Offering daily news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

WA-08 hopeful Jason Rittereiser: How I got to single payer healthcare

Editor’s Note: Jason Rittereiser is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, vying to succeed retiring Republican Dave Reichert as a member of Washington’s delegation to the United States House of Representatives. In this guest post, he explains why he believes that our country must have universal, single-payer health coverage.

I believe that access to healthcare in America is a basic human right.

In politics, this is still a matter of debate. But to many Americans, this isn’t an abstract question: it’s a question of life or death for millions of families without access to affordable health insurance. Watching a close friend face this very question was what convinced me we must enact a single-payer system.

A few months before my college roommate was to marry the love of his life, I got a call from Sam expecting to talk about wedding plans.

When I answered, I knew something was wrong.

“I need to tell you something,” he said, and then because there is no good way to break this news, he just said it: “I have a brain tumor, and they think it’s cancer.”

I was at work as a deputy prosecutor for King County. A thousand things raced through my head. I told Sam that everything was going to be fine, even though I didn’t know that, and that I would take care of whatever he needed.

I knew he would need help handling many of his personal affairs going forward, so when I hung up the phone, I began to make a list.

The first thing I wrote down was health insurance — with a big question mark.

Luckily, Sam had health insurance through his job. If Sam didn’t have health insurance or access to quality healthcare, his outcome would have been tragically different. We were able to make some calls and add additional health coverage to mitigate costs, found a neurosurgeon who specializes in Sam’s condition, and after an incredible and determined recovery, Sam is as healthy as ever.

Not everyone is as lucky. Our healthcare system has failed in providing this most basic human right to all. Too often access to care depends on your ability to pay. Even after passing the Patient Protection Act, our fractured health insurance system still puts access to care out of reach, often for those who need it most.

My wife Michelle has seen the failures of our healthcare system play out firsthand as a healthcare provider. With a Masters in Clinical Nutrition and a Certified Diabetes Educator, she started her career in community health, treating many patients who can’t afford health insurance. Her patients often required costly treatment because they did not have access to preventative care.

Consequently, they had minor conditions snowball into major health problems. These people had a far worse experience navigating our healthcare system than Sam did, for the sole reason that they just didn’t make enough money.

I believe that’s wrong.

We need a healthcare system that unites us in our core belief that no one should go broke because they get sick, and no one should die because they can’t afford care.

Every day, we make a choice in America to provide healthcare in the least efficient and most costly way possible simply because our elected representatives have politicized healthcare. We’re already paying for everyone to receive care by mandating that hospitals treat every patient regardless of their ability to pay.

This floods our ERs, inflates the cost of care for everyone who can pay, and ruins the credit of anyone who can’t. To fix healthcare, we must address access and costs and the most efficient and effective way to do that is a single-payer system.

Contrary to the political narrative I hear from my right wing friends, providing healthcare for everybody is not something to fear.

Getting sick and not having the care you need is, and so is having to decide between paying a medical bill or your rent.

Today, our neighbors rely on crowdfunding rather than health insurance to make ends meet if they get sick.

GoFundMe even advertises its platform as “#1 for Health Insurance Fundraising.” On that site alone, there are 1.3 million people in America raising money from friends to pay for cancer treatments, 54,000 people waiting on donations in order to pay for transplant surgery, and 32,000 asking for money so they can treat their diabetes. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In the wealthiest nation in the world, we have more than enough resources to guarantee quality and affordable healthcare for every person in America.

It’s time we invest on the front end of our healthcare system. No one should be denied access to quality and affordable healthcare because of how much money you make, where you work, or where you live.

In America we have a rich history of solving the world’s most complex problems, but we have fallen behind on healthcare. I refuse to accept a system that does not provide everyone the same life-saving care that my friend Sam received.

It’s time we finish the job, enact a single-payer system, and guarantee healthcare to everybody in this country, and it’s time for a new generation to lead the way.

Immigration, healthcare, economic security discussed at Pramila Jayapal’s latest town hall

Two evenings ago, on Wednesday, May 2nd, Representative Pramila Jayapal held her sixteenth town hall event at the Seattle Central Public Library.

The discussion served as a stark reminder of how much work needs to be done in Congress to address people’s grievances and society’s shortcomings.

It was also a reminder of how fortunate the 7th District is to have such an engaged and progressive constituency, ably represented by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.

Jayapal opened the event by praising the people of the 7th District for being among the most involved in the country. She says her office receives more emails and phone calls than any other district in the country.

In her opening remarks, Jayapal expressed her disdain for the current regime: “There is deep trauma being done to people across our country. People who are facing deportation, people who are barely scraping by. The swamp has grown larger, and the swamp monsters bigger,” Jayapal said.

She then laid out what she called her “proposition agenda”, hitting especially hard on the issues of immigration, healthcare, Social Security, and higher education.

On immigration, Jayapal expressed her frustration that Congress is doing nothing productive. Jayapal stated she would continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform, “including a path to citizenship for eleven million, including family reunification, including a permanent solution for the 1.8 million DREAMers that have only known the United States as their country.”

Healthcare was another major focus of the town hall event.

Attendees voiced concern that for too many people, healthcare is still not affordable, let alone available. Throughout the evening, Jayapal reiterated her support for single payer, universal healthcare. Part of her agenda for healthcare is legislation that would allow states to move to a single payer system.

She said she will introduce the bill in the next couple of weeks.

“If you can show that your plan is going to cover 95% of your state’s residents, then you would be able to expand on the public option waiver that’s currently in law [in the Patient Protection Act] and actually use the federal streams that are available to move towards that single payer system in the state”.

Rep. Jayapal also spoke at length about the College for All bill she introduced along with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont last month.

That legislation aims to make four year public college degrees tuition-free for families making up to $125,000. In addition, the bill would cut student loan interest rates for new borrowers in half and reduce the current student loan debt currently estimated at 1.3 trillion. The Representative noted that student loan debt now exceeds Americans’ credit card debt, and argued that canceling the student loan debt would drastically boost the country’s economic productivity.

One of the final questions Jayapal addressed was simply phrased: “What can we do?” She asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they had relatives or friends who had voted with the Republican Party.

She then asked people to keep their hands raised if they had talked to these relatives or friends about their political views and concerns.

Several dropped their hands.

Jayapal emphasized the need to be an engaged citizen, to have difficult conversations with people of opposing viewpoints, to write or call local leaders, and to attend town hall meetings like the one organized by her office.

Were you at Wednesday night’s town hall with Representative Jayapal? Feel free to share your reflections on the event in the comment thread below.

Paul Ryan backs down; Patrick Conroy will remain in his post as U.S. House chaplain

Turns out Patrick Conroy isn’t going anywhere after all.

The veteran United States House chaplain, a beloved Jesuit priest, will continue with his ministry to the chamber’s four hundred and thirty five voting members after Speaker Paul Ryan backed down and assented to Conroy’s wish to rescind the resignation he had unhappily offered last month at Ryan’s behest.

“I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House,” said Ryan, not bothering to acknowledge that he lacked the power to unilaterally force out Conroy in the first place.

“My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution. To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves. It is my job as speaker to do what is best for this body, and I know that this body is not well served by a protracted fight over such an important post. I intend to sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.”

“Father Conroy’s service as House Chaplain has been a blessing to Members on both sides of the aisle,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in response.

“Speaker Ryan’s decision to accept Father Conroy’s decision to rescind his resignation and finish his term is welcome news.”

“However, many distressing questions must still be answered about the motivations behind Father Conroy’s unwarranted and unjust dismissal.”

“Father Pat has served the House honorably for more than seven years, and I’m glad that he will remain the House Chaplain. Still, because there are conflicting reports and questions left unanswered, we need a full understanding of what happened,” Democratic Caucus Chair Joseph Crowley of New York said.

“This is why I’ve called for a select committee to lead an inquiry into the events leading up to his abrupt dismissal. I hope Republicans will join Democrats to help us get the facts and ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.”

The retraction (and acceptance) of Conroy’s forced resignation ends an embarrassing multi-week saga that has served as a fresh reminder of Paul Ryan’s ineptitude.

Conroy did his country and the House a great service by deciding to challenge his forced ouster. His boldness and resilient spirit have carried the day. Below is a copy of the scathing letter Conroy sent to Ryan today.

Dear Speaker Ryan:

As you know, by letter of April 15, 2018, tendered my resignation of the position of Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives (hereinafter “House Chaplain”) to you, effective May 24, 2018. At this time, and upon advice of counsel. I hereby retract and rescind said resignation for the reasons that follow.

I was elected as House Chaplain on May 25, 2011, and I have honorably served in that role since that time. was re-elected House Chaplain in every succeeding Congress. have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House Chaplain. It is my desire to continue to serve as House Chaplain in this 115th United States Congress to the end of my current two-year term, and beyond, unless my services are officially terminated (however that is properly done) or I am not re-elected to the position by the membership of the House.

While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any
correspondence, on Friday, April 2018, your Chief of Staff, Jonathan
Burks, came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation. inquired as to whether or not it was “for cause.” and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like “maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.” He also mentioned my November prayer and an interview with the National Journal Daily.

At that point, I thought that I had little choice but to resign, as my assumption was that you had the absolute prerogative and authority to end my term as House Chaplain.

Recently, on April 27, you publicly indicated that my “pastoral services” to some Members were lacking and that I did not offer adequate “spiritual counseling” to others. This is not the reason that Mr. Burks gave me when asking for my “resignation.” In fact, no such criticism has ever been leveled against me during my tenure as House Chaplain. At the very least, if it were. I could have attempted to correct such “faults.” In retracting my resignation I wish to do just that.

I also write this letter because I do not wish to have my “resignation” be construed as a “constructive termination.”

You may wish to outright “fire” me, if you have the authority to do so, but should you wish to terminate my services, it will be without my offer of resignation, as you requested.

Since soon after i submitted my letter of April 15 I chose to remain silent about this matter despite numerous requests from the media. There has been much said in conjecture about my leaving the Chaplain’s Office, much of it damaging to the reputation of the House and the integrity of the Office of the Chaplain.

Had I known of any failure in providing my ministry to the House, I would have attempted to make the appropriate adjustments, but in no case would I have agreed to submit a letter of resignation without being given that opportunity. Therefore, I wish to serve the remainder of my term as House Chaplain, unless terminated “for cause.”

Please be guided accordingly and kindly provide confirmation of your recognition of this letter and my retraction of resignation no later than May 12, 2018. Thank you.

“Lord, Ryan is so inept he can’t even fire somebody right,” wryly noted one Washington Post commenter. “Not that Father Conroy should have been fired,
but Ryan with all his self-proclaimed power couldn’t even make it stick.”

“Ryan, the invertebrate, again fails to meet a challenge with courage,” agreed another commenter. “Now don’t get me wrong, the challenge was a stupid one, but when will this guy ever stand for HIS beliefs even when they are dead wrong?”

“Father Conroy isn’t Speaker Ryan’s priest,” pointed out yet another commenter. “When you go against the Society of Jesus, you better bring your A game. Must have been an interesting confession on Ryan’s part.”


Documentary Review: “A Plastic Ocean” is a sobering film that everyone should see

A Plastic Ocean” is not the film its director, writer, and executive producer Craig Leeson started out making.

Off the coast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean in 2011, journalist and filmmaker Leeson was on a boat with a cameraman and crew trying to get footage for a documentary on the blue whale. While they got some blue whale footage, including what is believed to be the first underwater footage of a juvenile pygmy blue whale, they were also surprised to catch on film a stream of garbage and debris.

A Plastic Ocean

A Plastic Ocean
Release Year: 2016
Director: Craig Leeson
Running time: 1h 42min
Watch trailer

Underwater cameraman Doug Allen describes it fairly well at first: “Floating on the surface and a meter below was just this horrible, crappy, emulsified mess of oil and bits of, you know…”

He trails off, struggling to find the words to capture the assortment of items they fished out of the water (collecting them in a plastic shopping basket one should only find in a grocery or drug store, not the middle of the ocean).

Approximately eight million tons of plastic is dumped in our oceans every year, with most of it coming not from boats and ocean vessels, but from land-based sources then making it’s way to the sea from rivers and streams.

Plastic wreaks havoc on the ocean environment and the plants, animals, and fish that live in and around. Whales, which feed by opening their large jaws and taking in large amounts of water, along with whatever is in it, then expel the water, end up with stomachs full of plastic instead of krill.

Microplastics, or the tiny little pellets of plastic that larger plastic debris often crumbles into, are ingested by fish, and the toxic chemicals that ride on the plastic end up in the tissue of the fish, which larger animals (including humans) then eat.

In an area of the North Pacific Ocean with no visible garbage on the surface of the water, Dr. Andrea Neal puts a trawl with a very fine net that catches anything larger than a pinhead into the water. A handful of microplastics comes up in the net.

Dr. Neal says this “plastic smog” is more insidious than the infamous large floating island of plastics and other garbage.

It is not just marine species that are endangered by plastic in the ocean. Seabirds like the albatross and shearwater are also struggling because of it.

Many birds die because they inadvertently eat small pieces of plastic or microplastics when they feed on fish from the ocean. Eventually their stomachs are totally full of plastic, as we see when a couple of birds are cut open.

You can see their stomachs are large and hard before the stomach itself is cut, revealing nothing but a variety of plastic. It is estimated that ninety percent of all seabirds have ingested some plastic.

While some people are working on ways to remove plastic that is already in the ocean, the bigger and perhaps more important task is stopping the massive flow of plastic that is currently going into the ocean.

Plastic is nearly everywhere in modern society. Plastic is so versatile that it has thousands of uses. The problem is that it never totally degrades.

Says Leeson: “Plastic is wonderful because it is durable. And plastic is terrible because it is durable.”

World-record free diver Tanya Streeter notes in a TEDx talk we see a clip of in the film, that lots of plastic items are considered “disposable,” and asks “how can a disposable product be made of a material that is indestructible? Where does it go?”

She also notes that more plastic has been made in the last ten years than in the century before that. We use massive amounts of plastic, and are not reusing or recycling nearly enough of it.

In one year, every person on the planet will use about three-hundred pounds of single use plastic. Just in the United States, over thirty-eight billion plastic water bottles will be thrown away in one year. It takes over sixty-three billion gallons of oil to make all the plastic water bottles used in the US every year, and over ninety percent of those bottles are only used once.

While the amount of plastic produced each year is already massive, production is expected to triple by 2050 as the world population increases.

We need to start taking action to address this problem now.

First of all, we can try to use less plastic to begin with.

One of the big culprits is plastic packaging on food. Ask your grocer and restaurants you frequent not to package food in plastic.

If you have to buy food in plastic, buy it in larger quantities. With yogurt, for example, you should buy the large container rather than the individual servings. When getting produce at the grocery store, avoid using the plastic produce bags except for smaller items, or rinse and re-use bags for multiple grocery trips.

At home, use aluminum foil (and then recycle it!) instead of plastic wrap or plastic bags. Wash and reuse plastic bags for items that you can’t put in foil, or use reusable containers instead of bags and foil. Use glass food containers instead of plastic whenever possible. Reducing the plastics we use to store and serve food is important not just for the environment, but also our health, since we often ingest toxic chemicals such as BPA when we eat and drink from plastic containers.

Many people already take reusable cloth bags to carry their groceries in, and this is great. Why not also use those reusable bags when you do other shopping, like at the mall, department stores, drug stores, etc.? Use the big pile of plastic shopping bags you’ve already gotten from your shopping as garbage bags instead of buying plastic garbage bags, or recycle them; most grocery stores have a collection bin.

The City of Seattle’s plastic bag ban went into effect in 2012, and an increasing number of cities around the country are following suit with their own bans.

Rawanda has a country-wide ban on plastic bags, and in “A Plastic Ocean”, we see workers making paper bags. Push your city, county, and state to ban plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and plastic straws and utensils at restaurants.

Along with using less plastic, we should recycle what we do use. It is said in the film that the technology now exists to recycle most plastics, so the issue now is getting the infrastructure, systems, and collection methods to do it on a large scale. For example, there is a company in Ireland that created a process to turn “end of life” plastics like candy bar wrappers and plastic bags into diesel.

In Germany, a 1991 law makes manufacturers responsible for the recycling or disposal of any packaging material they sell.

This has led to extensive recycling programs, including vending-machine-type devices at almost every grocery store where consumers can deposit plastic bottles and get a few cents back for each one. Everyone recycles because they get money back for doing so, and recycling is a lucrative industry.

We ought to develop a similar law in the United States.

Some people are lobbying to classify plastic as hazardous, and then existing laws about disposal of hazardous material would then cover plastics.

The film also highlights and interesting social enterprise called The Plastic Bank. In Haiti, people can turn in recyclable plastic and get money or necessary goods in exchange. The plastic is recycled and then sold to be used in manufacturing.

Near the end of “A Plastic Ocean”, Leeson offers this thought: “Every species on the planet works towards the benefit of the ecology and environment that it lives in, but us humans, we just seem like passengers on this earth.”

This observation really struck a chord with me. It is amazing how every species serves a unique and necessary biological function on this planet. Except humans, as far as I can tell. We just seem to endlessly consume and destroy. Or is our function to destroy the planet, until most current species die off and an entirely new world is created from the drastically altered environments we’ve left behind?

I honestly don’t believe that is our purpose (nor do I want to go any further down that existential black hole) so let’s all just agree to try to preserve the planet we’ve got, since it really is an amazing and beautiful place. If we stop covering it in plastic.

If you have more ideas for reducing plastic usage in everyday life, whether through using materials other than plastic or reusing plastic items as much as possible, please leave a comment in the thread below.

You can stream “A Plastic Ocean” on Netflix, or rent or buy it on YouTube, Google Play, or iTunes. You can also request to host a screening, check out the schedule of screenings, or rent or buy the film directly from Plastic Oceans Foundation.

Kim Wyman wants emergency funding for prepaid ballot return envelopes statewide

Prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes may not have been one of the Access to Democracy reforms passed by the Legislature during this year’s incredibly productive short session, but it looks like voters might be getting it anyway — and in time for the midterms! — if Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman prevails.

Wyman, the state’s chief elections official, announced today that she is asking Governor Jay Inslee to grant her emergency fiscal authority to provide prepaid ballot return envelopes to all Washington voters for both the August Top Two election (August 7th) and the November general election (November 6th).

Implementation of this idea would remove a longstanding barrier to voting and likely increase turnout by a measurable amount, something we’ve been agitating for here on the Cascadia Advocate (and in other venues) for years.

It didn’t seem like prepaid postage was in the cards for 2018 until a few weeks ago, when King County officials (Executive Dow Constantine, Councilmember Rod Dembowski, Elections Director Julie Wise) triumphantly announced legislation to fully implement it for this year’s summer and autumn elections… in King County.

That spurred Wyman into action.

Today, she appeared before the King County Council in support not only of bringing prepaid ballot return envelopes to King County, but everywhere else, too.

Here’s a copy of her prepared remarks:

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Council, for the record, I am Kim Wyman, Washington Secretary of State, here today to testify on the proposed ordinance to require King County to pay for the return postage of mail-in ballots.

I commend you, the council and Julie Wise for taking on this issue. This is another great example of Julie being at the forefront of elections issues and why she is an outstanding Director of Elections.

I have always supported initiatives that increase voter access and turnout. For example, this last legislative session, I supported the implementation of automatic voter registration, pre-registering sixteen and seventeen year-olds… and legislation proposed by Senator Hasegawa that would have implemented prepaid postage statewide.

When it comes to prepaid postage, I believe two components are necessary – one, that it be implemented statewide; and two, that it cover every election. The reason for this is that it’s important we treat every voter in the state fairly and equally and that we do not create confusion among voters about how they can participate.

That’s why I have also been working with a member of our congressional delegation to explore federal legislation to allow for pre-paid ballot return to address the challenges of getting a postmark on such ballots.

I have some recommendations I want to make to the council as you consider this ordinance.

The reality is, while this decision may appear to only affect King County voters, it has a statewide impact on the remaining thirty-eight counties. For the fall 2018 elections, we will have one statewide race (U.S. Senate), the potential for one or more statewide ballot initiatives, two possible advisory votes, eight congressional districts and forty-nine legislative districts on the ballot, along with county and local races and issues. With 1.2 million registered voters, King County accounts for about one third of our state’s 4.2 million registered voters.

Further, in August and November, there will races in five legislative districts (1, 30, 31, 32 and 39) and two congressional districts (1 and 8) in King County which also cross into one or more other counties. This decision should not be made in a vacuum because the impacts will not remain in a vacuum.

First, this will create confusion with voters in the shared media market who will not receive prepaid postage.

My interest with this proposed ordinance is when it comes to returning a ballot to the county elections office, that voters in King County will be treated differently in the upcoming primary and general elections than voters in the remaining thirty-eight counties. Unfortunately, many, if not most of the other thirty-eight counties don’t have ability to pay for return postage in their fall elections.

We have a number of distressed counties who are facing significant budget reductions this year. I know of at least two county auditor’s offices who have received 6-12% cuts to their budgets in the past couple of months. If the council delays this decision today, I ask you to join me in going to the legislature and asking them to fund the cost of prepaid ballot return postage for the entire state for all elections.

If the council approves this ordinance today, I ask this council to join me in asking the Governor to give my office the emergency spending authority to reimburse all thirty-nine counties, including King County, for the return postage costs for the 2018 [Top Two] and General elections, estimated to be $622,602 in the [Top Two] and $1,156,261 in the General, for a total of $1,778,863. This becomes an emergency because the counties need to immediately begin printing return ballot envelopes for the fall elections. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this issue and I am happy to answer questions.

We agree with Secretary Wyman that implementing prepaid postage for ballot return envelopes immediately makes sense, and that all Washington voters should benefit — not just voters in King County.

We also agree that this situation constitutes an emergency. King County wants to lead on removing a barrier to voting, which is outstanding, but there are other counties that would like to do the same for their voters, yet can’t afford to. The appropriate remedy, given the Legislature has gone home for the year, is therefore for Secretary Wyman to make this request, and for Governor Inslee to say yes.

Now is the time to do this.

This is a fairly unprecedented era in our country. The upcoming midterms are critically important…. so much is at stake. The outcome will determine whether our country continues down a very dark road, or makes a course correction.

We have the money to get rid of this barrier to voting and take another step towards arresting (and reversing!) our alarming trend of declining turnout.

We are very pleased that Secretary Wyman is stepping up and proposing a tangible plan for bringing prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes to all voters this year. This is leadership. This is what we’ve been wanting to see from Secretary Wyman.

This is also the perfect follow-up to the Access to Democracy page, which the League of Women Voters, Fix Democracy First, NPI, and a large coalition of other organizations worked so hard to make a reality this past session. That was a great accomplishment, but it did not include prepaid postage on return envelopes.

Governor Inslee, please grant this request and let’s make this happen for our voters this year. We can afford to do this, and it’s the just and responsible thing to do.

Documentary Review: “Breaking the Cycle” dares us to think differently about prisons

Breaking the Cycle” is a relatively short documentary that follows Jan Strømnes, warden of a maximum security prison in Norway, as he tours Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York.

Breaking the Cycle

Breaking the Cycle

There are really no comparisons to be made; it is all stark contrasts.

Halden Prison in Norway was established in 2010 and houses about two-hundred inmates, who are overseen by about three hundred and forty staff. Quaint by comparison to Attica, which has about two-thousand inmates, but a proportionally small staff of eight hundred seventy-five.

To the eyes of someone from the United States, Holden’s “cells” look more like a nice dorm room, or a micro-studio you would pay nearly $1,000 a month to rent in Seattle. Inmates have a bed, desk, closet, shelves, a small bathroom, a mini-fridge, and even a window.

Prisoners seem to be able to come and go from their rooms as they please, as there are communal kitchens where inmates prepare and eat meals together. There is an auto shop where guards work along-side prisoners, a newly-opened restaurant with an inmate as chef, and even a recording studio.

Halden staff think it just makes sense for prisoners to have enriching, educational, and vocational experiences. “They should be able to live a normal life that benefits them and society,” said Strømnes. Their focus is on trying to prepare inmates for when they get released, so that they can be normal, productive members of society, and “good neighbors”, as they say often.

Says one Halden inmate: “In Norway, we want to rehabilitate, not oppress people. I don’t think it’s too lenient, it creates opportunities. It reduces criminality. People realize that they are able to do other things than what they used to.”

By comparison, Attica does seem designed to oppress. One inmate comments on the cold, not just of the air and walls, but also the “vibe.”

“You have to be a strong individual to survive here.”

Strømnes is most disturbed by the cells, which are just like what we commonly see portrayed in movies or on TV: Three walls of cement and a full open front except for the vertical iron bars. Each cell has a small sink and toilet, but nothing to obscure this small bathroom area from full view of the guards in the hallway.

Strømnes asks the Attica Superintendent, Dale Artus, about this lack of privacy.

Artus gives an answer along the lines of “it’s always been this way” and says that inmates are allowed to hold a blanket over the bottom half of their bodies while they use their toilets, as if that makes it less invasive.

When Strømnes asks an inmate about the lack of privacy from the open cells, the inmate says it is inhumane and degrading. He says there is “no normalcy here” and that this “breeds a dysfunctional person.” Another Attica inmate says there is a culture of intimidation and oppression. But cameras installed throughout the prison have made things a little bit better, he notes.

Strømnes was surprised to hear from multiple inmates that there has been a reduction in the violence and harassment from guards since the cameras were added. I think his surprise was not from the reduction, but that this harassment was happening in the first place.

At Halden, staff interact respectfully with inmates all the time. In the film, we see a female guard playing a board game with a male inmate. She talks about how she is happy to feel like she is making a positive impact by working with these men and helping them to be better people when they are released.

Guards at Attica talk about how they are just happy to make in home safely at the end of the day. One wonders what they are afraid of, as they have weapons and power, and the inmates have neither.

Overlooking the exercise yard at Attica, guards are armed with an AR-15 and “chemical agents.” Artus seems puffed up with pride when he says they “haven’t deployed deadly force, the AR-15, in quite some time,” while they deploy the chemical agents a couple of times a year.

One of the Attica inmates talks to Strømnes about how many people leave prison with anger that has built up because of how they were treated in prison. He notes that it would be better for society if that didn’t happen, that people would then be more successful when they got out of jail and go back to society.

Another inmate notes that people in prison have additional issues, along with anger, that are not being addressed. Financial issues are a major issue, since if inmates don’t have money to get extra food from commissary, they are likely to be hungry, which just further fuels their anger.

Strømnes notes that the meals appear small, “not nutritionally sufficient for an adult male.” Lunch they day he toured consisted of a hot dog on a bun, an orange, soup, and coleslaw (the later two of which he noted most inmates declined, so they must be pretty poor quality for chronically-hungry men to turn down). So it’s understandable that when Strømnes told a small group of Attica inmates what Holden was like, one immediately asked, “Do you take international transfers?”

A Halden inmate explains, “We like to think that we are here as punishment, not to be punished. We already have our sentence and should not be punished more. There is no element of revenge. That’s the difference from the USA.”

After his trip, Strømnes says he met many people who want to change, even some of the executives at Attica, but, “I have also met many kind people who work in the wrong system. A good correctional treatment has a huge long-term impact on society. Many Americans don’t have that perspective. As a system, it is heavily based on punishment. That’s a shame.”

It is not just this belief there must be some punishment beyond the incarceration itself that prevents American prisons from taking better care of their inmates and actually attempting rehabilitation. It’s that fact that American prisons are often not run by the government, but are contracted out to for-profit corporations.

Feeding prisoners small, poor quality meals and not providing good educational, vocational, and rehabilitation opportunities definitely saves these companies money in the short term.

But long-term, the lack of rehabilitation and constant degradation that inmates face in prison makes it all the more likely that they will struggle after release, commit another crime, and end up back in jail, where companies are paid per prisoner.

This for-profit aspect of American prisons was not discussed in “Breaking the Cycle,” perhaps because it was too large of a topic to cover, since it indeed could easily be the topic of its own full-length film.

Nor was race ever discussed, and the way racism has shaped not only the prison population in the United States, but certainly the conditions of our prisons as well.

But even without addressing these issues, the film still brought up many important points and is worth watching, as long as you don’t mind reading subtitles when Norwegians are speaking. It is not a comprehensive look at all of the flaws in our prisons, but rather just a glance at some of the differences that are most glaring when compared to Norway’s respectful and humane maximum security prison.

“Breaking the Cycle” is available for streaming on Netflix.

Alliance for Gun Responsibility plans initiative for 2018 to restrict military grade weapons

NPI’s friends at the Alliance for Gun Responsibility announced today they intend to spearhead a measure for the November 2018 ballot that would restrict civilian access to military grade weapons in Washington State, also known as assault rifles.

Students across Washington and the United States walked out of class earlier today to protest the country’s failure to protect its people by implementing laws that would reduce gun violence. April 20th was chosen for a day of action in part because it is the nineteenth anniversary of the horror at Columbine.

“Gun violence is an avoidable epidemic and is far too common in our country and state. Too many people have lost their lives to violence; too many families, children, and communities are rattled to the core. The people of Washington — from the kids marching for their lives, to their parents and grandparents who are calling their elected officials – demand action NOW,” said Renée Hopkins, CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, in a statement distributed to the press.

“We’re answering their call with a comprehensive ballot initiative to help ensure safer schools and neighborhoods and through extensive work with voters ahead of November’s election. We must elect more gun responsibility champions and do whatever we can to strengthen our gun violence prevention laws.”

“My son Will attended the house party that tragically turned into a mass shooting. I’m so thankful every day that he managed to get out alive. Three other students were not so lucky,” said Paul Kramer, Mukilteo resident and citizen sponsor of the Reduce Assault Weapon Violence Initiative.

“We need comprehensive reform when it comes to assault weapons. Teens should not be able to possess these dangerous weapons. We’ve seen what can happen when they do. We can’t let that happen again.”

The forthcoming initiative would, as described by the Alliance, do the following:

  • Raise the minimum purchase age to 21 for all semi-automatic weapons.
    • In Washington, it is currently easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to purchase a handgun because assault weapons are treated the same as hunting rifles. This must change.
  • Create an Enhanced Background Check at the time of purchase including:
    • A local law enforcement check identical to the one we currently require for handguns.
    • Requiring the purchaser show that they have completed a safety training course within the last five years that includes basic safety and safe storage rules, safe handling, and an overview of state and federal firearms laws.
  • Dangerous Access Prevention.
    • Holds gun owners responsible if a child or other prohibited person accesses and uses an unsafely stored firearm to harm themselves or another person.
  • Ensure continued eligibility to possess or purchase an assault weapon.
    • Requires the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) and the appropriate law enforcement agencies to work together to develop a process to ensure that purchasers continue to be eligible to possess a firearm.
  • Require informed consent at the point of purchase about the inherent risks associated with the presence of a firearm in the home.
    • Requires the notification at the point of sale that owning a firearm increases one’s risk for injury, death by suicide, domestic violence and homicide.
  • Establish a waiting period up to 10 days for the purchase of an assault weapon.

While the measure does not ban the sale of military grade weapons, restricting their purchase to persons age twenty-one or higher and requiring a waiting period would be an improvement over the status quo. We can expect that the NRA and other gun enthusiast groups will fiercely oppose this measure, but we overcame their opposition to pass I-594 in 2014 and I-1491 in 2016.

The filing has not yet appeared on the Secretary of State’s website, but we imagine the text will be available soon. The next step will be for the measure to be assigned a number, then a ballot title. After any ballot title challenges are resolved, signature gathering can begin. The Alliance will have about eight to nine weeks to qualify the measure for the November 2018 ballot. About 350,000 signatures will needed to make the measure eligible for a random sample check. (259,622 valid signatures are required, and a cushion of 25% is recommended to ensure qualification).

This year, the signature deadline is the close of business on July 6th.

Cantwell, Murray back push for vote of no confidence in Scott Pruitt, Trump’s EPA chief

A record number of United States Senators have signed on to a resolution expressing no confidence in Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s anti-environmental Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chieftain, according to the offices of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

“Under Administrator Pruitt,” the resolution says, “the Agency is hemorrhaging staff and experts needed to protect the health, safety, and livelihood of millions of people in the United States, with more than seven hundred employees of the Agency having left or been forced out of the Agency during his tenure as Administrator.”

The resolution adds: “Pruitt has continually overridden the recommendations of scientists of the Agency in order to provide relief to industry, leaving in place the use of harmful chemicals, pesticides, and policies that are directly impacting the health and well-being of millions of people of the United States.”

With thirty-nine cosponsors, the Senators say this resolution has achieved the distinction of bearing the largest group of names in United States history formally supporting a resolution calling for a cabinet official’s resignation.

The resolution lays out many reasons why Pruitt must go, including:

  • The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office determined that the EPA violated federal law by purchasing a $43,000 phone booth for Pruitt’s office – and then hiding that purchase from Congress.
  • Pruitt entered into a sweetheart housing deal to rent a Capitol Hill condo from the wife of a lobbyist – paying just $50 a night, and only paying for the nights he slept there.
  • Pruitt has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills for luxury travel perks, including booking lavish first class and charter flights to Europe and elsewhere, staying in luxury hotels, and traveling with a huge entourage of staff and security.
  • Pruitt has reportedly reassigned or demoted EPA staffers who questioned his spending habits – at the same time that the EPA Inspector General is investigating him for giving unusual pay raises to favored aides.
  • Pruitt has deployed EPA enforcement officers to provide round-the-clock security with questionable justification.

There has never been anyone less qualified to run the EPA than Scott Pruitt, which is why it’s so awful that he was put in charge of the agency, which has a vital role in protecting America’s air, water, and soil, not to mention the public health.

Forget about the old adage about the fox guarding the henhouse… this is worse. Much worse. Scott Pruitt is a saboteur who happens to have control of the organization he’s sabotaging. He is actively working to destroy one of the United States’ most important public services from the top down with the blessing of his boss, Donald Trump. But, like Tom Price, he’s so much of a jerk that he’s even reportedly managed to irritate Trump, which is somewhat remarkable.

Scott Pruitt needs to be gone from the EPA, and yesterday. We’re glad to see so many U.S. Senators stepping up to forcefully say that.

Washington State squares off at the Supreme Court with tribes, feds over culvert removal

Tomorrow morning, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Washington State v. United States of America, a case that concerns treaty-granted tribal fishing rights and barriers to the exercise of those treaty rights… specifically, culverts that impede salmon from spawning in Northwest streams and rivers.

This is a case that goes back many years — a case that has been a losing one for the State of Washington — but which is still being litigated because Attorney General Bob Ferguson doesn’t want to throw in the towel, even though he should.

Here, courtesy of SCOTUSBlog, is a basic synopsis of the dispute, which pits Washington against the federal government and sovereign tribal nations:

Do tribal fishing rights guarantee some degree of protection of salmon populations — thus precluding actions, like the state of Washington’s maintenance of under-road culverts, that may harm salmon runs — or do the treaties merely guarantee a share of otherwise available fish? Because the case dates all the way back to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s time on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the 1980s, Kennedy is recused, and only eight justices will participate.

The 9th Circuit ruled against the state, upholding an injunction requiring culvert removals — to the tune of over $2 billion, according to Washington, though that amount is contested.

Before the Supreme Court, both sides’ briefs are strongly written, and each casts the other’s position as outlandish. Washington, echoed by other states and businesses, decries the 9th Circuit ruling as a threat to commerce and a blow to federalism.

It argues that the 9th Circuit created an “extraordinarily broad new treaty right” that will “make virtually any significant future land use decision in the Pacific Northwest subject to court oversight,” and adds that the state ought not be liable for culverts that the federal government itself approved decades ago, particularly when many of the culvert removals “will have no effect on salmon.”

A group of 21 tribes, joined by the federal government as their trustee, argue that Washington far overstates the harm it will face, and that the state’s interpretation would render the treaties meaningless. The treaties, they argue, did not merely provide the tribes with “the opportunity to ‘dip their nets’ into empty waters.”

“Tribal treaty rights are vitally important,” Ferguson said last year when he announced he would appeal the decision of the Ninth Circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I appreciate and share the goal of restoring salmon habitat, but the State has strong legal arguments that the Ninth Circuit decision is overbroad. We are working with tribes to resolve this matter, but we needed to file this appeal today to preserve our ability to challenge aspects of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion.”

Washington Solicitor General Noah Purcell will represent the Evergreen State before the Supreme Court, while Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Allon Kedem will represent the United States. Attorney William M. Jay will represent the tribes.

The briefs, including the many amicus briefs, are available through SCOTUSBlog, which is (for those unfamiliar) an indispensable resource for following the Supreme Court of the United States, which is where the “SCOTUS” acronym comes from.

In our view, the state’s legal arguments are not particularly compelling, and we disagree with Attorney General Ferguson’s decision to appeal this case to our nation’s highest court. We ought to get on with the work of replacing the culverts that we know are a problem instead of prolonging a fight with our sovereign tribes. Our fisheries are one of our region’s greatest resources, but they are threatened. If we don’t act swiftly to protect them, we could lose them. That would be tragic.

As Lorraine Loomis wrote back in 2016:

The state has a duty to protect and restore habitat for the salmon, treaty tribes and everyone else who lives here. Denying that responsibility, and the treaty rights it represents, hurts tribal and state efforts to work together for salmon recovery. We ask Inslee and Ferguson to take a stand in the best interests of all citizens in the state and end the long, misguided attempts to deny our treaty rights.

Unfortunately, Ferguson did not heed that request.

But at least Governor Inslee listened.

Gov. Jay Inslee does not support the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, his spokeswoman, Tara Lee, wrote in an email to The Seattle Times. “Gov. Inslee and Attorney General Ferguson discussed this case and they don’t agree … the governor supports discussions to settle.”

And the state’s lands chief gets it, too.

Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands at the Department of Natural Resources, filed an amicus brief with the court calling for respect for the tribes’ treaty rights and stepping forward with habitat repairs to sustain salmon runs not only for tribal fisheries, but for all Washingtonians.

Tomorrow’s oral argument will provide a window of sorts into the justices’ thinking about the case. Attorneys like to say that ninety percent of a case comes down to the briefs, but sometimes interesting tidbits can be gleaned from observing oral argument. Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court does not allow its proceedings to be televised, so there’s no way to watch without being there.

However, a transcript is expected to be published fairly quickly afterwards. We’ll let you know when that transcript is available for download.

WEDNESDAY POSTSCRIPT: Here’s the transcript.

There’s also an audio recording with transcript if you’d rather listen as you read.

Tim Eyman restarts his war on Sound Transit — this time, he claims, with seed money

Disgraced initiative promoter Tim Eyman declared this morning that he’s ready to have another go at whacking Sound Transit and WSDOT’s Amtrak Cascades, exuberantly telling his followers that he’s launching an initiative to slash vehicle fees to thirty dollars and deprive Washington of billions of dollars in transit funding.

I-976 is a measure to the 2019 Legislature, not to the people for 2018, so it won’t appear on this November’s ballot. The signature deadline is in late December.

“Yup, that’s right. We’re off and running to get the required number of signatures to get Initiative 976 on the ballot,” wrote Eyman, who recently announced that he would try to qualify an unrelated measure, Initiative 977, for 2019.

I-977 sought apply the Public Records Act, as currently written, to the Washington State House and Senate, which have historically asserted they’re exempt.

It appears I-977 has already been abandoned after less than two weeks, which has to be a new record (usually, Eyman’s time-to-fail is measured in months, not days).

What accounts for the sudden change in plans? In a word, money. What else?

Eyman tried twice in 2016 to force a vote on gutting funding for Sound Transit and Amtrak Cascades. Both times, he failed. Then he tried again last year, investing more time and energy into his attempt. But he came up short, again.

I-976 represents his fourth attempt in three years to qualify.

“We failed to qualify… for a vote last year,” Eyman acknowledged in his message, not bothering to mention the two 2016 attempts that preceded that failure.

“There’s two reasons we fell short: 1) We needed more time. 2) We needed a whole lot more money to hire paid petitioners to supplement our volunteers.”

Actually, all he needed was that money.

With enough money, it’s possible to get anything on the ballot with a quick multi-week signature drive. Even an initiative to ban that dangerous substance dihydrogen monoxide — also known as, ahem, water — would be easy to qualify in Washington State. Though many locally-based petitioners won’t have anything to do with Eyman and are reasonably discriminating about who they will work for, out of state signature gatherers will happily carry petitions for an Eyman measure.

And Eyman is happy to bring them here.

Despite what Eyman says in the excerpt below, newfound access to money is the only reason why it makes sense to reattempt a measure that has already failed to qualify three times, and hastily abandon the plan to go ahead with I-977.

There’s two reasons why we’re trying again this year:

  1. We have more time. Last year, we started in mid-July — this time we’re starting in mid-April. That’s an extra 3 months. So for I-976, we have from now until the end of December to collect the 350,000 signatures needed — that’s 8 full months starting now.
  2. We already have half the money we need, but it’s absolutely critical that we raise the other half as soon as possible. Having $500,000 at the beginning of the signature drive for I-976 allows us to hire paid petitioners right away (they were actually out collecting signatures over the weekend). But to keep them out there, we gotta raise another $500,000 as soon as possible.

LET US BE CLEAR: we still want our volunteers to collect signatures because every signature you collect is one less signature we have to pay a professional to get. But we didn’t make it last year with just our volunteers. We fell short. So we need professional petitioners and that requires raising a lot of money.

On Friday morning, the paid petitioning guys picked up 20,000 petitions from a local printer to get started.

If Eyman’s claim of having half a million dollars in seed money isn’t a fabrication, then he is on his way to restarting his initiative factory with I-976, despite facing four lawsuits from the State of Washington for public disclosure law violations.

Eyman’s recent fundraising from small dollar donors has been absolutely anemic, so the $500,000 he claims to have (if he really has it) would have to have come from a wealthy benefactor. In the past, Eyman has received huge sums for his schemes from whales such as investment banker Michael Dunmire (now deceased), Bellevue Collection owner Kemper Freeman, Jr. (who also despises Sound Transit), real estate developer Clyde Holland, and hedge fund manager Kenneth Fisher.

Eyman said nothing about the source of his money in today’s email. Public disclosure law requires that Eyman identify who his benefactor is within several weeks so that Washingtonians can know who’s trying to influence their vote (or obtain their signature), so Eyman won’t be able to keep the source of his money a secret for very long. Unless he brazenly violates the law again, that is.

It’s a shame to think that someone has once again made the mistake of entrusting Eyman with a lot of money. He has proved time and again that he can’t be trusted with money. But some people, as we have been reminded a lot recently, never learn.

At NPI, we know the price of progress is eternal vigilance, which is why we maintain a project called Permanent Defense. To have the highest chance of success, an opposition campaign to a destructive Eyman initiative must start immediately. Today, therefore, is the first day of the NO on I-976 campaign. We will be working hard to assemble a broad coalition to protect our voter-approved transit projects and investments in freedom of mobility, which benefit communities across our state.

If you encounter a petitioner who asks you to sign I-976, please report your encounter to us immediately through our Permanent Defense project.

Book Review: Author Christian Davenport, for one, welcomes our new “Space Barons”

The Space Barons is the longest and best-written press release I’ve ever read.

The Space Barons by Christian Davenport

The Space Barons, by Christian Davenport

When, in the ending acknowledgment, author Christian Davenport thanked the billionaires so gracious with their time, including his own ultimate boss at the Washington Post (Jeff Bezos), it became much clearer how such a long work of this genre had come about and my disappointment resolved itself into a numb acceptance.

The title the publisher chose promised a very different sort of book, more critical and honestly probing than an employee can reasonably be expected to write of their employer while maintaining employment. In a world where journalism continues to desiccate because its lifeblood is disappearing into the distended bellies of Facebook and Google, all journalism resembles tech journalism.

Oh golly, wow! Which public-private space company is going to be the neatest going forward? is about as much as a person could reasonably ask for, and the competing book Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz ended up with the more serviceable title and possibly the original premise.

However, the title I had was The Space Barons, and I was not prepared for the sincerely fawning devotion to a cyberpunk dystopia that I discovered myself to be reading. Now, on the progressive left, I fully acknowledge that race, gender, and class criticism can veer from valuable tool into a hammer in want of a nail too easily. Not every book has to be about those things to be useful or is best served by being analyzed on those terms.

But the myopia of The Space Barons is beyond parody. The most extreme example of this is the introduction to Elon Musk and the straight-faced description Davenport allows Musk’s brother Kimbal to give of their upbringing.

“It’s pretty rough in South Africa,” Kimbal told Esquire. “It’s a rough culture. Imagine rough — well, it’s rougher than that. Kids gave Elon a very hard time, and it had a huge impact on his life.”

The anecdote goes on to relate that the boys attempted to open a video arcade as teens without telling their parents, who were furious the boys did so without asking and wouldn’t sign the permits.

I am entirely fine with providing Musk’s background as a way to understand him, and I’m not in any way opposed to describing the difficulties of a non-neurotypical person struggling in society with bullying or abusive parenting.

I am, however, fairly certain I can imagine conditions more difficult than would be in effect for a white South African during apartheid without even needing to leave South Africa for the comparison.

Similarly, I can empathize with Richard Branson’s experience of dyslexia and struggles with school but this is not quite the same thing as an underdog story, not quite accurate to characterize him as overcoming a hardscrabble childhood, when his learning disability was in the context of a top-tier private school that his family could afford in the first place; his path to knighthood is something less of a surprising achievement when his grandfather Sir G.A.H. Branson was also knighted and a judge on the high court of England and Wales.

Davenport references another book about Jeff Bezos, The Everything Store, and something that comes across there but not in this is how much Bezos’s success is due not just to his own drive and hard work, not even just to the fortune of world events, but to the wealth of his family.

They could afford to send him to Princeton University, where he could get an excellent education, make connections, and go and work on Wall Street to make more money and connections. He took advantage of these opportunities by making good impressions, but he still had to have family members willing and able to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the idea of for it to get off the ground and make good on its potential.

These are exceptional people, to be sure, but they also had the exceptional means to be able to capitalize on it. Narratively, it’s more satisfying to root for an underdog than someone who started off with advantages they didn’t squander, but that doesn’t mean every story is that or needs to be that. The Bible has many archetypal conflicts; not all are David against Goliath.

If any of these men had been less wealthy to start, or been identified as an undesirable social group, it’s difficult to imagine how they would have overcome the barriers to their success even with their particular brilliance and hard work.

South Africa is ninety percent black; the Zulu and Xhosa-born geniuses of Musk’s generation could not legally open an arcade to fail or easily emigrate to some other country. Likewise, had any been women, it’s unlikely their personalities would have allowed them to have success as the heads of their companies.

There is no non-pejorative equivalent to “playboy” for a grown woman. Women who act as demanding or ruthless as Bezos or Musk typically aren’t respected as confident, exacting bosses, but as shrews and worse.

Women, in general, appear very rarely in the narrative of The Space Barons except as props, such as an offhand reference to a man on an island who already had sex with every woman younger than sixty there or wife who misses her overworked husband as he tries to complete a project or bosomy Pamela Anderson falling out of her dress during an event with Virgin Airlines.

The one real exception isn’t even an exception: Davenport quotes SpaceX president and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell multiple times for her perspective going as far back as the seventh employee of the company but without ever receiving any explanatory biography or showing any interest in her except in her capacity to explain Musk.

This is in stark contrast to the chapter he devotes to an inconsequential billionaire gambler notable only because his attempt at a private space organization completely failed before the others, or even multiple paragraphs of backstory to a helicopter pilot who crashed a plane carrying Jeff Bezos.

Bezos and Musk like to imagine themselves as heirs to the dream of Star Trek and other science fiction utopias, often quite literally. Through their companies, both have obviously done much to improve the world in certain ways.

But unlike the book Davenport sometimes references, The Everything Store by Brad Stone explores the power and innovation of Amazon without ignoring how it behaves nightmarishly to weaker startups or to its own employees and contractors, particularly warehouse workers.

It’s all fine and good to remark how Bezos dreams of perhaps, you know, one day moving all industry to space to make the surface of the earth something closer to a global park, but we don’t typically judge people on the things they’d like to do, just what they’ve done repeatedly and are doing.

Being asked to work seventy-three hours a week to get a company off the ground then being fired for organizing labor isn’t a cute quirk. Yelling at employees on a factory floor when you’re their billionaire boss isn’t just an example of the unique pluck of startup culture: it’s abuse. Wanting to track every moment of rest a laborer has, steal their wages from when they’re forced to stand in line for the job, and hiding billions in profits to avoid taxes isn’t savvy. It’s exploitative.

I don’t think Captain Picard ran the Enterprise on the basis of everyone signing non-disclosure agreements. We can believe these barons would like to some day behave in a different way, but that doesn’t mean ignoring how they actually treat people under their power now, in the present.

Journalism, to be good, doesn’t have to be strictly negative, but it does have to include more than one point of view before it arbitrates truth.

If you read a work uncritically relating how the Soviet Union made superior advancements in the Cold War space race by subordinating the value of individual cosmonauts’ lives to common needs of its people’s space program while deriding how the United States and NASA got hung up on bureaucratic safety precautions due to being overly sentimental to its astronauts’ safety, this would make sense in the context of Pravda but not really an objective chronicle of truth.

Private space companies are willing to cut costs because something will be “a whole lot cheaper and probably work just as well”; that’s fine, except that NASA has been responsible for the deaths of people and apparently has the opinion human lives in the space program are intrinsically valuable.

Risking the lives of pilots with a spaceship that’s “unsafe, insufficiently tested, and poorly understood” in order to get a big contract and advance technology isn’t necessarily the wrong long-view to have. In the end, the benefits may bear out to be worth it. But I’m not convinced there’s anything brave about Sir Richard Branson staying on as CEO because he had the courage to let someone else die in order to make his company even more valuable later.

Bezos’s company Blue Origin is exhaustingly praised throughout The Space Barons for its motto that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, but NASA’s unwillingness to put human lives in danger is treated as bureaucratic intransigence.

I am less bothered by this being the conclusion the book comes to than that the book never bothers to treat the startup cult’s disregard of actual people as anything deserving a second thought.

Again, this is tech journalism and reporting under patronage in a nutshell. With private companies working to take more of a share of satellite Internet, perhaps it’s future communication in a nutshell, too.

If we aren’t willing to demand more from the companies and billionaires we have while they’re still largely limited to the terrestrial sphere, we may not be able to ask more from them in the future.

Disturbing Senate confirmation hearing shows why Pompeo should not be confirmed

This morning, Mike Pompeo — who is Donald Trump’s choice to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State — gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in advance of the full Senate’s vote on his confirmation.

Some Republican senators were satisfied with general answers Pompeo gave regarding his administrative skills in how he has managed the CIA.

Others had serious concerns about how Pompeo would perform as Secretary of State, which is one of the country’s oldest and most important positions, dating back to the administration of George Washington.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts was particularly distressed with Pompeo’s response regarding a question on North Korea. Pompeo was willing to say that he could see circumstances in which America would have ground troops occupy North Korea. Senator Markey seemed horrified at that response.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey seemed concerned that Pompeo would not be forthcoming to Congress regarding the intentions of the President.

Pompeo refused to answer when the Senator asked him about a private meeting with Trump. Menendez asked if Trump had discussed Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation with him. Pompeo said flatly: “ Senator, I’m not going to talk about private conversations I’ve had with the President.”

When asked again later in the hearing regarding the private meeting said that he could not recall the conversation, remembered there was a meeting, remembered the date of the meeting, but could not recall what the President said in the meeting. He insisted the President did not ask him to do anything improper.

When asked how he would know that if he cannot recall the conversation, Pompeo gave a circular and convoluted response saying that he would have recalled if the President had asked him to do something improper.

Senator Cory Booker seemed particularly concerned with Pompeo’s relationships with extremist right wing radio personalities who have spoken openly and publicly about their Islamophobic sentiments.

Booker first thanked Pompeo for his deference and respect in visiting his office prior to the hearing, and then brought up specific topics of conversation from that meeting that he felt concerned and uncomfortable with.

Booker stated that Pompeo had implied that Muslim people had a responsibility to speak out against any act of terror performed by a Muslim person, and if they did not, then they were complicit in that act of terrorism.

Pompeo struggled to to articulate his position. He insisted that he is accepting of all people regardless of religion, and told Booker that what he meant was that Muslim leaders had an “opportunity” to speak out against terrorism.

He had a hard time explaining himself as Senator Booker brought to the hearing quotes from Pompeo making disparaging remarks about people who worship different gods, people of the Muslim faith, and his quote that Muslim people had a “special obligation” to speak out against terrorist attacks.

Pompeo stuttered and shifted uncomfortably as he described himself as a man who accepts all people from different faiths or those who choose to have no faith, and that all people had a responsibility to speak out against terrorism.

Senator Booker stated that he was happy to hear Pompeo say this out loud in in the hearing. “Words matter,” Booker said. Actions are also important, and Booker stressed that Pompeo needs to understand that his past actions and relationships give the appearance that as Secretary of State he may not be motivated to uphold America’s values, including freedom to practice any faith tradition.

Senator Booker then pressed Pompeo on his position on the freedom to marry.

Pompeo made it very clear that he felt marriage equality was wrong, but insisted that he accepts LGBTQ+ people and that his position does not mean that he supports discriminatory policies against people who don’t identify as straight heterosexuals. Booker asked very pointedly: “Do you think that being gay is a perversion?” But Pompeo refused to take back his previous statements.

“I stand by my position on this issue,” he said.

Senator Booker concluded his line of questioning by noting his concerns about Pompeo’s position that Muslim people have an obligation to speak out against terrorism, and his positions on religious freedom and the right for people of same sex to marry. Booker stated that the Secretary of State must uphold the Constitution and that the positions of the Secretary of State matter.

Senator Rand Paul was dissatisfied with the responses that Pompeo gave regarding his willingness to use military force around the world.

Paul asked if Pompeo believed that the President should be able to enter into a conflict, and noted the power to declare war rests with Congress, not the President.

Paul quoted the Constitution to Pompeo, who seemed to disagree with Paul’s interpretation of the powers the President of the United States has to enter into  conflicts. Senator Paul expressed serious concerns about Pompeo’s position on remaining in Afghanistan. Paul pointed out that all of the people who were involved in the September 11th attacks are gone, and: “We are now sending people to war who were not born when 9/11 happened.” Senator Paul compared the quagmire of Afganistan to Vietnam and drew comparisons. Pompeo disagreed with Paul’s comparison and reiterated his position of the powers of the President.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii had a similar line of questioning as Senator Paul. He asked specifically what limitations he believes are applied to the President by Article II of the Constitution. As Pompeo shifted uncomfortably, he implied that he is not a constitutional law expert, and this particular issue has been debated for some time.

Senator Schatz reminded Pompeo that he had served in Congress, and that his job as Secretary of State would require him to answer to Congress, and requires a commitment to diplomacy and international norms.

Schatz later tweeted: “I will be voting no on Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be Secretary of State. Diplomats should believe in diplomacy. America’s top diplomat must be passionate about diplomacy. Mike Pompeo has not demonstrated that he values diplomacy, diplomats, or the State Department itself.”

Pompeo seems to favor military solutions, take a very right wing and executive branch centered perspective to foreign policy.

That’s a problem. Secretaries of State must be committed to diplomacy across the world and embrace the freedom and democracy that America stands for.

As Senator Booker stated, “Words matter.”  The words that Pompeo spoke today demonstrate that he is willing to keep information from Congress and the American public. He is willing to make foreign policy decisions without input from Congress.

Pompeo does not respect the basic precepts of the Constitution, including the First Amendment, which provides that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Pompeo seems more interested in pleasing Donald Trump and hiding whatever members of the Foreign Relations Committee want to know about their secret meeting regarding Mueller’s investigation. He should not be confirmed.

Paul Ryan calls it quits: He’s abandoning the House Republicans at the end of 2018

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Mr. Speaker.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election, an announcement that rocked the 2018 campaign cycle and signaled a close to the twenty-year congressional career of one of Wisconsin’s defining 21st century political figures. Ryan, R-Janesville, told reporters that he will serve the remainder of his current term but will not seek another one in the November election.

Ryan’s departure deprives the chaotic Republican House caucus of its singular unifying figure and sets up a contentious succession scramble that will likely pit  Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise against each other.

Ryan had attracted multiple credible Democratic challengers back home in his Wisconsin district, including Randy Bryce, better known as “Iron Stache”.

After Ryan’s retirement announcement came down, Bryce celebrated with a message declaring: “We repealed Paul Ryan! Now it’s time to replace him.”

(Bryce’s “Repeal and Replace Paul Ryan” slogan is a riff on the empty Republican promise to “repeal and replace” the Patient Protection Act.)

Bryce has embarrassed Ryan by out-raising him in the first quarter of 2018.

“We outraised Speaker Ryan in the first 3 months of 2018 by $1.75 million! Incredible! And unlike Ryan, we aren’t taking corporate PAC money or cashing $500,000 checks from the Kochs,” Bryce noted yesterday.

Democrats said that Ryan’s decision to retire showed that the House was not only in play, but ripe for a Democratic takeover…. and that Ryan knows it.

“Speaker Ryan sees what is coming in November, and is calling it quits rather than standing behind a House Republican agenda to increase healthcare costs for middle class families while slashing Social Security and Medicare to pay for his handouts to the richest and largest corporations. Unfortunately, for the many vulnerable House Republicans that Paul Ryan is abandoning, his historically unpopular and failed policies will hang over their reelections like a dark cloud,” said Democratic Congressional Committee Campaign spokeman Tyler Law.

“Stay tuned for more retirements as Republicans increasingly realize that their midterm prospects are doomed,” Law concluded.

As if on cue, another Republican promptly announced his retirement. Dennis Ross of Florida, who has served four terms, has decided to call it quits too.

“Eight years takes its toll on you. When you feel like a stranger in your hometown, it’s time to say, ‘There’s got to be an exit strategy at some point,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Thirty-nine Republicans have now decided to retire, and as the DCCC noted, there could be more Republicans heading for the exits very soon.

Happy Passover 2018!

Passover Seder

Passover Seder (Photo: Edsel Little)

If you are observing Passover, which ends tonight at sundown, please accept best wishes from all of us at the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays. Along with Shavuot and Sukkot, it is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals — so named because the ancient Israelites were commanded to journey to the Temple in Jerusalem by the Torah to worship and participate in festivities held as part of each holiday.

Yesterday was Shvi’i shel Pesach (שביעי של פסח) — the seventh day of Passover; today is Acharon shel Pesach, the eighth day of Passover, which is celebrated by some Jewish denominations, but not all. On these, the last days of Passover, Jews commemorate the Crossing of the Red Sea, when Scripture says the Israelites escaped their Egyptian pursuers thanks to divine intervention from YHWH.

This passage from the Book of Exodus (Shermot 14:15-29) tells the story of that escape. The English text appears first, followed by the Hebrew text.

[T]he Lord said unto Moses: ‘Wherefore criest thou unto Me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.

ויאמר משה אלהעם אלתיראו התיצבו וראו אתישועת יהוה אשריעשה לכם היום כי אשר ראיתם אתמצרים היום לא תסיפו לראתם עוד עדעולם

And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground.

יהוה ילחם לכם ואתם תחרישון

And I, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall go in after them; and I will get Me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.

ויאמר יהוה אלמשה מהתצעק אלי דבר אלבניישראל ויסעו

And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten Me honour upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.’

ואתה הרם אתמטך ונטה אתידך עלהים ובקעהו ויבאו בניישראל בתוך הים ביבשה

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them;

ואני הנני מחזק אתלב מצרים ויבאו אחריהם ואכבדה בפרעה ובכלחילו ברכבו ובפרשיו

and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet gave it light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night. 21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.

וידעו מצרים כיאני יהוה בהכבדי בפרעה ברכבו ובפרשיו

And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.

ויסע מלאך האלהים ההלך לפני מחנה ישראל וילך מאחריהם ויסע עמוד הענן מפניהם ויעמד מאחריהם

And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.

ויבא בין מחנה מצרים ובין מחנה ישראל ויהי הענן והחשך ויאר אתהלילה ולאקרב זה אלזה כלהלילה

And it came to pass in the morning watch, that the Lord looked forth upon the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of cloud, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians.

ויט משה אתידו עלהים ויולך יהוה אתהים ברוח קדים עזה כלהלילה וישם אתהים לחרבה ויבקעו המים

And He took off their chariot wheels, and made them to drive heavily; so that the Egyptians said: ‘Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

ויבאו בניישראל בתוך הים ביבשה והמים להם חמה מימינם ומשמאלם

And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Stretch out thy hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.’

וירדפו מצרים ויבאו אחריהם כל סוס פרעה רכבו ופרשיו אלתוך הים

And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.

ויהי באשמרת הבקר וישקף יהוה אלמחנה מצרים בעמוד אש וענן ויהם את מחנה מצרים

And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; there remained not so much as one of them.

ויסר את אפן מרכבתיו וינהגהו בכבדת ויאמר מצרים אנוסה מפני ישראל כי יהוה נלחם להם במצרים2

But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.

Readers interested in Passover-themed reflections may want to read Rabbi Elliot Kukla’s ruminations on creating spaces in one’s life to grow. Ordained in 2006, Rabbi Elliot Kukla is part of the longest-serving rabbinical team in the greater San Francisco area, working out of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. Rabbi Kukla has a history of organizing for economic justice with the Clergy and Laity for Economic Justice (CLUE), and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Prior to becoming a rabbi, he worked as an arts journalist in the Toronto area.

Passover reads:

Again, Happy Passover!

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