Hunting the Gerrymander #1: Marginalization

I have been part of many political discussions lately, and regardless of the topic, or the spin, one single thought keeps occurring to me. ‘ This would be less of a problem if Gerrymandering was not allowed. ‘  I am going to write several posts about Gerrymandering and why I want to hunt the Gerrymander down and kill it.  To illustrate why I feel this way I’ll reference gerrymanders in my local area, past and present, whenever possible.

Topic #1: Marginalization.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing voting boundary lines to control an aspect of the voting populous within the boundary.  Drawing the boundary so that a specific social, political or economic minority is a majority within the boundary and has a clear voice and clear representation does seem like the moral thing to do.  It some cases it can be a good thing, other times it isn’t.  You see, drawing the same boundary can be used to isolate a community.

For example there used to be a historical subdivision of my county township.  It was known as East Jackson Township.  This division was used to marginalize a racial minority.  The rest of the Township had a higher population and by isolating them within a single low population subdivision of Jackson Township their political voice within the entirety of Jackson Township could be ignored.  The remainder of Jackson Township spoke for them and thus this community was silenced politically.  Remnants of this political subdivision existed as part of the school system in the county into the 1970s, when the small, ignored, poorly funded, community school was finally fully absorbed into the Waverly City School District.

This marginalizing of citizens does occur at a higher political levels.  Non-economic social marginalization (hopefully) is rare, but political party marginalization is not.  The redistricting of Ohio’s Congressional districts, based on the 1980 Census, placed a large low population area containing several of Ohio’s southwestern counties under the direct political sway of high population Cincinnati suburbs.  Initially the district was mostly Republican, but the ensuing thirty years have seen the most poor and rural of these counties swing further towards the Democratic party.  This is evidenced by the election of Democratic county commissioners, Sheriffs, and by the percentage of Congressional, Senatorial, and Presidential votes cast for Democratic candidates.  What this means is, especially for the Ohio 2nd Congressional District issues, the carefully drawn district boundary that includes small area, high income, heavily Republican, suburban neighborhoods of Cincinnati carved out of Hamilton and Warren Counties speak for the vastly larger rural area.  Issues unique to the rural areas within the district are ignored.  Our representative in Congress speaks for her base; for the area near Cincinnati.  The rest of the district has been marginalized.  We don’t really have a voice in the House of Representatives.  A good example is that Pike County was in desperate need of Health Care Insurance reform, yet our representative would not even discuss the issue with her Democratic counterparts, let alone vote for legislation that her high income Cincinnati suburban constituents do not see a need for.  Another good example is the loss of jobs.  On top of double digit unemployment figures it was already suffering, it was recently announced that Pike County”s largest employer is closing shop.  People would like to blame the President and Ohio Governor, but what about our Representative?  She should have been our voice for the the past five years.  She is more to blame for the economic woes because she has been in office longer and should have done deeds to help the poor areas of her district.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many Republicans in rural areas.  At present there is a good mix of both major parties within Pike County.  This is a good thing, because this causes true debate and forces our locally elected officials to reach out and really work with those who may not hold the exact political viewpoints as they do;  to work together for compromise and the good of all.

This leads into my next post topic — entrenched partisanship — which I will post in the near future.

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Road trip: Bob’s random crap

Whilst on a road trip yesterday to return the youngest to Pittsburgh, I stumbled across a radio station that had me laughing at its concept. Most radio stations these days belong to, or run programming by, companies that run syndicated radio shows. Just about anywhere you are in the USA, you can find a station called “The Mix”, “The River”, “The Classic Rock Station”, etc. and it is mostly pablum with no originality. After all, there had to be a reason why Tom Petty wrote the song “The Last DJ”, right?

I listen to these syndicated stations because I have very little choice. I do tune in Columbus Ohio’s QM96 when I am in range. At least in the morning it seems to have original programming.

The station I had started to listen to while leaving Pittsburgh started to fade out, so I hit the scan button to find some more suitable music for my lonely drive home. I left it on a station that was playing “1985” by Bowling For Soup, because it has a catchy tune and I like the sentimentality of the lyrics. I listen to “1985” when I get the chance because I have had this idea of writing my own lyrics about being sentimental about 1979. I figured it was a station that catered to popular rock hits from recent years and was prepared to hit the scan button as soon as “1985” was over.

My jaw dropped because the next song was “Take a Chance” by Abba. That’s right! Abba!

Next was “Shock the Monkey” by Peter Gabriel, followed by “Don’t Do Me Like That” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And just when I started thinking that it was just another classic rock station, they drop in a song from the mid 90’s. I think the god of coincidence also wanted to get a jab in, you know, because I was still thinking about writing 1979 based lyrics for the song “1985”.

“1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins was next. How weird is that?

During the breaks between songs, I learned that the station was called “Bob”. I also learned that they played whatever they wanted to, and that one listener wanted them to “keep playing that random crap.” Needless to say, I had to start keeping track of the songs that they played. Some of the songs were unfamiliar enough that I didn’t know the artist or the title, so I just wrote down lyric snippits. It has been fun looking them up. It seems I have a void in my brain when it comes to early and mid 1980’s alternative music. I was a tad busy with family and work and college. I couldn’t soak in everything. The songs that followed as I drove from Pennsylvania into West Virginia were (in order):

“I Got You” by The Split Enz; “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” by Bob Seger; “Vida La Vida” by Coldplay; “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order; “Living For The City” by Stevie Wonder; “Crazy On You” by Heart; “What I Got” by Sublime; “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne; “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney; “Lay Your Hands On Me” by The Thompson Twins; (a song that I could not figure out a title nor artist for) and “Bent” by Matchbox 20, at which point the station faded out, just west of Wheeling.

Now I am fairly sure that “Bob FM” is a syndicated station, and if it is, then it is the most original idea for syndication that I have yet encountered. The idea seems simple. Put every top 100 rock song since 1970 into a player and hit shuffle.  All but one song was familiar to me, and even if I didn’t know the artist or the song title, I was able to figure them out.  For the one song I could not figure out I had written down the lyric snippet “this is how we begin”.

I must say that anticipating what kind of song was going to be played next kept the boredom away for that part of the trip.  I plan on listening to more of Bob’s random crap during the next road trip to Pittsburgh.

Bad Paper

{The Political Lamp is Lit}

Of all the sound bite terminology being used by the talking head television newsies theses days, the one that sets my teeth on edge is “bad paper”.

What is bad paper? According to what we are being told, it is some of the investment securities that were created by mortgage companies and banks. Bad paper are the part of these investment securities that have “failed”.

Hmmm. Not very clear, eh? Let’s do more than scratch the surface, shall we?

Okay, first we need to understand a bit about just what these investment securities are. Risky loans for properties with inflated prices were floated by banks and mortgage companies, and they tainted the bottom line of these lenders. Even the least risky of these loans were a problem. The majority of insurance companies would not insure them for their full value. This means that if a mortgage failed, the company would lose some money because the insurance would not cover the defaulted loan. So they took all of these risky loans, divided them up into three categories and called them securities, or “paper”. The least risky loans were AAA, the very risky loans were BBB and the highly risky loans were CCC. This is a neat trick. AAA securities are suppose to be the most stable, trustworthy kind of paper. Solid as granite. The trick is that ALL of this paper was built out of risky loans. Yet because they were labeled AAA, insurance companies and others insured them and bought them. However, when the housing market dropped, foreclosure sales stopped making up the difference because the loans had been higher than the houses had really been worth. Crash. Now the insurance companies had to pay out more than they could; the banks and mortgages companies had to sell the houses for less than the original loans and the companies that had bought these securities now had “bad paper”. It was a great sucking downward spiral.

This bad paper is what everyone is saying has caused or nearly caused the failure of many banks and mortgage companies, and has caused the failure or near failure of insurance companies that insured the securities.

It was not the bad paper. It was the greed that lead to the creation of risky securities based on risky loans made on overpriced houses. If these securities had not been created we would not be in this mess. If the risky loans had not been made we would not be in this mess. If the housing market had not had inflated prices we would not be in this mess.

But still. What is bad paper?

Bad paper is crushed families. At the very bottom of this pile of financial shenanigans are people, families with children and medical bills and hopes and dreams. Yes, some of the loans were to speculators and I have very little sympathy for them. But the majority of the loans that are the basis for this bad paper were let to people with hope for the American dream. Now they are in worse shape than they would have been in if they had never aspired for home ownership. Some pundits blame these home buyers for defaulting on their mortgages. I blame the lenders for greedily making loans that they knew would be defaulted on as soon as the adjustable rates moved upwards. Not every home buyer can be expected to fully understand the financial aspects of this process. I am a smart guy and I didn’t.

So far the bailout has been for the people that created the problem. I would like to see some equity here (no pun intended.)

Banks and mortgage companies that receive bailout money should be required to renegotiate all their loans, well maybe not for a buyer’s second home, starting with adjustable rate mortgages. They should all be moved to a flat rate specified by Congress. This way those those homeowners have a chance of not defaulting. It will turn a lot of future “bad paper” into good paper. Good for the home owner, good for the mortgage company, good for the taxpayer.

Every time I hear “bad paper” on the news, I can not help but think of those families whose lives were destroyed by unconscionable greed.   “Bad paper” is every foreclosure sign, every bank auction, every abandoned property.  “Bad paper” works at McDonald’s and WalMart.  “Bad Paper” stands in lines at the food pantries.  “Bad paper” used to be your neighbor.  “Bad paper” could be your coworker, a fellow church member, the kid at the playground.

And you know what?  It isn’t over.  Soon the same crash will happen with the credit card securities market.  The new “bad paper” will be the people who had to pay the doctor on credit or buy groceries on credit, because they kept paying the mortgage and sacrificed everything else to hold on the the American Dream.  The sick part is these people will likely lose their homes to bankruptcy.

Rant over.

I promise to have some non-depressing topics posted here in the near future.

The Gerrymander still lives…

{The Political Lamp is Lit}

It was with great hope that I entered this election season anticipating that for the first time I would have a elected official in the US House of Representatives that represented me, my neighbors, and my county.

It was not to be.

The Gerrymander still lives and won the day. Again.

It angers me that a few high population Cincinnati suburban neighborhoods control the political representation of the small towns and farmers sixty miles away from their doorsteps. I was hoping that perhaps with the increase in voter registration here in southern Ohio, that perhaps there would be enough votes to oust the seemingly permanent stranglehold those Cincinnati suburbs have over the rest of us. The vote was probably closer than the incumbent would feel comfortable with.

I am left with only one strategy for the next two years. I will write my congresswoman about every important issue. And when she votes in ways that hurt farmers and small towns, I will write letters to the editor of my local newspaper. Perhaps she will surprise me and vote for what is best for her entire constituency, instead of voting the way her party bosses want her to vote. I am not holding my breath.

Understand that the real evil here is not the person who will be representing me in the US Congress. The real evil is the two-party political machine that has a strangle-hold on true representation. A strangle-hold that chokes out fair representation; a strangle-hold that chokes out any effort for a meaningful third political party. We need to kill the Gerrymander that enables the two-party political machine to continue unopposed control over the political landscape.

Oh, BTW. I am so very pleased that Barack Obama is our President-elect. Perhaps now our nation can focus on our better values like kindness, and on doing what is right because it is the right thing to do–not because a profit can be made. I am sure I will have more on this in the months ahead.

Politics and the Federal Employee

{The Political Lamp is Lit}

I have not been very vocal on this blog about politics and this very important election.

There is this law called the “Hatch Act” that limits federal employee participation in partisan elections. It is very straight forward for most employees. But there is a huge gray area for those of us that work out of our homes. Among other things, the Hatch Act stipulates that a federal employee can not engage in political activity “while in a government office.” I have a home office, and it may be a tad paranoid, but I can clearly envision a disgruntled person that disagrees with anything politically partisan I might say, turning me in to the FBI for investigation, simply because my federal “office” is also my “home.”
Additionally there is the stipulation that federal employees can not “solicit or discourage political activity of anyone with business before their agency” which can be interpreted to mean not only the businesses that provide services and products to the government department I work for, but also those individuals that seek service from my department. In short, it could be construed as illegal for me to ask a veteran to vote for a specific partisan candidate; from US President down to County Sheriff.

I am paranoid because I have seen good and decent civil servants harassed and vilified in recent years. I have no doubt that if I gave the Hatch Act a looser interpretation, and if my political opinions embarrassed or angered certain people, that I too would become one of the harassed and vilified.

I have said all of this because I do have something to say.

I just didn’t know how to phrase it in a non-partisan way. But thanks to Karen Ellis, UK author of the online comic, “Planet Karen“, I can quote someone else, and get my point across with poignancy and humor, and stay within my Hatch Act paranoia. (The emphasis in the below quote is Karen’s.):

“Sure, I don’t know much about the big, complicated picture, but I do know, because I saw the guy stand up and say it on TV, that one of the candidates thinks it’s okay to torture people. And I don’t care if he’s promising free ice cream and comics for all, that means he would never get my vote.
“The people of the U.S.A. like to see themselves as the bastion of hope and freedom, fighting against evil and tyranny. That’s a great ideal, but I just want to point out at this time that you can’t play the Rebel Alliance when you are building the Death Star.”

Make sure you vote. As we have seen in 2000 and 2004, every single vote does count and can make a difference.

Slice of Americana: an 11 hour roadtrip

The road trips when I take Derek back to school are both happy and sad. I am happy that I get a good bit of one-on-one time with him. Jokes, music, movies, books and just plain silliness are all topics that we cover. The half of the trip with him in the car is a blast.

The sad part is after I leave him at his apartment, obviously.

Yesterday had a different twist to my lonely return trip home. I saw something on the way to Pittsburgh, and it stuck with me. In one of the little Ohio towns we passed through there was a real estate sign that had a “foreclosure” attachment on it. Right beside it was a political sign for the republican presidential ticket. Derek and I chuckled about it. That is kind of like thanking a mugger for taking your wallet!

I guess because of this I was paying closer attention to the temporary roadside signage during my trip home. It was depressing to say the least.

In one town, over 25% of the homes on its main street had For Sale, Auction or Foreclosure signs. Another handful had no signs but appeared to be abandoned. Businesses in the tiny town center were closed and boarded up. If a dust devil had formed in the street I think I would have stopped the car and started looking for Joad family to give them a few dollars. In my opinion, the NeoCon Depression is here.

Further down the road, at the town limits of another community, was a hand made sign that said “Welcome to Baghdad”. I paid closer attention as I drove through at the required 25 mph. On the way to Pittsburgh I had noticed that there was utility construction of some kind going on. What I failed to notice was that the construction was halted, uncompleted. Piping of some nature, gray-water?, sewer?, was lying at the roadside. There were a few places where segments of pipe had been attached together above ground. At one small business the pipe blocked access, but someone had dumped some gravel on it to allow cars to drive over it. The place was a mess. There was no sign of any construction company presence.  For Sale signs were prominent here as well.  My guess is that the contractor went belly up or more likely, based on the citizen’s sign, did an “Iraq contract”, you know were the US contractor games the contract so they can legally walk away with the town’s money without finishing the work.

All along the way the signs of things for sale; houses, cars, tractors and farm equipment; were fairly equal to the political signs.  I wrote a humorous post about For Sale signs during the primary election cycle.  It isn’t funny to me anymore.

I have always loved driving two lane highways and rural routes when on a road trip.  But, man is it getting depressing to do so these days.

Review: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – ed. by Humphrey Carpenter

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – ed. by Humphrey Carpenter

What an amazing book.

Like many people I have been a fan of Tolkien since High School. I still have the battered paperback editions of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings on the bookshelf behind me. All three of my sons read the same editions. What has always struck me about Tolkien’s books is the depth of the characters and the world they inhabit. Now that I have a sampling of what the man was thinking and doing during the process of writing these novels, I have an even greater respect for the accomplishment.

I recommend that every Tolkien fan read this book.

The thing that made me smile the most is that Tolkien was a deeply religious and devout man, and yet he kept all such things out of these books. Even the Silmarillion, while structured like a holy text, does not preach or push a religious agenda. This simple fact shows that Tolkien was a reasoning man who understood the difference between real life and the escapism of his “fairy stories”. The kindness and goodness of the heroic characters in his works, and the simple themes of justice and strength of character are all he needs to use to define his moral and ethical grounding. He could have preached morals but he didn’t and in doing so captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of young people.

I am tempted to go into greater detail and describe how this attitude was prevalent in his day to day life, but I don’t want to spoil any of this book for the reader.

I do want to take time to discuss how I think Tolkien might have felt about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. There are things that would have upset him I think. Not things like the elves showing up at Helms Deep, or Arwen’s expanded presence, but the contorting of character’s motives and strengths. I think he would be most saddened by the treatment of Faramir. In the books Faramir knows his quality. It is not seeking approval and love from his father that drives him, but his duty and love for his father that does so. To have Faramir drag Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath, have him desire to be his brother, and to have him question his own worth detracts from the message Tolkien was trying to convey through character: there is still good in men.

But enough with ranting on my part. Read this book full of letters written by the man himself and form your own opinions. Better yet, just read the book and see for yourself that Tolkien himself was a man of quality.