock ticking, inexorably.

In the afternoons, with the Florida skies threatening, and often delivering, on rain before breaking into a lemonade yellow sun that inflicted a sunburn that slowly mellowed to a tan, I took long drives around Sarasota.

There were a new pair of traffic circles along Main Street, a surviving piece of Old Florida, dotted with restaurants, boutiques and book stores. More than a few were new since my last trip. Some storefronts were dark and empty, victims of the pandemic-mandated shutdowns last year. But even at 2 p.m. on a weekday, the street hummed with life. I pulled into a parking space and paid at a kiosk — also new — and left a couple hours with some books under my arm.

The day before I left, I drove out of downtown, across the John Ringling Causeway, which stretches over a sparkling expanse of Sarasota Bay, and into St. Armands Key, a plush neighborhood of wildly expensive shops, restaurants of varying degrees of affordability, and implausibly large homes.

St. Armands was the first neighborhood I visited with my Dad when he and my mom moved down from Connecticut. It was my first Christmas with palm trees. We swam in the Gulf, and had lunch and beers at a now-shuttered local bar. An hour later, I was planted at the bar at one restaurant where we’d always had Cuban sandwiches. The memories came fast and furious. The years were blur. The sandwiches were every bit as good as I remembered.

Before I left, I walked up to the beach one more time. I left my sneakers on the sand and ventured out into the bathtub warm waters of the Gulf, the waves churned up by the recent heavy weather, slapped at the bottom of my shorts. This tag up with family, and the reminder of my ties to this very strange state, reminded me that, if there has been one good to come from the pandemic, it’s that it’s reinforced the importance of not wasting a moment, of maximizing every second with the people you love, because you don’t know how long you’re going to have them.

I walked deeper into the surf. The ocean water soaking me now. I didn’t care.

“What brings you here?” Will, the Lyft driver, had asked me six days earlier. It’s the pressing question we’re all called to answer.

Standing in the Gulf, the sun warm on my back, wrapped in memories and family. I had all the answer I needed.

Don’t let the moments go.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Republicans are the Clowns in the Debt Ceiling Circus

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It’s way past political cliche, but that old “Popeye” comic strip where J. Wellington Wimpy promises to pay a short-order cook tomorrow for a hamburger he plans to eat today, is still the best way to describe Republican intransigence this week over a vote to extend the nation’s debt ceiling.

In case you missed it, on Monday, Republicans in the narrowly divided U.S. Senate voted to block the approval of new borrowing intended to pay for old debt that they’re complicit in racking up.

While entirely unsurprising, the GOP’s united front on the debt ceiling is the most transparent kind of political cynicism.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans are pressing Senate Democrats to use the fast-track process known as reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling without GOP votes. That’s the same process the Democrats want to use to bypass the GOP to pass the Democratic Biden administration’s sprawling domestic agenda.

With the Senate deadlocked at 50-50, and a midterm election looming, Republicans want to make Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his fellow Democrats look as bad as possible as they look to recapture control of the 100-member chamber.

“There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy, so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism as fast as possible,” McConnell said Tuesday as another attempt to raise the debt ceiling flopped,.

But, and this is an important but, the inescapable reality here is that McConnell and the GOP are responsible for the spending that’s led to the current standoff, and they’re working as hard as they can to evade responsibility for it. That’s some galactic dissonance for a party that’s tried to portray itself as a champion of fiscal responsibility.

And even that doesn’t hold up under even casual scrutiny.

These are the same Republicans, after all, who voted for the former Trump administration’s deficit-exploding tax cut for the wealthy. And they are the same Republicans who voted for a two-year extension of the debt ceiling in 2019, according to Politico. And that monster bill boosted federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars.

After Monday’s failed vote, Schumer correctly blamed Republicans, accusing them of “playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States,” Olson reported.

“The Republican Party has solidified itself as the party of default, and it will be the American people who pay the price,” Schumer added.

Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Greg Sargent noted that Democrats could use the budget reconciliation process to get rid of the debt limit, first imposed during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson as a way to fund the nation’s entrance into World War I. Back then, the debt ceiling was capped at a relatively quaint $15 billion, according to NPR.

There’s a certain beauty to that plan. But it would require Democrats to do something they are supernaturally bad at doing: Actually using the power that comes with controlling the White House and both chambers of the legislative branch, and playing the kind of hardball it takes to get stuff done.

You can say this much for the Republicans. They might not run the White House or the U.S House, but they routinely roll right over Democrats as if they do.

The Democrats should get rid of both the debt ceiling and the filibuster – thus ending the paralysis in an already broken U.S. Senate – and do the work the voters elected them to do. You can bet Republicans would do the same if they were in charge.

It’s time to take the wheels off the GOP’s clown car before it runs the nation permanently into the ditch.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Senate Candidates Bash Big Tech While Owning Their Stock

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When it comes to how he feels about big tech, Jeff Bartos didn’t mince his words.

“From shadow-banning conservatives, censoring content online, biased fact-checking, and now funneling millions of dollars into our elections it’s become clearer than ever: Big Tech must be reined in,” Bartos, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, wrote on Twitter on July 1.

But even as the suburban Philadelphia businessman parroted a popular Republican talking point, he and his wife also were enjoying the financial benefits that come with investing in such big tech titans as Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, and Apple.

Financial disclosure forms that Bartos filed with the U.S. Senate as a requirement for his bid for the GOP nomination in 2022, show that he and his wife jointly and individually hold hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock in the Silicon Valley giants.

Bartos isn’t alone. Disclosure forms filed by Val Arkoosh, who’s Bartos’ neighbor in heavily Democratic Montgomery County, who’s also running, similarly show individual and joint investments in Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft that run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Arkoosh also serves on Montgomery County’s Board of Commissioners.

As they head into the thick of one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate contests in the country, the filings underline the tightrope that the hopefuls walk as they talk tough on the outsized influence of big tech, but also see their wealth enlarged by their sizable investments.

Both are part of a large field of Republican and Democratic candidates vying to replace Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring in 2022.

In a wide-ranging interview, Bartos kept up his drumbeat of criticism, even as he defended his investments.

“If anything, it proves I’m not afraid to state my convictions, even if it’s against my financial interests,” he said. “I can advocate for policies that I think are right. As a shareholder, who owns stock, I believe that the company needs to change for the better.” He added that it’s the “responsibility,” and the “duty” of shareholders to lodge such criticisms.

Bartos, who accused social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook of “behaving like Democratic super PACs” for what he believes are unreasonable restraints on speech by conservatives, says he’d support “looking at anti-trust action if these companies don’t take a hard look at what they’re doing and change” their policies.

It’s a familiar grievance. Republican state lawmakers across the country, including Pennsylvania, began pushing legislation that would punish social media companies for policing content on their websites, the Associated Press reported.

The efforts began surfacing not long after former President Donald Trump was banished from Twitter and Facebook for spreading baseless claims of election fraud on the platforms.

Arkoosh, whose campaign declined an interview request, said through a spokesperson that she “believes members of Congress owning or trading stocks is a conflict of interest.”

Arkoosh “supports legislation to bar members of Congress from owning and trading stocks, and if elected, would put her eligible assets into a blind trust.” the spokesperson, Rachel Petri, said in an emailed statement.

And while they’re on opposite sides of the aisle, Arkoosh’s and Bartos’ respective criticisms of Big Tech mirror national trends that have Republicans and Democrats uniting on an issue at a time where bipartisan agreement on most issues is elusive at best and impossible at worst.

In June, for instance, a bipartisan cadre of lawmakers on Capitol Hill rolled out a package of antitrust bills. That spirit of bipartisanship has not prevented the issue from being politicized in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

In a statement, Brad Bainum, a spokesman for the progressive super PAC American Bridge, said it was “classic politician behavior for ‘anti-Big Tech’ Jeff Bartos to own hundreds of thousands in tech company stocks.

“If he somehow manages to get out of this messy GOP primary, it’s clear Bartos can’t be trusted to represent Pennsylvania families in Washington,” Bainum said.

But with most Americans harboring the same skepticism, even as they, too, pad their retirement portfolios with Big Tech stocks, one veteran observer said he doubts the average voter will share in that outrage.

“Even though you own stock in Alphabet, you can still say Google should be reined in because it’s anti-competitive,” Republican consultant Christopher Nicholas said. “Or there’s Amazon, which is on both sides of the equation. [Political journalists] will notice, but Mr. and Mrs. Pennsylvania will not be overly concerned about it.”

That appears to be what Bartos is banking on as he heads into a competitive campaign season.

“The reality is that as [voters] parse through stuff, [they will] understand it through the lens of common sense,” he said.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Everything We Know About Work is Wrong. The Pandemic Proved It.

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So what can the plight of a little cafe tell you about the state of the American economy and the changing face of work? A lot, as it turns out.

The other week, the bistro where my family and I have been grabbing brunch every Sunday since the start of the pandemic announced that it would be shuttering on weekends, and shifting to a more limited, weekday schedule. The reason was a familiar one: The owner couldn’t find the staff they needed to both function effectively and to keep themselves and their current staff from being ground into dust from the punishing pace.

The news was heartbreaking, if entirely unsurprising. Employers across the nation are struggling with a labor shortage so profound that one Alabama pizzeria vowed to hire “literally anyone” just to keep the doors open, according to Business Insider.

Business leaders have falsely blamed the crisis on generous pandemic unemployment benefits, arguing that they’re a disincentive to return to the labor force. Study after study has proven this is not the case. Instead, more seismic forces are at work.

In April of this year, a staggering 4 million people quit their jobs, in a phenomenon that’s come to be called “The Great Resignation,” Vox reported.

It’s not that people don’t want to work, but rather it’s that, after an earth-shattering 16 months that have seen hundreds of thousands of our family members, friends, and neighbors die at the hands of an implacable and indiscriminate foe, there’s just a genuine question of whether grinding it out for 4o hours a week at a job with substandard pay, low benefits, and little work-home balance is really worth it.

Increasingly, the answer is a resounding “No.”

Hospitality and leisure workers, who staff restaurants, bars, and hotels, and who had to bear the brunt of pandemic-induced rage for low wages and little dignity, are leading that exodus. In April, the sector lost more than 740,000 people.

In the midst of the pandemic, workers across industries discovered something: When they weren’t tethered to desks or jobs, there was time for something miraculous: Family and community, the hobby they’d been putting off learning, the time to retrain and search for new, and more fulfilling, work.

Admittedly, not everyone had this luxury, working parents had to scramble to find child care, or balance the demands of remote work against acting as their children’s homeroom teacher.

The shift was particularly hard for low-income workers. Frontline workers didn’t have the luxury of stepping back at all.

Even so, “We have changed. Work has changed. The way we think about time and space has changed,” Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley told NPR. Having been given time and space and flexibility by the pandemic, workers now crave and demand it, she told NPR.

And then, something else happened, because of unprecedented, direct payments from the federal government — as much as $3,200 each — the number of Americans in poverty began to fall, according to Vox, from 12.8 percent in 2018 to 8.5 percent. That’s based on projections that researchers at Columbia University made in March.

Separate research by the Urban Institute, also cited by Vox, projected that 2021 poverty will be about 7 percent, nearly cutting the 2018 rate in half.

The Biden White House’s child tax credit program, monthly payments of up to $300 per child to American families, is similarly expected to lift millions of children out of poverty. Republicans argue against such largess, saying it perpetuates the welfare state.

It is hard to deny the bottom line reality: When you give people money, they are less poor, happier, and more likely to inject that money back into the economy. In fact, economists expect economic growth of about 7 percent this year, and 4.9 percent, in 2022, fueled by the stimulus and vaccines, Reuters reported.

Good policy choices drive down poverty. And American workers, by now accustomed to the flexibility of the post-pandemic economy, and the regular flow of stimulus checks, are unlikely to want to backtrack on that.

But it can’t end there. To help both employers and workers, Washington and Harrisburg need to step up and do a couple of things.

One of them is finally making the wealthiest Americans, who grew even richer during the pandemic, pay their fair share.

Earlier this week, new research by a coalition of Pennsylvania advocates showed that that if a wealth tax proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren had been in effect in 2020, “the nation’s billionaires alone would have paid $114 billion for that year—and would pay an estimated combined total of $1.4 trillion over 10 years.”

That would pay for roughly half the $3.5 trillion budget resolution backed by the Biden administration that would dramatically remake the post-pandemic economy. Approving it would pay for child care and a host of other programs that would enable Americans to go back to work in a sustainable and healthy way.

We also need to stop tying health coverage and other benefits to employment. The United States stands nearly alone in tying health coverage and other key benefits to work.

The pandemic proved that everything we know about work is wrong. And there’s no stepping back from it now.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Our Endless COVID Summer

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It all kind of piled up this week.

COVID hospitalizations and deaths are up. We’re still trying to convince the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, even as intensive care units fill beyond capacity. As the Delta variant attacks our children, Florida’s governor threatens the withhold the wages of educators who want to protect the lives of young people in their charge.

People are still shopping baseless claims of election fraud, and are actively working to knock the legs out from under American democracy. And, as an added bonus, an earth-shattering new report reinforces the reality that the world is literally on fire.

It’s … a lot.

Surveying a landscape of denial on the basic realities of public health (vaccines and masks prevent illness) and science (people contribute to climate change, and are in a position to mitigate it), you ask yourself what you can do to sway the opinions of so many people who are so clearly dug in, and won’t move off those positions, no matter how hard you try to appeal to their better angels or sense of patriotism.

My own rage over seeing the nation dragged backwards in its fight against the pandemic after a summer that began with such promise is palpable. I’m beyond tired of the “I wish I’d gotten the vaccine” stories that have seemingly accompanied every new death. I’ve yelled at the TV after the umpteenth account of a passenger attacking a flight attendant because they refused to wear a mask, or follow some other pandemic protocol designed to keep all of us safe.

So I could have gone on the attack. And the people who agree with me would have applauded. And the people who disagree with me would have filled my email inbox with invective that I can’t repeat here. And nothing would change. And we’d make no progress.

But giving up also isn’t an option. As the ancient Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius reminds us, all you can do is put your head down and do your job. Ultimately, as author Ryan Holiday has translated for him, the obstacle becomes the way. And examples of it are everywhere if you look.

Take, for instance, the Florida school officials who have told Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to bring it with his threat to dock their pay over mask mandates.

“Standing up for our students and our families is part of our job,” said Nora Rupert, a member of the Broward County School Board. “Being afraid that we’re going to lose our job — be removed from office, fined, lose our salary — bring it. Bring it. Because when you put that out there it makes me work harder for our school children and our families.”

This week, in tiny, Republican-controlled Tioga County in rural Pennsylvania, Republican county commissioners told a state lawmaker pushing for an Arizona-style sham investigation of the 2020 election results to take a walk, as they denounced the costly and “unnecessary chaos,” that such a probe would cause.

In Texas, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado spoke for more than 14 hours as she filibustered a Republican-backed voter suppression bill. The bill, which opponents said would suppress voters of color and the disabled, ultimately passed on an 18-11 vote, according to the Texas Tribune.

According to the Tribune, Alvarado, who wore running shoes and a back brace, wasn’t allowed to take bathroom breaks or even a drink of water. Nor was she allowed to sit or lean against her desk on the Senate floor.

But she kept at it. The obstacle became the way.

And those are just the headlines. Think for a moment of all the doctors and nurses who are putting their own health and safety at risk as they treat the unvaccinated, who have urged us time and again, to get vaccinated so we wouldn’t reach the crisis stage in which we currently find ourselves.

Again.

A year or so back, at the height of the pandemic, I wrote that there was no greater failure in the warrior state of ancient Sparta than to drop your shield. That’s not because it not only protected you, it also protected the hoplite marching into battle next to you. It was about protecting the whole line.

Those healthcare workers. The educators in Florida. The county commissioners in rural Pennsylvania. They’re protecting the whole line. Even if you don’t agree with them or their choices, there’s no disputing that they’ve put responsibility to the whole above responsibility to themselves.

They’ve recognized that the obstacle is the way.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Could the Golden Rule Sway Some Vaccine Skeptics?

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Could invoking the Golden Rule be enough to induce vaccine-skeptical people of faith to finally get their COVID-19 jab? According to some new polling data, that may well be the case.

A recent poll of 5,123 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that nearly four in 10 vaccine-hesitant Americans (38 percent) who attend religious services at least a few times a year said that one or more faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated.

And, as it turns out, when you tell people that getting vaccinated allows them to live out one of the core tenets of Christianity – loving their neighbor as themselves– the message tends to resonate.

And it resonates across all faith and demographic groups.

For instance, four in 10 vaccinated Hispanic protestants and three in 10 vaccinated Black protestants were more likely to say that one or more faith-based approaches convinced them to get their jab, the poll found.

And more than three in 10 (31 percent) of vaccine-hesitant white Catholics told pollsters that a faith-based approach could encourage them to get vaccinated, up from 15 percent earlier in the year, the poll found.

Specifically, more than two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics (67 percent) saw getting vaccinated as an example of loving their neighbor, up from 55 percent in a similar March poll. More than six in 10 Hispanic protestants (61 percent) answered the same way, up from 49 percent in March.

A clear majority of white mainline protestants and white Catholics (58 percent each, respectively) also answered the same way, according to the poll. Fifty-six percent of Black protestants also went for the Golden Rule argument.

With the delta variant of the virus surging across the country, and hospitalizations similarly increasing from West Virginia and Tennessee to Minnesota, reaching that stubborn constituency of Americans who still have not been vaccinated is more urgent than ever.

Support for that Golden Rule argument actually dipped among white evangelical protestants, going from 46 percent in March to 43 percent in June. That constituency, where there’s an intersection of both conservative theology and more worldly Republican opposition to vaccines, has been harder to reach.

In fact, nearly a quarter of that group say they don’t want the shot at all, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing a new study.

Encouragingly, Hispanic Catholics made the largest gains in vaccine acceptance, rising from 56 percent in March to 80 percent in June. Nearly eight in 10 white Catholics (79 percent) also are acceptors, up from 68 percent in March, the poll found.

“As religious leaders work to build community trust in the COVID-19 vaccine, they should simultaneously provide services that help eliminate barriers so that all willing populations are receiving vaccinations,” PRRI CEO and founder Robert P. Jones said in a statement.

Overall, the poll shows that vaccine hesitancy has decreased among all Americans, but substantial barriers to getting the jab, notably, time constraints, access to reliable transportation, and childcare, have posed barriers.

And those obstacles have been the most pronounced among younger Americans and communities of color.

For instance:

– “More than four in ten Hispanic Protestants (44 percent) say that having time to get vaccinated or deal with the possible side effects is a critical reason (22 percent) or one of the reasons (22 percent) they have not gotten vaccinated yet,” the poll found.

– Also, “Hispanic Protestants are most likely to report that lack of childcare is an issue (21 percent), but one in five Black Americans (20 percent) struggle with this as well.

– And “Black Protestants are most likely to report that a health condition is a critical reason (18 percent) or one of the reasons (18 percent) they have not gotten vaccinated. About one-third of Hispanic Protestants (34 percent) also report that health is a critical reason or one of the reasons they have not gotten vaccinated,” the poll further found.

When he’s been out on the stump, President Joe Biden (along with his lieutenants) has pitched getting vaccinated as the selfless, patriotic thing to do.

The new polling data show there’s a role for America’s religious leaders – regardless of sect or creed – to play from the pulpit as well. Churches, as gathering places, also are sources of childcare and other support systems so critical to their communities.

From the time they’re children, most Americans are taught there’s no higher good than loving their neighbor. Doing it, especially now, can be a challenge. And it’s supposed to be that way. But there’s no better time than now to put it into action.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Billionaires Left Earth, But Couldn’t Escape Its Problems

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Billionaire space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have rightfully been taking some flack for sub-orbital jaunts earlier this month that garnered plenty of headlines but little in the way of actual scientific advancement, apart from trying to normalize the idea of routine spaceflight for exceptionally rich people.

With all the power of the rockets that propelled them and their titanic egos into the wild blue yonder, social media went incandescent with criticism, arguing persuasively that Bezos and Branson could have used their money to address a sprawling multitude of problems, from climate change to income inequality, back here on Earth.

“Jeff Bezos is going into space tomorrow. Yesterday, on earth, I saw a man search for food in a trash can,” the critic Charles Preston observed on Twitter.

Warren Gunnels, a top aide to U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, piled on, tartly noting that “class warfare is Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson becoming $250 billion richer during the pandemic, paying a lower tax rate than a nurse and racing to outer space while the planet burns and millions go without healthcare, housing and food.”

Others wryly noted that should Bezos, the former Amazon chief, need to relieve himself while rocketing through the skies, he could always use the same plastic bottles that his drivers have said they use as they try to meet punishing delivery schedules.

Bezos, at least, had the presence of mind to observe that his critics were onto something, conceding that they were “largely right.”

“We have to do both,” he said. “We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those and we also need to look to the future, we’ve always done that as a species and as a civilization. We have to do both.”

On one level, Bezos was right. There always has been a fundamental tension between humankind’s interstellar ambitions, which tend to be massively expensive, and the feeling that money could be better used to ameliorate more terrestrial concerns.

“I am not opposed to climbing mountains because they’re there, or pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but I would urge the Trump Administration to consider putting its scientific efforts into problems closer to home (climate change? Or, say, clean water in Flint?) before our plan to colonize the moon turns into a plan to escape to it.” Ana Marie Cox wrote in 2018 as the former president briefly floated the idea of lunar colonization before the Earth was plunged into the worst public health crisis in a century.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made for the utility of spaceflight of advancing the cause of human knowledge. The digital flight controls pioneered by the Apollo program is “now integral to airliners and is even found in most cars,” according to NASA, which, admittedly, has something to gain by touting the earthbound benefits of space flight.

Writing in Foreign Policy in 2019, Greg Autry reminded readers of the now legendary image of the Earth captured by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968: A big, blue marble looking alone and so very vulnerable in the vast void of space. That photo, dubbed “Earthrise,” has inspired ever since.

“Today conservationists and other critics are more likely to see space programs as militaristic splurges that squander billions of dollars better applied to solving problems on Earth,” Autry wrote. “These well-meaning complaints are misguided, however. Earth’s problems—most urgently, climate change—can be solved only from space. That’s where the tools and data already being used to tackle these issues were forged and where the solutions of the future will be too.”

Knowledge — and money — deployed in the service of the greater good is almost always welcome. And I remain as much an evangelist for the exploration of interstellar space as anyone else. I agree with the premise that there is a mandate to explore — while gleaning the knowledge that comes along with it.

But in the case of the billionaire space race, there was almost no sense that this was, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, one giant step for humankind.

Rather, it was about puffing the egos of spectacularly wealthy men, who despite all the hoopla, never made it that far into space in any event, with negligible scientific benefit.

Bezos and Branson, slipped the surly bonds of earth, as the poet John Gillespie Magee once wrote. But they returned to a planet just as riven by inequality, war, a still raging pandemic, and the crisis of climate change.

I’d suggest that if they were looking, as Magee also wrote, to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves — and their billions — on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Biden Threw Down the Gauntlet in the Battle Over Voting Rights

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It was hard to miss the challenge that President Joe Biden posed to Americans as he burned through a fiery speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia this week.

Led by “bullies and peddlers of lies,” Republicans in Congress and state legislatures around the country are engaged in an historical assault on the right to vote that poses the most serious threat to “the American experiment” since the Civil War.

“Hear me clearly, there is an unfolding assault taking place in America today to subvert the right to vote in free and fair elections. An assault on liberty, an assault on who were are,” Biden said. “Bullies and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country … We’re facing the most significant threat to our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War — the Confederates never breached the Capitol as the insurrectionists did on Jan. 6. I’m not saying this to alarm you, I’m saying it because you should be alarmed.”

And in a sentence, Biden nailed it. You should be alarmed. And if you’re not, you’re either not paying attention, or you’ve bought the myth. And both are equally destructive.

Egged on by the Florida retiree who is still actively perpetuating the myth of the stolen election, Republicans at the state and national level have engaged in a wholesale rewriting of the events of Jan. 6.

They’ve downplayed the carnage of that day and have worked feverishly to block a badly needed comprehensive inquiry of the worst violence in the nation’s capital since the War of 1812.

At the same time, they’ve conducted a systematic attack on access to the ballot box, passing laws and pushing legislation — including in Pennsylvania where Biden spoke — that would deny the franchise to millions of Americans, most of them Black and voters of color.

This isn’t academic. It’s not up for debate. Biden’s speech came on the same day that Democrats fled the Texas Capitol to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to push through a voter suppression bill in the Lone Star State.

And remember — this can’t be said loudly enough — they’re doing it in response to an absolute fiction, one that was put to rest by dozens of state and federal judges, and the U.S. Supreme Court not once, but twice.

“In America, you lose, you accept the results, you follow the Constitution, you try again,” Biden said, inveighing against his predecessor without ever mentioning him by name. “You don’t call facts ‘fake’ and try to bring down the American experiment just because you’re unhappy. That’s not statesmanship, that’s selfishness. That’s not democracy, it’s the denial of the right to vote.”

And that is precisely what is unfolding, in real time.

And the challenge that Biden issued, not only to policymakers and activists, but to all Americans is a real one, and the test of our times: To stand against attacks on voting rights and to work together to rebut the culture of untruths that have sprung up around our what’s been billed as the most secure election in history.

Biden called for the passage of two sweeping pieces of voting rights legislation that have hit a brick wall in the narrowly divided U.S. Senate. The consequences of failing to do so are high, he warned, adding that the world was watching.

“Time and again, we’ve weathered threats to the right to vote, and each time, we’ve overcome. That’s what we must do today,” Biden said.

“We have to ask, are you on the side of truth or lies, fact or fiction, just a true injustice, democracy or autocracy?” he asked. “That’s what it’s coming down to.”

This is the challenge of our times. And we cannot fail to meet it.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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Local Republicans Weaponizing Constitution to Restrict Voting

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When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ran his veto pen across a Republican-authored rewrite of state election law last week that included new voter identification requirements and tighter deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots, Republicans in the General Assembly announced plans to undo the Democratic governor’s handiwork by taking the issue to the voters with a constitutional amendment.

“We have a lame-duck governor, and we’re going to treat him like it,” House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, the bill’s author and legislative shepherd, said. “Maybe the next governor will be more amenable to negotiations.”

This hyper-aggressive legislative parrying of a legitimate exercise of executive authority is just the latest example of a new and worrisome Republican tendency to weaponize the state’s foundational document for short-term political gain.

If left unchecked, it’s a strategy that will rob the amendment process of both its legitimacy and its meaning.

After all, it’s hard to amend the state Constitution for a reason: So that it doesn’t fall prey to short-term whims or shifting political winds.

In Pennsylvania, proposed constitutional amendments have to be approved in identical form in two, consecutive legislative sessions, and then by voters at a statewide referendum.

Governors have no veto power when it comes to proposed constitutional changes.

Which means it will be at least 2023 before any potential amendments appear on the ballot. Wolf will be term-limited out of office in 2022 after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms.

“You should not have to change the constitution very often,” Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, observed. “The U.S. Constitution has been changed for big things: slavery, voting access, but it’s only been done 27 times [in the nation’s history], and 10 of them were done with the Bill of Rights, and that’s why they have gravitas.”

But as was the case with recent voter approval of amendments limiting the emergency authority of Wolf and his successors, a dead-for-now push for judicial gerrymandering, and now with Voter ID which, while publicly popular, already has been ruled unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania court, Republicans are trying to address a short-term setback with a long-term solution that carries with it serious policy consequences and no easily accessible remedy.

That’s because “once [it’s] in the Constitution, it’s time-consuming to get it out,” Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh, said. “What if ID’s become a problem and the GOP wants to prove ID by fingerprint or face ID?—they won’t be able to do so.”

Amendments are “being used strategically by Republicans right now to find ways around the governor’s power,” Borick added. But “… think about changing the rules – why do you change rules in any type of endeavor? It’s for some broader end than just the contemporary moment.”

And as Grove’s comments above clearly demonstrate, the only strategy here is to spite Wolf — regardless of the impact on voters’ rights, especially those of Black and brown voters who disproportionately pay the price for these suppression tactics.

So, instead of going back to the drawing board and coming up with better ideas, or approving legislation without an obvious poison pill, Republicans appear content to snooker voters into approving a solution to a non-existent problem: Voter fraud and voter impersonation.

But from the first stab at gambling legalization in 2004 and the legislative pay raise the following year, to repeated attempts to restrict abortion, and now transgender rights, the halls of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly are littered with bad ideas where the public pays the ultimate price. Those, at least, had the virtue of not being enshrined in the state Constitution.

“This will continue happening until the voters catch on and begin rejecting this as an abuse of the system,” Duquesne’s Ledewitz said. “The framers gave the governor a veto for a reason, not to have every vetoed measure put in the Constitution.”

That’s sound advice, and it would be great if Pennsylvania Republicans would heed it. But if they’ll fall for the Big Lie, there’s no expectation for reason and sanity to prevail here.

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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These Moms Lost Sons to Gun Violence. They Want Help.

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Tina Ford understands the toll of gun violence like few of us ever will. She lives with it every day.

In April 2019, her, son, Armani Ford, a local high school football legend, was shot and killed in his hometown of Clairton, Pa., a steel town in the Monogahela River Valley, just south of Pittsburgh. He was just 23 years old.

In the wake of her son’s death, Ford helped found a local chapter of Mothers of Murdered Sons, or MOMs. Among other women who had buried children all too soon, she found comfort and solace. To her frustration and sadness, she found its membership kept growing.

And the price of that loss, she said, extends beyond the heartache. The hole torn by premature loss of a child can mean missed work and economic hardship that leads to a bereaved person falling behind on their rent and bills.

For too many, there’s no way out of that financial spiral.

“We carry each other. We help each other,” Ford said at a news conference on Tuesday. “I have strength from God. But this is serious. We need help.”

Enter a pair of newly introduced House bills sponsored by Pennsylvania state Rep. Austin Davis, a Pittsburgh Democrat whose district includes Clairton.

Davis’ proposals respectively would offer debt deferral to grieving parents and create a grant program that would offer financial assistance to those families.

If they’re eventually approved and signed into law, the bills would give families “time to grieve without a fear of losing their homes,” Davis said Tuesday.

That’s not just rhetoric. Research has shown that gun violence exacts a measurable economic impact on the communities where it occurs.

Across five cities, gun violence slowed neighborhood home appreciation  by about 4 percent, according to The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

The research also showed that surges in gun violence, defined as a sudden and sharp uptick in violence, also led to lower credit scores and home ownership rates.

All told, gun violence exacts an economic toll of a staggering $229 billion a year, according to Brady: United Against Gun Violence.

That tally “includes $8.6 billion in direct expenses such as for emergency and medical care,” according to The Washington Post. And, as the Urban Institute notes, those costs are disproportionately borne by communities of color.

“We talk about gun violence as a public health crisis and a state of emergency,” said state Rep. Donna Bullock, the Philadelphia Democrat who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

But as was the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing emergency declaration, families in need received services and financial assistance, Bullock pointed out.

And if policymakers are going to walk the talk about the public health toll of gun violence, then the families whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence should receive the same kind of help from the state.

Bullock, the mother of two sons, says she prays the Black mother’s prayer every day that her children return home safely and, then, referring to the mothers arrayed behind her holding photos of their fallen children, that “I don’t join your club — that’s real.”

“Let’s do right by these families,” she said, by passing Davis’ legislation. “That’s the best thing we can do for these families.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey, now the Democratic nominee for Pittsburgh mayor, echoed that sentiment, arguing also that the cost and trauma of gun violence cut across racial, geographic and class lines.

Policymakers, he said, needed to come up with more than band-aids, they needed to learn “why people wake up with murder on their minds … Until we come up with a plan that addresses the root causes of crime, we’re going to be back here every year.”

For Ford, who deals with the post-traumatic effects of her son’s death — anxiety and insomnia — that help can’t come soon enough. Until it does, she said, she and her fellow MOMs will persevere.

“We can’t stop the violence in the streets,” she said. “But we can help the mothers.”

Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.

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