Category Archives: Politics

Tax and Regulate

A dislike of taxes and regulations are the hallmarks of those with a libertarian bent. These concepts are somehow subsumed in the socialism is bad, capitalism is good rubric. The problem is this is a gross oversimplification that fits well on a bumper sticker but is a terrible way to determine ones voting preferences.

Taxes come in several flavors: regressive sales taxes, property taxes, progressive income taxes, et al. Although you hear lots of complaints about taxes, few complain about the services they provide: National defense, police and fire protection, highways, schools, etc. Supreme Court Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr famously said: “I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization.”

Before you reject voting for or against taxes, consider how the tax is structured. Sales taxes lean most heavily on those least able to afford them, whereas progressive income taxes rely on those that need the services the most. Police protection is a little like insurance, the more you have to protect, the more you should pay for the protection.

In a similar vein, regulations are important tools for civilization. They protect us in ways that are impossible to do individually. Clean air and water, climate stability, highway safety, and food and drug safety are just a few.

Another oversimplification is the capitalism-socialism dichotomy. The two are complexly entangled. Generally, I would agree that capitalism is a noble ideal, Adam Smith’s invisible hand can guide a market – but not without oversight. Unfettered capitalism is really anarchy. A perfect example is the black market for heroin. A lot of money can be made, so what if people die from violence and the use of the drug itself?

A capitalist needs to recognize that there have to be constraints to trade that preserve societal goals. Laws and regulations are a necessary evil of capitalism, necessary to civilization. If we can democratically agree on those laws and regulations then capitalism is the bee’s knees.

A little more difficult discussion is the value of socialism. The strict definition for socialism is an economic policy where the means of production are owned collectively, where collectively can refer to the government or simply organized groups, from workers to shareholders. Ironically the hallmark of capitalism, the corporation, can be publicly owned and therefore constitute a socialist enterprise.

If you want to consider socialism where the government is the collective, look no further than police protection. Here the state employs the “workers.” Even here it doesn’t disallow capitalist alternatives such as mall cops and bouncers. Even at the federal level where national defense is involved, we have private contractors participating.

Closer to what folks may call socialism is government management of some aspects of society. Medicare and Social Security come to mind. These are wildly popular and effective entitlement programs – the recipients are entitled to benefits by way of previous payments into the system.

At or near the top of making America great is our public education system. We could do better by increased funding and more equitable distribution, but all in all we would be much worse off without it.

The long and short of it is that the arc of civilization is cooperation. As long as we democratically determine what kind of taxes pay for what kinds of regulations, we have civilization, and civilization is a good thing.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Politics and Statehood

Congress has the power to create new states and the bar is not high, at least according to the constitution:

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the congress.”

That’s it. In practice, things have been more complex. Several statehood applications have been rejected. Sequoia would have been a state, basically to give statehood to Native American tribes in what is now Oklahoma. Deseret would have been a state encompassing much of the inter-mountain west but was likewise never approved by congress.

Congressional approval of statehood requires only a simple majority vote, no supermajorities, no participation by other state legislatures, just a simple majority vote in congress. Of course, the president could veto the enabling legislation which would require an override vote requiring two-thirds majorities in both bodies.

In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties have worked to some degree to compromise on objectives but in our current political environment that doesn’t seem to be the case. So why a discussion of statehood now? Raw political power, in particular control of the majority in the Senate.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. The current administration received about three million fewer votes than the opponents in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate represent about seventeen million fewer voters than are represented by minority members.

I’ve done no polling but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that most in the United States truly believe in democracy. It is a simple concept: everybody gets a vote and each of those votes is worth the same. Current polls show a majority favor abandoning the electoral college, up from polling in the past.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield the power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. President Trump received about three million fewer votes than Clinton in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate received about seventeen million fewer votes than were received by the minority.

If new states were created such as Washington DC and Puerto Rico, this could tip the balance of power in the Senate and electoral college. This is hardball but it is the game as it is played today. It needn’t be. Comity could prevail because the Senate makes its own rules. If the Senate dictated, they could simply require that passage of a bill would require enough votes in the Senate to actually represent the majority of voters.

Equity in the electoral college could be managed via a compact where the electors pledge to cast their votes for whomever wins the popular vote.

Perpetuation of the this system will only get worse if the current demographic changes continue to move people out of rural areas into more urban environments. When will “enough be enough?” How disparate will the system be before reform is recognized as necessary?

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Ending H-1B Visas is Wrong

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) don’t attract enough Americans with advanced degrees to staff our universities and research facilities, both private and public. Many with this training come from overseas. They gain entry to the United States via an H-1B visa. This visa can last six years, and with support from the hiring institution can lead to a green card and a path to citizenship.

The value of immigrants to our scientific efforts are immense. We lead the world in Nobel Prize winners, aided by immigrants. Over a third of the Nobel Prizes awarded in the STEM fields of Chemistry, Medicine and Physics here in the United States were awarded to immigrants.

These immigrant scientists are not taking jobs from residents, as a condition for the visa is sponsorship by an agency that has stated that they can’t otherwise find suitably trained people. In the United States, we follow the money and apparently science is not where the money is. The study of STEM fields is an arduous task, frequently requiring long hours in a laboratory above and beyond class time. This is exactly the talent we need to address our fight with the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 as of this writing has infected over 2 million and killed over 122 thousand. We are adding around 30,000 thousand cases a day. Obviously we are not out of the woods with this infection yet. For the short term we need to develop therapeutic agents that will reduce the deaths and damaging symptoms of SARS CoV-2, and in the long term develop an effective vaccine.

To accomplish these goals we need an “all hands on deck” effort by those trained in STEM fields. The pandemic has greatly slowed the number of highly trained immigrants so logic would suggest that we should be taking steps to bring in more STEM immigrants. But that is not what is happening. President Trump has taken the opposite tack. He has halted the issuance of H-1b visas! In his anti-immigration zeal, he is acting to prolong, not shorten our time of troubles with the pandemic.

While most of the rest of the world is acting with science bolstering their effort, our politics is getting in the way. Even though we represent a scant 5 % of the world’s population, our deaths account for 1/3 of all COVID-19 deaths.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Minority Rule is the law of the land

In the lifetime of a current college student, a minority of voters have twice selected the president of the United States. In 2000 Al Gore received about half a million more votes than George Bush but Bush was elected president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got about three million more votes than Donald Trump yet Trump is the president. This has happened on only three other occasions out of forty-five total times.

Currently the Republican party controls fifty-three votes in the Senate, the Democrats and Independents who caucus with them hold forty-seven. Although the Republicans control the majority of votes in the Senate, they represent only forty-four percent of the voters in the United States. We have minority rule in both the presidency and the US Senate.

This disparity in who decides the law of the land was a result of the “Great Compromise” between the power and influence of the small versus large states. The members of the house of representatives often referred to as the peoples’ house, are elected by popular vote. Each House member, regardless of what state they are from, represents about three-quarters of a million people. The Senate is different. Each state gets two senators regardless of size.

At the time of the writing of the constitution, the difference between the populations of the most and least populous states was not as great as today. The ratio of votes in the most populous state, Virginia, was nineteen times the votes in the least populous state, Georgia. Now, California has nominally seventy times as many voters as Wyoming.

The imbalance of votes in the electoral college follow from the imbalance in the Senate. Each state gets electors equal to the number of representatives and senators. An electoral vote is California is worth only one-fifth that of a vote in Wyoming when population is considered.

Compounding the problem is the fact that most states award electoral votes on a winner take all basis. The states get to decide how to apportion popular vote to electors to the electoral college.

Voters in small states have more “electoral oomph” when it comes to electing the president and the composition of the Senate. We currently have minority rule in the presidency, the Senate and the courts due to the responsibility of the Senate to approve federal judges at all levels. Democracy is only found in the House of Representatives. Elsewhere, the minority is thwarting the will of the majority.

Any remedy is hard to come by. Direct election of the president by popular vote would go along way to alleviate the issue of the electoral college but requires amending the constitution. Some argue that the direct election of the President is impractically complex but we do it in every other jurisdiction in the country.

Fixing the disparity in representation in the Senate is even more difficult. Breaking up the big states into smaller pieces by creating senate districts would work. Likewise combining the smaller states into super senate regions is possible. Neither of these is likely – as in now way Jose.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

National Popular Vote

A national movement is afoot to skirt the electoral college in the election of the president. Two out of the last five presidential cycles resulted in the election of a president by the electoral college even though the candidate had only a minority of votes – George Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Obviously, this doesn’t sit well with the majority.

Election by the electoral college was established in the constitution. The rationale was two-fold. First, many at the constitutional convention just didn’t trust the voters to make an informed choice. An indirect process was created whereby voters in the respective states voted for electors to decide for them who should be president. Secondly, differences between more populous urban states and less populous rural states with a dash of slavery thrown in resulted in the current method of choosing electors.

Each State was allotted the number of electors equal to their congressional delegation – the number of Senators and Representatives. Individual states decided how to apportion their votes. All but Maine and Nebraska have chosen to utilize a winner-take-all method for apportioning the electoral votes. Whoever gets the most votes gets all the electoral votes.

Cue the National Popular Vote initiative. Our current system allows for the election of our president via minority rule. To change to a direct election would require an amendment to the constitution. This is made difficult by the fact that the methodology for amending the constitution is cumbersome and can take years. The popular vote initiative can be accomplished by an interstate compact whereby states agree to pledge their electors to who wins the national popular vote, regardless of how the vote goes in their state.

The compact will be in effect when and not until states with a total of 270 electoral votes agree to participate. That number is a majority and therefore all that is necessary to elect a president. So far 16 states have passed legislation joining the compact equaling 196 votes. Oregon was the most recent to join the compact along with New Mexico, Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Vermont, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland.

States with a total of 74 more electors are necessary to initiate the agreement. If and when this occurs the electoral college will still exist but no longer determine the outcome of presidential elections. One problem with this scheme is its dependence on impermanent state law. Right now in Colorado, there is an initiative petition circulating to repeal participation in the compact.

With the compact in force, we have essentially direct election of the president, The person who gets the most votes is elected president. Right now only a few swing states are important to candidates and therefore receive campaign visits. Deep red states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas and a Deep blue state such as Massachusetts get no campaign visits whatsoever. With the compact in force, every state matters.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Voting – Compassion vs Fear

Most of the campaigns where the race is truly competitive, say within a five-point spread, are making their closing arguments. They are focusing on a message that has been honed over a year or so of campaigning.

In campaigns which involve national issues and even some local ones which have become nationalized a couple of central themes have evolved. Democrats are delivering a more positive message of the importance of compassion, health care, and civil and human rights whereas Republicans operate more on fear, fear of violence, fear of immigrants, and essentially fear of “others.”

Stepping away from the labels of Democrat and Republican and using the proxy of liberal and conservative, there is good evidence from psychological and even neurophysiological data for these different approaches to campaigning. It is not only what you think but actually how you think – how your brain responds to subject matter and what part of the brain is activated.

First the more obvious sources of difference between liberals and conservatives. Upbringing, education and personal experiences all influence our political attitudes. Two of these are easily observed. College students from conservative communities as freshmen in college tend to vote much like their parents. Graduate students from those same communities tend to vote much less conservatively. A liberal education actually does make one more liberal. Buzzwords like egghead, ivory tower and over educated are used almost exclusively by conservative commentators when describing liberals, never visa versa.

Women tend to be more liberal than men most likely due to personal experiences. Women are more likely to support collective actions which protect a broader swath of society such as children, minorities, ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. Conservatives are more of the “rugged individualists” where experience has shown them that personal actions are more important – being the soldier, the protector of the family, the breadwinner.

Of course all of the above are very broad generalizations and exceptions abound but the data are robust and come from very large data sets in well-controlled studies.

These themes are seen clearly in campaign verbiage. No better example is the issue of border protection and immigration. Republicans believe that building a wall at our southern border will protect us from immigrant hordes of murderers, rapists, and drug gangs. A recent twist is that immigrants from Central America will bring disease to our shores. One commentator claimed that they will bring Small Pox, a disease which no longer even exists. It was eradicated by an international vaccination program almost 40 years ago. He also warned of a biblical plague of leprosy, a disease easily treated with antibiotics.

They believe that blocking immigration from predominantly Muslim countries will prevent terrorism in our country while the only real current terrorist threat is from indigenous white nationalists. Recently pipe bombs have been mailed to news agencies and democratic politicians, and a gunman murdered eleven at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Democrats believe in an immigration policy that controls our borders while at the same time recognizing that migrants fleeing violence should be treated with dignity and respect. They don’t believe in open borders, regardless of what Republicans claim.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Deregulations Have Harmful Effects

It doesn’t matter, we won. Although this claim was made by President Trump in regard to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court, it could easily apply to most if not all of his accomplishments. He can claim two significant victories as president, the tax cut and deregulation of numerous environmental protections.

Republicans’ justification for tax cuts is always the same. Lowering taxes stimulates the economy and the growth in the economy will raise tax income despite the cuts. And as always it doesn’t work. Rather than increased revenue to the national coffers, The Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the annual deficit it will exceed 1.5 trillion dollars by 2028 and that assumes no changes from existing taxes and spending laws and no recession.

President Trump, with the devout approval of the republican party, appears to be winning on the deregulatory front as well. Even in the face of the most dire warning yet from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), his actions exacerbate global warming and climate change rather than reverse or even mitigate the problem. One might question the pronouncement of an individual scientist but the most recent IPCC report is based on a consensus of the world’s atmospheric scientists.

Imagine that you didn’t trust a diagnosis from your doctor and decided to get a second opinion, a reasonable precaution. By analogy with the IPCC report, you would have to go to hundreds of other doctors before you could find a different opinion, if at all.

Now is the time for us to be acting. You repair the roof while the sun shines, but the clouds are gathering and we are running out of time to act. The solution must be to decarbonise our energy systems. And it can be done with little to no change in our lifestyle. Efficiency through design and building codes save both energy and money. Fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and light trucks save both energy and money. Tighter controls of fugitive emissions of methane save both energy and money.

Wind and solar have the capacity to produce all of the energy we need in this country. The only shortfall is with energy storage, but we are not that far away. A modest investment in the development of battery storage plus overdue investments in the infrastructure for distribution and transmission of electrical energy is the path forward.

So what are we doing? Not just nothing, we are actually acting to make things worse. President Trump wants to burn more coal, roll back efficiency standards on cars and trucks, and remove restrictions on regulations of fugitive emissions of methane. By fiat; that is, executive order, he placed a thirty percent tariff on foreign-made solar panels. This has caused the shelving of billions of dollars of solar projects. Right here in the River Valley, Clarksville’s plan to expand their solar project is on hold.

If we are serious about making America great, we will do so by becoming the world’s leader in sustainable energy technology. Young Americans are much more concerned about the risks to the future, and their resolve to elect officials that care about the future and act accordingly will make the difference. VOTE BLUE

Keep the Families Together

Yep, he went there. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the difference between the United States and the Nazis was that the Nazis were trying to keep the (Jewish) migrants in while his office is trying to keep (mainly Central American) migrants out. That’s a difference? Really? Keeping those fleeing persecution and violence IN or OUT is cruel in the extreme. It goes beyond inhumane, we treat our pets better. Who takes children from their parents as a threat, as a bargaining chip in negotiations over legislation?

President Trump has made numerous false and inflammatory claims in order to rally support for the construction of his border wall and the cruel treatment of migrants here already. He has claimed that we are being flooded with illegal migrants. The reality is that immigration has been down dramatically over the past couple of decades.

Trump has claimed that the immigrants are violent “murderers and rapists.” The reality is that immigrant populations are less violent not more than documented citizens. Yes, there are violent gangs such as MS-13, but they are the exception, not the rule. In science we have a saying, anecdotes are not a substitute for data.

Trump has disingenuously claimed that he hates separating children from their parents but must under the law. As several senior Republican Senators have pointed out, he could end his policy with a phone call. Separating children from their parents as a matter of enforcement is a policy, his, which could be ended in the blink of an eye.

Even though he claimed while campaigning in 2016 “I alone can fix the problem,” he continues to blame the Democrats for the law and even asks that they, the minority party, fix it.

He claims that the immigrants are here taking our jobs, yet unemployment is at a near all time low. His lies even cross oceans. He recently tweeted that due to Angela Merle’s immigration policy that crime in Germany is up, when in fact the crime rate is down.

Evangelical Christians are at the core of Trump’s support, all the while faith leaders are calling for an end to his inhumane policy of separating children from their parents. Leadership in the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United States Catholic Bishops all recently said no to the policy.

With all the outcry from both left and right support for Trump’s policies remain strong even in the face of the knowledge that mistreating children is abhorrent. There seems to remain a level of racism in this country sensitive to claims that the immigrants aren’t people, they’re animals. Asylum seekers aren’t families, they’re murderers and rapists.

We should be working in Central America to to change the conditions which are driving refugees out of their homes to seek asylum within our borders. We should be working to assist asylum seekers, not tearing their families apart.

Have we forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants? We are over 325 million strong. We are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. We are arguably the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth. Morally and ethically we can do better.

Name Your Poisoner

There seems to be a newfound fondness for the Russian government on the part of Trump’s followers, both in the government and the population at large. Several officials have been less than forthright about their connections with Russian government officials or moneyed oligarchs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused from the investigation of Russian interference in our election. Mike Flynn was fired after only three weeks on the job due to his failure to divulge his connections to Russia. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager was fired after it was revealed that he had multi-million dollar contracts with certain Russian oligarchs. Other examples abound.

There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the political aisle that the Russian government or associated criminal elements tried to affect the outcome of our election, and would like to see further destabilization of democracy in America. This is the usual stuff of “cloak and dagger” behavior reminiscent of the cold war. The Russian government also has a much darker side.

Early in the twentieth century, Russia developed a lab to test poisons to be used by various agents and spies. Poisoning is a common method for dealing with both foreigners and Russian dissidents. One of the more famous events occurred during the cold war. Georgi Markov was an anti-communist Bulgarian writer who lived in exile in London. While crossing a bridge to catch a bus in 1978, he was poked in the buttocks with a umbrella. Later in the day he went to a hospital with flu-like symptoms. Three days later he was dead. On autopsy, a small hollow pellet was discovered at the site of the poke. Chemical analysis showed that he had been intentionally poisoned with ricin, an extremely potent toxin made form castor beans.

Victor Yushchenko ran in 2004 for president of Ukraine on a policy of aligning his country with the west rather than Russia. Shortly after his election he met with Ukraine officials who favored an alliance with Russia. Later he came down with what was initially diagnosed as acute pancreatitis. Later still he developed extreme chloracne, a condition only seen in individuals exposed to certain chlorinated hydrocarbons. In Yushchenko’s case it was determined that he was exposed to TCDD, a toxic bi-product of the manufacture of Agent Orange. Although he survive he was ill for months and remains disfigured from the chloracne.

Another dissident, Alexander Litvinenko fled Russia for asylum in the UK. In 2006 he became ill in the evening after having lunch with two Russian officials. He was diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning from Polonium-210. Three weeks later he was dead. It is thought that only a few drops of a Polonium solution in a bowl of soup would produce a lethal effect. This synthetic element can only be had from reprocessing waste from a nuclear reactor.

Surely the luckiest Russian poisoning victim is Vladamir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza describes himself as a Russian democracy campaigner. In May 2015 he became ill for unknown causes. Blood works showed elevated levels of heavy metals but no known toxins were found. Although sophisticated chemical analysis can detect the most minute amounts of toxin, it only works if you know what to look for. Last February he became inexplicably ill again. He was in critical condition for weeks but is now recovering. It can’t be said for sure if Kara-Murza was poisoned – twice – but surely he is a target of the Kremlin and Russian leaders have a long-standing monstrous tradition of poisoning political opponents.

Sanctuary Cities

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a crack down on sanctuary cities. He has threatened withholding billions of dollars in federal grants that would otherwise go to the cities for projects such as transportation and housing infrastructure.

The title sanctuary city is a rather non-specific appellation but it refers to communities that don’t fully cooperate to capture and hold the undocumented for probable deportation by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials.

The Justice Department argues that sanctuary cities allow violent criminals to roam the streets. AG Sessions mentioned a couple of gruesome examples of undocumented men who had been picked up for minor crimes but released and then went on to commit much more violent crimes. Conversely officials in sanctuary cities argue that it is not their job, nor do they have the resources to act as proxies for ICE.

The question is, should we be detaining for likely deportation those undocumented immigrants who have been picked up for minor crimes? Answers to a few questions would be helpful. Do undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at higher rates than legal immigrants and/or citizens? Is the level of violent crime higher is sanctuary cities than others? Can this kind of police action actually make cities less safe?

To the first question, numerous studies over many years have shown that undocumented immigrants are no more violent than those born here. Census data for 1980-2010 shows that US citizens are anywhere from twice to five times as likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute has concluded that “undocumented immigrants had crime rates somewhat higher than those here legally, but much lower than those of citizens.“

The president has claimed that sanctuary cities are breeding grounds for violent criminals, but again the data don’t support the assumption. Professor Tom Wong, Professor of Political Science, UC San Diego analyzed data from the FBI statistics and found that counties designated as “sanctuary” areas by ICE typically experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime, including lower homicide rates, than comparable non-sanctuary counties.

So what, you say. It’s good to get rid of those illegal aliens, whether they are violent criminals or not. Maybe so, maybe not. In February an undocumented woman went to the El Paso, Texas county court house to obtain a protective order for an abusive domestic partner. While there ICE agents arrived and detained her for probable deportation. Since then undocumented women across the country are apparently dropping domestic abuse cases for fear of deportation. Essentially it is open season for domestic abusers. And it’s not just domestic abusers. In this type of environment any undocumented person is subject to more violence because the violator knows that they are less likely to have their crime reported.

Police everywhere know that finding the bad guys/solving crimes is a whole lot easier if they have the community on their side. When police go to the door to ask an occupant if they have knowledge of a crime in front of their home, is an undocumented person going to cooperate, if they know it may result in their deportation? Or will they just not answer the knock, even if it means a violent criminal remains at large?