Friday, May 29, 2020

Two West Coast Presidents

Did you know that just two of America’s 45 Presidents were born west of the Great Plains? Their names are Richard Nixon, born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California; and Barack Obama, born in 1961 in Hawaii.

This trivia is less surprising if you remember that every President, except Obama, was born in 1946 or earlier.  In the summer of 1946, when Bill Clinton, Bush Jr., and Trump were born; Southern California still hummed on 50 hertz power instead of 60, television was a scientific experiment, transcontinental phone calls were expensive, and air travel in propeller aircraft was reserved for adventurous members of the 1%. The mean center of US population was at the Illinois-Indiana border; today it sits 350 miles southwest in Hartville, Missouri. As a foregone conclusion, a septuagenarian cut from this long-bygone era will be elected this November. The 2024 race will certainly represent "passing the torch" to a new generation.  

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Classroom and Coronavirus

In privileged quarters, students of elite colleges are asking for a “universal pass” on this semester’s courses. These colleges have returned the favor with Pass/Fail grading. (Anemona Hartocollis, NY Times, 3/28/20). Who are they to speak? Meanwhile, in the K-12 environment, contingency plans “tore off the bandage”, revealing deep discrepancies in our first-world society.

Internet access- Many families with broadband internet access face strict bandwidth limitations, which prevent full utilization of online meetings and classwork. Many rural households rely on dial-up internet, running over phone lines placed during the 1930’s Rural Electrification Act.

Technology- Among the working class, cell phones serve as the family’s primary link to the internet. Household surveys focus on whether or not a family has a home computer, etc. It does not consider if each member of the family- adults and school-age children- has a way to work online.   

Childcare arrangements- Among working-class and poor families, we might as well be back to the Upton Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards. Because of smaller and atomized families in a more mobile America, teachers have found that older children are taking care of younger siblings. In other cases, small children follow their mothers to attend chores outside the home. In certain quarters, teachers and the school system have been equated to child care providers; Kamala Harris was of this opinion.

Economic strategy for adverse time- This comes up in crisis management training for EMTs and fire squads: keep track of your receipts so the governor can hand FEMA the bill. Yet prior to this outbreak, the US had no clear strategy to handle the personal and small-business economic fallout of contagion. We are highly leveraged as a society, and run on thin margins as household budgeters, landlords, and business owners. Our savings rate is much lower than in Asia. Over the next year, displacement and eviction, as well as household consolidation into shared quarters, pose a risk of disruption to student’s learning.

Control of contagious diseases- Special protections for service workers, such as Plexiglas shields, were introduced too late. Outside of the medical field, transportation workers, police, and cashiers have been punished hard by the virus, with many untimely deaths. COVID joins a handful of other maladies whose patients receive care at government expense. Each of these diseases has a chapter in American history: Polio, leprosy, kidney failure (ESRF) and, until 1981, shipboard medicine.  

Monday, May 11, 2020

Coronavirus: Price Gouging Works for Me, but…

Panic-buying emptied the shelves of rice, canned goods, bleach, toilet paper and paper towels at the base commissary. Even the much-neglected Underwood potted meat was sold out. This was not a surprise, as every military family is required to have a nucleus of survivalist / prepper mentality (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape is the name of the mandatory course).

But the grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies in town were also laid bare. I thought of one place that hoarders may have passed over: the windowless urban corner store. Tiny and dim, small selection, but carrying all essentials. Including toilet paper and paper towels. They had a different supplier, perhaps the back of a family minivan or pickup truck: The brand names on the shelves were from Maryland and New York, not Lower Virginia. Or perhaps, living paycheck-to-supplement check, the neighbors couldn’t afford to hoard like the city gentry and suburbanites. More likely, the shopkeeper controlled demand by raising prices. Any big store or chain which took that libertarian step would’ve been pilloried by the press, excoriated on social media, and investigated by the attorney general. The corner store was small fry, probably selling 12 rolls of paper per day.

In the end, nobody ran out of toilet paper. Most consumers were able to procure their paper products through traditional means, as supplies were available, and at a fair price. Voluntary rationing and redistributing toilet paper from offices and schools to retail stores helped close the gap. As I only shopped once every other week, there was a snowball’s chance in hell that products would be on the shelf during the two hours a month I was in the grocery store. Paying a bit more for toilet paper saved me from making a special trip to the office, where that commodity is kept unused by the crate-load.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Then and Now: World War Two and Coronavirus

Make Do Without
A month ago, it was easy to be a consumer. Today, with restrictions on in-person shopping, and necessary slowdowns in e-commerce warehouses, one reconsiders their purchase before hitting “click to buy”. Is this essential? Do I put someone at risk? Is there someone who need this more than I do?”
In the first week of social distancing orders, canned goods disappeared from shelves; even the potted meat and Vienna Sausages. Later supply disruptions were seen in milk, egg, and meat shelves; these are more labor-intensive to produce. Many grocery stores rationed their in-demand goods: one carton of eggs, two pounds of meat, at the military commissary. No coupon books or point tokens required, but cashiers were counting. Spoiled with a plethora of authentic restaurants, some New Yorkers are struggling to adapt to a new reality of cooking at home. “What if I can’t find (x) ingredient?” Just make do without.  

Neighbors Helping Neighbors
COVID-19 forced a reassessment of what talents and treasures are important. With stay-at-home orders, a health crisis has become a nascent economic crisis. As governments work out stimulus plans, members of the community are emerging with a spirit of volunteerism. These range from dispersing essential information on neighborhood forums, assisting with grocery shopping, and donating facemasks and sanitary supplies.   

Take Care of Yourself
The Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad was founded 83 years ago in 1937, but is celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year. They humbly refuse to take credit for the wartime years, when the squad was disbanded on account of manpower shortages. Community health leaders provided training and information on self-care for minor health issues. For the first time on a nationwide basis, industrial and personal safety were emphasized. “Tojo like careless worker”, read a poster showing an ambulance in front of a nighttime factory.  With so many doctors deployed overseas, an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Recently, Baltimore’s mayor, and a Philadelphia surgeon, expressed concern than victims of violent trauma were taking critical care beds away from COVID-19 patients. In normal times, the medical community advised citizens to “call 911 if in doubt”; today, the prevailing advice is to first speak with a doctor over the phone before coming to the hospital.  

Adapt, Improvise, Overcome
Many Americans of the silent generation (born in the 1930s and early ‘40’s) fondly remember their wartime childhoods. While relatives were occasionally killed in action, Americans made sure that children were not left behind. For the first time, quality daycares were established for working mothers. Overseas, childhood was more traumatic in the midst of air raids, interrupted schooling, rural relocation, and genocide. Today, with schools closed, it appears that our situation is more similar to wartime London. Parents, teachers and childhood professionals are adapting with various efforts. A set of “best practices” may emerge soon.

Remember those on the front lines
This current battle is being fought with ventilators, hand sanitizer. But like any war, morale and public civility must be maintained. Moments of appreciation count. Medical professionals are giving their all. Delivery drivers and grocery clerks are busier than ever. New York Police Department and transit workers are falling ill in the line of duty. Medical colleges are graduating early.

Vacation at Home
During WWII, it was assumed that tourism took gasoline, train seats, electricity, and manpower away from the war effort. Florida, even then a vacation destination, had to be careful in advertising tourism in light of the wartime sacrifice. Instead, the Office of Defense Transportation put out a poster reading: “Me travel? Not this summer.” Today, excessive travel is seen as insensitive to the times, and a proven vector for virus transmission. A spring break airplane from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico was singled out as an example. (When did college kids begin chartering airplanes?) In hard-hit touristic counties of the Northeast and Mountain West, local sheriffs are pulling over and questioning motorists with out-of-state license plates.

Food is a Weapon
The farming and food packaging industries were coordinated to either provide a growing percentage of foodstuffs to cafeterias and restaurants in industrial packaging (Sysco and US Foods), and a slightly shrinking percentage as consumer groceries to wholesalers and supermarkets. In the face of COVID-19, inefficiencies in the marketplace led to empty grocery shelves, and the industrial consumers refusing to purchase farmers’ crops, milk, and livestock. Understandably, it is difficult for food producers like Kraft, Nestle and Nabisco to retool towards consumer packaging on a dime; regrettably, restaurant providers like Sysco and US Foods have not asked groceries, governments, and families to consider purchasing industrial-sized packages, and avoid food waste. I have long wondered why major grocery chains have not attempted to break into the foodservice business, or why Sysco and US Foods have not attempted to open wholesale clubs.    

Fresh milk is being dumped into lagoons, crops being plowed over. As much as farmers dislike this waste, they cannot subsidize the transportation costs of unsold goods. The food situation is akin to the Great Depression, when there was no central coordination to bring food from farms to the urban poor. The US Department of Agriculture rectified this waste in the 1940’s; with the abundance of industrial farming, these efforts slipped in the 1950’s; but were restored with the Food Surplus Program in the 1960’s.

Queen Elizabeth II Speaks
During WWII, a young Princess Elizabeth II worked as a military truck driver and mechanic. The Queen of England, now 93, made a rare public address on Britain’s resolve to overcome the coronavirus.   

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Flash: COVID Quacks, Madoff Pays Out More

A Stitch in Time for Some Madoff Victims
 The Department of Justice announced that on April 20, the Madoff Victim Fund (MVF) began its fifth distribution of approximately $378.5 million in funds forfeited to the U.S. Government in connection with Bernie Madoff's investment fraud scheme, bringing the total distributed to over $2.7 billion to nearly 38,000 victims worldwide. Bernie Madoff has currently served 10 years of a 150-year sentence related to his Ponzi scheme.

 Worse than Eating Tide Pods

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida has entered a temporary injunction halting the sale of an unapproved, unproven, and potentially dangerous coronavirus (COVID-19) treatment product, the Department of Justice announced today.

The Department of Justice alleges that the defendants, Genesis and its principals sell and distribute a product called Miracle Mineral Solution, also referred to as MMS.  Genesis sells MMS through its websites claiming that it will cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent Coronavirus, which includes COVID-19, as well as other diseases including Alzheimer’s, autism, brain cancer, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, among others.  MMS is a chemical product which, when combined with the included activator, creates a powerful bleach product that the defendants market for oral ingestion.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously issued public warnings to consumers that MMS can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.  The Justice Department sought preliminary relief from the court.

“The Department of Justice will take swift action to protect consumers from illegal and potentially harmful products being offered to treat COVID-19,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt.


Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Amateur Hour- Voting During Coronavirus

Wisconsin’s presidential primary elections- and a state supreme court justice race- were held on Tuesday April 7th in the midst of stay-at-home orders. These are the first statewide races in the US since primaries in Florida, Arizona and Illinois on March 17th. Some commentators have related local COVID-19 outbreaks to in-person voting during the March 17th primaries, but the medical community has not agreed with this hypothesis.  

In Wisconsin, many citizens relied on in-person voting, and waited with face masks in social-distanced lines. For health reasons, most poll workers – predominately elderly volunteers- stayed home, closing most polling places in Milwaukee and Green Bay. Long lines were observed in these cities, perhaps because many absentee ballots were not mailed to voters on time. Absentee voters had to find a witness to sign their ballot and envelope, and some citizens were reluctant to come out of self-isolation to meet this requirement. Results will be tabulated after April 13th, which will reveal voter participation and turnout rates by city and county. There is a good chance that the media will declare this fairly low-stakes vote a spoiled election. These kinks- make that structural flaws- need to be addressed well ahead of the November elections, and preferably before the April 7th results are finalized. Don’t take Wisconsin to the whipping post over this; the state is only a messenger of situations across the country, yet to come.

My city, Norfolk, Virginia, will be holding local elections on May 5th. The Office of Elections recommends that citizens apply for an absentee ballot. The approved steps for requesting an absentee ballot in light of COVID-19 is a workaround, using the existing vote-by-mail request. Social-distancing absentee voters will swear or affirm, under felony penalty for making willfully false material statements, that “I have a reason or condition that prevents me from going to the polls on Election Day”, that condition being “my disability or illness”. If this doesn’t count as voter discouragement, tell me.  Because of how state laws on absentee voting are written, the use of workarounds like this will be common across the country.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Guam Hands: Coronavirus

As high value assets with geopolitical importance, Aircraft Carriers and Ballistic Missile Submarines mythically have a “direct line to the President”. An enemy had incapacitated the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt; not the Iranian Navy, who practice sinking American warships on simulator; nor was it an explosive garbage skiff, the kind which sent USS Cole home early from deployment. The enemy is coronavirus, waging its war on the crew of USS Roosevelt.

As crewmembers fell ill, with cases outnumbering the capacity of the shipboard medical team, the Commanding Officer of the carrier would’ve sent Navy Pinnacle messages through classified lines, notifying the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense. Decision was made to bring the ailing ship into Guam to isolate the ill and provide the remaining sailors some needed social distancing.    

Loose lips sank ships in World War Two, but “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets” in the 21st century. At sea, it is possible to secure non-essential communications in a maneuver dubbed “River City”. Loose messages sent by email or by satellite phone are held in queue. Meanwhile, the CTs (cryptologic technicians) can sniff out any renegade short-wave radio sets. But once the ship is in sight of land, personal cellphones fly out of pockets and into texting hands. Relatively speaking, it is better for an experienced Captain’s letter to leak to the press, than for a hundred crewmembers’ social media posts to become news of the day. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.

“Restriction of Movement”, the military term for coronavirus self-isolation, is a major undertaking on Guam. On a normal day, housing costs for sailors and airmen “living on the economy”- off the base- is overpriced. A single off-base event like Chief’s Gala or Navy Birthday Ball can sell out every mid-price hotel on Guam. To house thousands of sailors under restriction of movement, empty tourist hotels are being requisitioned for self-quarantine.

The infected sailors will lean heavily on the benefits of youth. Of greater concern is that a number of highly-skilled chiefs and officers are in their 40’s and 50’s; as leaders, maintainers and reactor operators, their skills are still needed onboard this ship. Healthcare facilities are limited in Guam. There is a sizeable Naval Hospital, which serves active duty and retirees. Many Guam residents travel three hours by plane to Manila, Philippines for specialized medical care; likewise Filipino veterans of the US Armed Forces are entitled to care on Guam. International travel has been curtailed: three Manila flights per day has turned into three flights per week.

Once the fog of war clears, the military or Congress owes Captain Crozier, USS Roosevelt’s relieved commanding officer, a hearing into how the regular lines of communication broke down. Shortcomings in operational security occur at the highest levels, to include then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had some trouble with sensitive government emails on a personal computer. Assuming no prejudice is held, Captain Crozier’s future remains bright.

Command of an aircraft carrier is one of the highest accomplishments among US Navy officers. One must be a smart and tactical aviator, a competent ship’s skipper, and a trusted military leader. In general terms, an American aircraft carrier can be described as a city squeezed between a nuclear power plant and international airport, with the perimeter of a warship. This is a unique responsibility. Today, with the assistance of civilian mariners, commanding officers of hospital ships and submarine tenders do not cross-train as surface ship operators, which can take a decade in ascending billets; after accomplishing mastery in their primary warfare community. These traditionally were officer-of-the-deck, executive officer, and commanding officer of a large auxiliary ship. Aircraft carriers stand alone in years of a specialized preparation track.

(Between assignments supporting aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, and the Guam-based submarine tenders, this developing story is of interest to me.)

Friday, April 3, 2020

Beggars in the Kingdom

I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor”, wrote Pope Pius X in 1914. This was a man who donned the Papal Tiara, rode atop a Sedia, and wore full regalia at the altar. As the Vicar of Christ, he owned none of these emblems, and had no blood heirs to this inheritance.

“The poor will always be with you”, taught Jesus Christ in the lesson of the widow’s mite. In this lesson, Jesus (see Mark 14:7 or Matthew 26:11) demonstrates that we should give our best to higher purposes, even as we rightly turn our hearts to charity. Critics of church wealth forget humble Jesus’ admonishment against his disciples, who instinctively criticized the woman from Bethany who anointed Jesus with precious perfume. This instinct towards modesty in faith is natural, and is ingrained in Buddhist and Hindu teachings, and within my own family. Critics of the Tridentine Rite conjure up imagery of medieval times. They bring up the chasm between wealthy church and insular clergy; against poor, illiterate peasants separated by an altar rail; and whose attention is garnished with bells, gold chalices and royal vestments. They contrast the stone facades of Vatican City to poverty in Africa, wondering how wealth can be transferred. To these critics, church finery represent the trappings of royalty; instead of a sense of transcendence and permanence.  I deject, the Church is:

Patron of artistry and craftsmanship- gifts to the Church are made by artists sponsored by wealthy patrons, or even the joint contribution of parishioners.

Protector of heritage- monasteries maintained ancient libraries through the Dark Ages.

A commonwealth- In contrast to the jewels of private citizens, church splendor- beautiful objects- can be shared by parishioners. Furthermore, precious metals such as gold and silver historically served as an emblem of sovereign strength without the need for bloodshed. Look at Switzerland’s enviable position as an example.

One to draw attention to the altar and the priest. Pope Benedict XVI’s vestments (and Pope Francis’ simple garb) draws the attention of media and its millions of viewers. This coverage might otherwise be given to the Queen of England.

Can the Church do better to help the less fortunate? It is true that the Vatican Bank has large investments in London real estate and Beretta firearms. To help further the Church’s recent push towards environmental justice, I would suggest that the Vatican expanding its holdings to include acres of threatened, unique forest preserves in places like the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Smartphone Features I’d like to See

Lie Detector
Imagine how many lies and mistruths tell their parents over a smart. Polygraph and chest leads are optional, since this function will use GPS data and tone-of-voice analysis

Tactical Grenade
We already know that lithium batteries explode at the wrong time, in the wrong place. We’re just making it predictable.

Mood Ring
Consumer Therapy has been the American cure-all since World War Two. Get ads that relate to, and “fix”, how you are feeling.

Hormone Sensor
Picks out the meal that matches your feelings: pickle and ice cream; or bison and elk meat, this app knows it all.

Driving Mode
Because clicking seven times to get to the GPS map just isn’t safe

Hot Pack Mode
Boiling water and rubber pouches are so last century. Apply phone directly to aching body part. Notice hoe warm your phone gets in the car already.

Ship Mode
Equal representation of those who travel by a ship at sea instead of an airplane. Detects chokepoints like Gibraltar or the Strait of Hormuz that might have cell service. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Coronavirus in Virginia

Autarky is a national policy of economic independence. In an attempt to contain the coronavirus, the United States closed the borders last Friday, with many other countries following in short order. This paleo-conservative experiment was short-lived as domestic restrictions, led by states and municipalities, took place by Monday. The strictest restrictions on social and economic life, dubbed as “shelter in place” orders, were instituted in New York and California. Applying these restrictions in America, successfully used in authoritarian China and civic-minded Italy, would’ve been unthinkable several weeks ago.

With commerce reduced to the essentials, such as groceries, the economy is grinding to a standstill. Of greatest concern is unemployment, which will cause a recessionary spiral. The service sector, operating on thin margins, has been greatly impacted. Low wage workers, like waiters, drivers, and cashiers, often do not have savings to bridge a gap of unemployment. Their absence from the discretionary consumer economy will deepen a recession. In a crunch, it is easier for a small business owner to cut payroll than to cut its rent. A major stimulus bill is moving through Congress. One key feature is cash payments to individuals. This will keep people fed, and allow for utilities, and at least a portion of rent or mortgage to be paid.

Reporting from Norfolk, Virginia, whose region reported 50 cases of coronavirus, large gatherings have been ended by state order. In the urbanized city of Norfolk, municipal services and public facilities like rec centers and libraries has been closed. Less restrictions were in place in suburban Virginia Beach.

On Tuesday’s Saint Patrick’s Day, many of the established restaurants were closed. Smaller restaurants and taverns were still engaged in a lively trade.  By Wednesday, even these establishments transitioned to take-out fare. While grocery store cashiers and delivery providers work fearlessly, the white-collar workplace, with its cubicles and close quarters, has been shut down nationwide.
At my local Navy Base, telework or administrative leave began this week. Shipboard work, like that in construction and other blue-collar fields, is continuing as usual. Open berthing and dining onboard warships poses real risks of virus transmission; one case of coronavirus was identified on the USS Boxer. Current Health Protection Condition (HPCON) guidance to the military advises non-essential group work and training be suspended. 

Public officials still encourage exercise and solitary recreation. It seemed to be the case on Friday. With an unseasonably warm Friday, young service-members gathered on the local oceanfront beach. More concerning is the Spring Break amalgamation of nationwide youth on the beaches of Florida, as reported in the Wall Street Journal and other media.

Many have wondered if laid-up cruise ships can be used for quarantining infectious patients. Remember that the coronavirus has spread rapidly through two cruise ships, likely due to shared ventilation. Two hospital ships, USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, are built to hospital standards, and do not face this limitation.  

Friday, March 20, 2020

Three Biggies: Self-Defense, War and Death Penalty

Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledged in General Principles that “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty”. Even between catechisms, there are differing opinions on these two issues.
Pope John Paul II promulgated the now-famous Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. In contrast to previous teaching on the issue, capital punishment was legitimized (however narrowly) under self-defense doctrine. This, according to scholars Feser and Bessette, contrasted to historical treatment of the issue as a matter of asset forfeiture: losing one’s most precious asset, human life, in expiation for a crime. Pope Pius XII in 1952 noted that a convicted murderer "has dispossessed himself of the right to live".

Cardinal Bernadin put forth the Seamless Garment in 1983, following Eileen Egan’s 1970’s teachings on the consistent ethic of life. This ethic opposes willful abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and, note the qualification, unjust war. This concept spread through the American seminaries, and no one was surprised when Cardinal Sean O’Malley criticized the issuance of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The former noted, in line with the John Paul II Catechism, that the threat had already been “neutralized” by Tsarnaev’s imprisonment before trial.  Indeed, Tsarnaev claimed his death sentence was an injustice- after killing 3, maiming 16, and terrorizing a nation. Pope Francis’ recent revision of the 1992 Catechism declares capital punishment “inadmissible”, commenting that previous teachings on the subject were more legalistic than pastoral in nature.

Lesson 33 of The Baltimore Catechism, the American Bishops’ official catechism until last decade, identifies three circumstances when human life may be lawfully taken:

1.       In self-defense
2.       In a just war
3.       By the lawful execution of a criminal.

In practice, public enthusiasm to carry out just rewards- to be “tough on crime” or to “Bomb Agrabah” is tempered by involved parties with respect for human life and recognition of moral culpability. These involved parties are police officers, homeowners, military officers, and trial judges, who direct and carry out the lawful taking of life. For example, no serious politician or official wants to legislate Genesis 9:6 into law. As seen in public discourse, the highest value of human life is assigned to those accused of a capital offense, where one wrongful execution is a moral outrage; and lowest for innocents in a war zone, in which a thousand foreign casualties does not churn the stomach. As an example of this ethic, then-Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign-stop execution of mentally-incompetent Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas is still discussed today. If this was not a lawful execution per-se, then was it willful murder committed by a future president? (3) Historical statistics likewise demonstrate that the perceived moral hazard of taking an innocent life is greatest with capital punishment, and lowest in war.

·         Self-Defense: 149 unarmed Americans died during an encounter with law enforcement in 2017 alone. (1). This figure does not include accidental deaths under Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws.

·         Just War: According to the National Geographic, 500,000 Iraqi civilians have died in conflict since 2003.

·         Forfeiture: Since the 1970’s, 1 possible execution of an innocent person in America. This case was Cameron Willingham, found guilty of arson and executed in 2004. Governor Rick Perry of Texas was informed that trial evidence used outdated fire science, but he chose not to issue clemency to Mr. Willingham. (2)

In matters of human dignity, all these innocent lives should be weighed equally. In practice, they are most certainly not. Our nation spends millions on a single capital appeals, and not enough to provide clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan. There is no absolute truth or fallacy when commeasuring these issues: self-defense, just war and capital punishment. Personally, I feel that the ultimate punishment should be reserved for exceptional cases like Tsarnaev's. The key takeaway is to stay informed.

                 (2) Identified by Edward Feser and Jospeh Bessette in By Man His Blood Be Shed
                Agrabah is a fictional Middle-Eastern city created by the Walt Disney Company.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Fruits of Vatican II

A Roman Catholic priest in a small Greek parish stood at the altar. His colorful vestment read “Jubilee 2000”.  What a figurative flash to the past! Folk mass, felt banners and banal vestments represented the short-lived embracing of faddish cultural trends. This was part of an unwritten zeitgeist summed up as the “Spirit of Vatican II”, or “change for change’s sake”, which claimed dozens of priceless high altars in its wake. 

During this era, say from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, vocations to the priesthood or sisterhood plummeted. From a practical perspective, young people taking vocations become tied to the institution they served. They need a sense of stability, whether the vocation is in the Church or the Military. I saw this in friends who resigned from NROTC during the transformational tenure of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Seminary attendance had stabilized under Pope Benedict XVI, who pontificated on subjects as mundane as clapping at mass, calling the specter “religious titillation”. Young revolutionaries today work outside the Church, and the seminaries attract a more philosophically and spiritually mature candidate.

The Vatican has long been a powerbroker among the royalty of Europe, and a temporary retreat in the late 19th century was an aberration to norms. The First Vatican Council (1870-1871) can be seen as an ecclesiastical retreat from the world at a time when Italy and Germany had just been unified. This council reinforced the authority of the Pope Pius IX, urging the faithful to look to him as an empirical bedrock of stability in a changing Europe. Piety and transcendentalism, Archangels and Demons, dominated Catholic spiritual life.  This era gave birth to parish churches with astonishing high altars and stained-glass windows; many of which in America can be seen around large-city downtowns today.

 The Church did not wait until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s to reengage the world. Instead, it was drawn back into contemporary affairs not long after it had retreated:
Pope Leo XIII expressing concern about the dignity of the working man and his family in the age of industrialization;

Pope Pius X ensuring charitable assistance to American immigrants arriving from Southern Europe;

Pope Benedict XV and Emperor Charles of Austria working to limit the devastation of the   First World War;

Pope Pius XII asserting Vatican authority over Mussolini’s fascist rule in Italy, on issues such as protection of Jews.

“Opening up the church” is a common catchphrase about Vatican II. Indeed, Italian clerics dominated the Papacy and other key Vatican offices. In the United States, Irish-Americans dominated the priesthood. To the chagrin of Southern European newcomers, these Irish clerics retained the mark of WASP oppression, preferring the Low Mass, and remaining reserved from parishioner’s daily lives.  Some describe the intellectual environment of the priesthood and Catholic scholarship as rigid and stultifying.

If anything, Vatican II gave a long-awaited green light empowering the faithful to use their talents to further their understanding. This in turn has refreshed philosophical debate within members of the Church, especially concerning the interface with political governance. As far as lay leadership is concerned, cracks in a hierarchical veneer emerged by the 1930’s. After receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Father Charles Coughlin took to the radio with messages in favor of Christian social democracy, and against “the international money-changers in the temple”. Bishop Fulton Sheen also took to the radio, but worked from official Church teachings. Dorothy Day, a laywoman, started the Catholic Worker Movement. She printed a newspaper, advocated for labor rights, and provided relief for the poor. The internet today provides a platform for Catholic-focused websites such as EWTN, Church Militant, and One Peter Five.

The New Saint Basil’s Hymnal, printed in 1958 and still used in traditional parishes, excised “good old hymns” of the Victorian Era on the grounds that they contained lackluster theology and doctrine. In the same decade, Pope Pius XII removed redundancies from the Tridentine Missal. Recognizing that centuries of add-ons had complicated religious observance, the Church simplified rules on fasting and prayer routines in the 1950’s. 

 “Vatican II opened the church, and the people left”: Yes, the Catholic Church has attrition issues. But think of the many Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, who are peripherally attached to the Church. The decline of Mainline Protestantism serves as a cautionary story. For the Greatest Generation, attending mass on Sundays was a social obligation. When asked, many couldn’t elucidate on tenets of the faith, or on personal spiritual beliefs. Later generations did not feel a need to attend mass or even affiliate with the church. For an increasingly sophisticated and middle-class audience of Cultural Catholics, self-discovery is real learning, and pastors should guide with a fusion of approachablility and moral certitude is required: a “no judgement zone” policy has decimated the stature of once-solid institutions like the Episcopal Church; and too much “judgment day” talk- think the Mormon faith- deters wandering souls.

Importantly, Vatican II encouraged dialogue between neighbors, statesmen, and global citizens of different faiths. This is essential in an increasingly connected world, but was discouraged in a different time, lest the faithful be drawn to heresy. Father John Main, a Benedictine Monk, developed Christian meditations from his travels to Southeast Asia. Politically, social tensions have emerged in the Muslim world, especially in places like Indonesia, where limited ecological resources pit neighbor against neighbor. Today, snippets of Catholic teaching float around the halls of Congress, and into the courtroom; under the mantle of Natural Law. Catholicism, like Judaism, is not merely a religion, but also the basis of philosophical and moral codes. 

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Happy Leap Day!

"For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don't know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February,
Twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence – I shouldn't be surprised if it were owing to the
Agency of an ill-natured fairy – You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year,
On the twenty-ninth of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you'll easily discover,
That though you've lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
You're only five and a little bit over!
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
Ho! ho! ho! ho!" Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Living in the Selfie Society

Within just a few years, the smartphone and its incipient selfie stick have created a billion amateur photographers vying for the perfect shot. They will travel the world for the perfect picture to post on the Internet, on Instagram or Facebook. They seek special moments once found only in wild dreams.
They consist of generations (Millennials and Gen Z) who chooses to spend money on travel and technology, instead of squirreling away savings for down-payment on a house, a car, or retirement. They fly low-cost airlines and stay in Air BnBs. Instead of retail therapy, try travel therapy: Washington Dulles Airport advertises flights to London as a cure for the “Quarter Life Crisis”.

The opportunity for a commoner to travel far from home is a recent phenomenon. Even in the 1980’s, The Preppy Handbook quipped about “The Tour”, typically a young American’s first transoceanic sojourn, with de rigeur visits to London, Paris and Rome. These were carried out by privileged college students of means, while their middle-class co-eds were busy working for tuition money. Childhood stays in Europe and the Far East were reserved for children of diplomats and military “brats”, a dated term in the post 9-11, continuous-contingency world. Just a decade ago, my community paper, DC’s Northwest Current, would publish columns on residents who went to “interesting” destinations, often on government business. How have times changed.

In Amsterdam, locals lament touristic behaviors such as drunk and disorderly conduct, and interference at the farmer’s market. The small Dutch city hosted 20 million visitors last year. In the search for “authenticity”, to include Air BnB homeshares, it appears that inconvenience is imposed on locals and their residential neighborhoods. Washington, DC’s Metrorail lampooned “Escalefters”, people, usually tourists, who stand on the left side of the escalator, impeding the flow of rush-hour commuters. Despite the neighborly complaints, one must acknowledge that cities were built to handle the masses.

The ecological call to “tread lightly” in sensitive destinations is too often forgotten in the pursuit of personal glory. One article in the New York Times recalls the incredible amount of gear left on the climb to Mount Everest, and of the lines and congestion which detract from what ought to be a spiritual moment. More recklessly, vainglorious adventurers attempt the climb with insufficient preparation, and Sherpa guides feel pressure to head out in sub-optimal conditions.
One way to view the travel-selfie phenomenon is the concept of self-assertion in an economically uncertain era. The 1930’s had movies on the “silver screen” to provide an outlet of escapism. Today, “getting away” for a moment (from student debt or stultifying employment) requires little more than an airplane ticket.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Hot Dogs and Handguns

Hot Dogs are sold in packs of six, and buns in packs of eight. I’m neither a hot dog nor a gun enthusiast, but I know the math doesn’t add up on a proposed 12-round limit for firearm magazines in Virginia. 12 rounds is an important number in a military-heavy jurisdiction, as it is the number of bullets needed to complete the Navy Pistol Marksmanship Test. Some legislator had their heart in the right place, but failed to ask an expert: the military’s preferred handguns use a magazine of 15 rounds, which would become illegal under proposed laws. This is the default magazine of Beretta’s M9, and the smallest NATO stock number, off-the-shelf magazine to complete the Marksmanship Test.  

The average sailor, who carries a firearm on duty, qualifies with live ammunition once per year on the Navy’s budget. Firearm instructors, however, recommend monthly practice to maintain marksmanship skills. Sailors fill this gap by going to the range after-hours with their personal handgun; this is an ingrained part of Virginia culture.

Then what about true high-capacity magazines? That question is answered. Virginia has long banned firearm magazines over 20 rounds: It applies in Virginia’s major cities and populous suburbs, when in public; and has been law since 1991*. This law is not worded in heavy-handed language used in the Northeastern states, but it nevertheless gives law enforcement the authority to stop a violent crime before it happens. If this ill-advised 12-round limit becomes law, lawful gun owners would be required to purchase slightly smaller magazines that won’t suit a legitimate and government-sanctioned sporting purpose. We will know that the legislature has placed virtue signaling over practicality and military readiness. 

* See: § 18.2-287.4. Carrying loaded firearms in public areas prohibited; penalty.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Right to Work: Debate Then and Now

Press rooms in heavily-unionized New York and California have a narrative about right-to-work laws. They say these laws were passed by Southern states in the Jim Crow era to ensure a supply of low-wage African-American labor. Union leaders join in, calling Right-to-Work a right to work for less (SIU).

What the argument comes down to is a debate on whether the Closed Shop should be allowed. In a Closed Shop, employers are bound by union contract to only hire members. In contrast, in an Open Shop, employers may control the hiring process. A Right-to-Work state prohibits the Closed Shop.
Right-to-Work laws emerged shortly after World War Two, from Texas to Virginia. These laws would later be passed in the Mountain West. In the North, union loyalty remained strong among blue-collar Whites. African-Americans fought to join unions, which controlled hiring on lucrative, blue-collar middle-class jobs. Many of these involved contracts for immense public-works projects of the era. 

However, until the 1960’s, the Federal government tended to view labor unions as private associations exempt from due process. This held true even if the union held Closed Shop privileges. In some cases, racial discrimination was written into union by-laws; in others, nepotism ensured that sons and nephews of members filled the entry ranks.    Immense pressure by African-American groups upon City Halls, with sympathy from upscale Whites, wedged a token opening for minorities to join labor unions as equals. Furthermore, the Eisenhower administration considered using proposed national Right-to-Work legislation to right a civil wrong. In the South, unionization of railroad employers often led to a loss of skilled jobs for African-Americans, according to then-contemporary Herbert Hill.

Right-to-Work need not be the death sentence of labor unions. Unions which provide value to members, and to employers, will always be in demand. At OSG, a major ship-owning company (pre-2013), Licensed Deck Officers voted to disband its collective bargaining agreement. This was a move discouraged by the company, as the union representing the company’s mates provided surge labor, training, medical services, and a retirement plan. The company couldn’t imagine life without its labor unions. For disclosure, I am a proud, dues-paying union member.

Note: Janus vs. AFSCME concerns a different issue. This decision has been criticized as one enabling “freeloaders” to collect the benefits of membership without paying dues.

“Labor Unions and the Negro”, Herbert Hill. Circa July 1959. Found on
“Why Are Anti-Union Laws Called “Right To Work”?, Brian Palmer, Slate. 12/12/2012.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Party Before People

A young man from Westchester sails the seas, slowly but determinate in rising the deck officer ranks. His high school classmate is a news-garnering Congresswoman representing Queens, New York.

If there was a congressional district that resembled the neglect of “plantation politics”, the 14th district of New York, located in the borough of Queens, is a sure bet. Much attention is paid to the competitive congressional races in the suburbs of Long Island and Staten Island. Names of White-Ethnic pols like Max Rose, Dan Donovan, Anthony Wiener, Peter King, and Lee Zeldin permeate the national airwaves. But politically speaking, vast swaths of low-rise, diverse urban neighborhoods go unheard. This is flyover country in New York; elevated subway lines and commuter trains from the economic behemoth of Lower Manhattan squeak brake dust as they speed through the street life of immigrant and low-income Queens, en-route to the suburbs.

It was here that Joe Crowley, a Queens Democratic Machine insider, was elected every two years to Congress without facing a serious primary challenge. In this district and many other inner cities, the general election is a “mole hill”, to quote the 2014 words of failed Maryland gubernatorial candidate Lt Gov. Anthony Brown. That “mole hill” is surmounting nominal Republican and independent challengers in the November elections.

Crowley, a politically run-of-the-mill Democrat without clear convictions, harvested votes that afforded him and his family a comfortable life in Northern Virginia. He and his family rarely spend time in the New York neighborhoods which he was elected to represent.

His district was low-hanging fruit ready for disruption. A young women with a Twitter account ended Western Queens’ political malaise. Her name is Alexandra Occasio-Cortez, or AOC for short, raised in the high-expectations suburbs of Westchester. According to my shipmate, Westchester was a cauldron of high performers, who’d use their talents and guts to forge a path in the world. He became a merchant ship’s officer, she moved to inner-city Queens to become a waitress. 

Though politically immature, AOC was able to see opportunity. Parts of the 14th district had become gentrified by upwardly mobile, mostly White newcomers. It was in this economically privileged (though student-debt-laden) sphere that hyper-progressive AOC secured her majority in the 2018 democratic primary.

Under New York law, Crowley’s name still appeared on the general election ballot under the Working People Party line. He had cruised for decades under the precept that disengaged voters would instinctively “vote for the democrat”. Running on the Democratic line, Joe Crowley regularly secured 40-point victories against the opposition parties. But Joe Crowley had no brand; and this was not nearby Connecticut where Senator Joe Lieberman avenged a primary loss by running, and being elected as, an independent. Joe Crowley decided not to campaign, and on election night, he garnered a mere 7% of the vote, despite his decades in office and his name still appearing on the ballot. This was not a story of progressive versus moderate, but a question of passion and attention to the voters.

“My crazy classmate”, utters our merchant ship officer from the helm.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Go Ahead, Virginia, Ratify the ERA

Virginia is on track to be the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, which would constitutionally guarantee equality of rights on account of sex.  Virginia’s approval would meet the requirement for ¾ of states to ratify before a Constitutional Amendment is added. Once this step is complete, there will be issues to resolve.

First, Congressional authorization on the proposed Amendment expired in 1979. It will have to be renewed by a super-majority of Congress.

Second, several conservative states rescinded ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. It is unclear if a ratification can be rescinded.    

Two of the most common criticism of the ERA, first elucidated by Phyllis Schlafly, are that it will constitutionally guarantee a right to abortion, and same-sex marriage. In family law, there is a fear that ERA will allow lousy, incompetent men easier access to child custody. In Maryland and Hawaii, gender equality laws were used in the courts to procure recognition of same-sex unions. However, these proved to be exceptional cases. Many states, in fact, have Equal Rights Amendments in their State Constitutions; and a number of these have not legalized same-sex marriage or late-term abortion at the state level. Sympathetic moderate and conservative groups should emphasize this unspoken point.

So far, the US Constitution has not been amended during my lifetime. The 27th Amendment, concerning Congressional pay, was ratified in May 1992.