Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between

Can America Be Saved?

I tend to avoid politics and religion in this blog, for obvious reasons. Both subjects seem to get peoples’ blood boiling. But it is an election year, so the temptation has become too strong to resist. Besides, reasonable people can discuss contentious issues in a reasonable and respectful manner, right? So here I go.

The title of this post might be considered a tad dramatic. But it is, nonetheless, not far from the truth. Sadly, our government is as corrupt as any third world banana republic. (In fact, elections in some of those third world countries are often much cleaner than ours. Just ask Jimmy Carter.)

So what makes our current system so corrupt? Two things:

1) Politicians require massive amounts of money to run for national office. The 2012 election cost over $7 billion. The 2014 midterm election was the most expensive midterm in history ($3.67 billion), and this upcoming election in 2016 will probably cost more than both of those previous elections combined.

Most of this money comes from large corporations and extremely rich people. When oil companies give a politician millions of dollars, whose interests do you think that politician will vote for? Simply put, campaign contributions are legal bribery, and the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision only made the problem worse. The idea that “money is speech” is a grotesque misrepresentation of the Constitution. The Koch brothers (or a union) just have to hand over a few million bucks to a campaign without saying a word and the politician is in their pocket. No actual speech required.

This situation is absolutely no different that handing a politician a briefcase full of cash in return for a political favor. In a word, it is corrupt. And it is legal.

2) Our election system itself is corrupt. All of the major electronic voting machine companies are owned by avowed republicans. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. I have good friends who are republicans. But my confidence is not inspired when the owner of one of the largest companies stated publicly in 2004 that he was committed to electing a republican president. Nor is my confidence inspired by clandestine, last minute changes to the voting software, the companies preventing government officials from inspecting their software, evidence that the software is easily hackable, thousands of votes that mysteriously appear and/or disappear, municipalities where the number of votes exceeds by a large margin the number of eligible voters, or the propensity of votes for one candidate to switch automatically to an opposing candidate — while a person is voting. All of these irregularities are well documented.

If the benefits of these irregularities were equally divided across the political spectrum we could blame incompetence, but they’re not. In nearly every case, they benefited republican candidates. I believe it was Stalin who said, in effect, the voters don’t matter; what matters is the person who counts the votes.

On top of that are the myriad voter ID laws and voting rules passed recently in response to contrived fears of “voter fraud,” which is nonexistent (except for the institutional fraud noted above). The only purpose of these laws and rules is quite transparently to disenfranchise people of color, who overwhelmingly vote for democrats. (Example: Increasing the number of voting machines in affluent white neighborhoods and severely limiting them in minority neighborhoods, such that people in the latter must wait many hours to vote — or can’t vote at all because the polls close before they get off work.)

And then, of course, are all the stories of republican committees putting up billboards in minority neighborhoods or sending out flyers to minority voters that give the wrong voting date, or the wrong location, or contain a veiled threat that the voter will be arrested for some reason.

Honestly, I don’t understand how people get away with this stuff. But it’s all legal.

Obviously, the fix is in, as George Carlin once said. The idea that we live in a representative democracy is a pleasant fantasy, but no more than that. The question is: can it be repaired? Can the republic be returned to the people? (The government has only been “by the people” (mostly) for about half of our history, such as for several decades after the revolution, and for several decades after the depression.)

There are ways to fix our former republic. They won’t be easy to implement, because the moneyed interests are firmly against any such change. In theory, though, they are doable:

1) Get money out of politics. Period. Make it illegal for anyone, private citizen or corporation, to donate to a campaign. But then, how would candidates get their message out? Simple:
2) Free air time. Television and radio stations are given licenses by the government to use the public airwaves. Let me repeat that: public airwaves. The people of the U.S. own them, not the broadcast companies. Make it mandatory for each radio and TV station to donate an equal certain amount of air time to each candidate, as a condition of keeping their licenses. Make other aspects of a campaign publicly funded, and each candidate gets the same amount.
3) Limit actual campaigning to a maximum of three months before the election. No more of this ridiculous 18-month campaign. This will have the added benefit of reducing the media’s sophomoric tendency to treat the campaign like a horse race instead of a forum of ideas on the future direction of our country.
4) Go back to paper ballots, which can be recounted and are much more difficult to tamper with.
5) Repeal all those ridiculous voter ID laws, ensure that every person is given the opportunity to vote, and make voting day a holiday. Make it illegal to spread false information.
6) Finally, make it mandatory to vote. If you don’t vote and don’t have a reasonable, verifiable excuse, it’s a $100 fine.

Please note: there is absolutely nothing partisan about these suggestions. They benefit both parties equally. Nor do I mean to imply that democrats have never engaged in underhanded or even illegal activities, because they most certainly have (Daly’s Chicago comes to mind, as do the shady dealings of some unions in the past). But is it a sad fact that most of the shady stuff recently has come from the GOP and right-wing PACs.

I guarantee if these changes were made, this would once again become the republic it was designed to be. Benjamin Franklin, asked upon leaving the Constitutional Convention what form of government we had, famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We lost it once before and regained it. Maybe we can do it again.


The Wages of Living in Fear

I don’t usually get too serious in this blog, but this subject has been bothering me for some time.

There seems to be an accelerating trend in the U.S., fomented with glee and abandon by republican presidential candidates and right-wing media. That trend is to believe that everyone lives in mortal danger at all times, from every conceivable avenue, and the only defense is to arm oneself to the teeth and be ready to shoot.

Well here are the wages of living in constant fear and paranoia (from ABC News):

Ohio Man Fatally Shoots Teen Son He Mistook for an Intruder
By Dan Sewell, associated press
CINCINNATI — Jan 12, 2016, 4:20 PM ET

An armed man who believed he was confronting an intruder in the basement of his home Tuesday morning instead fatally shot his 14-year-old son, who was supposed to be on his way to school, police said.

Police said the teen had headed to the bus stop but apparently came back home through a back door. The man said he heard a noise in the basement. Police said when the father opened a door within the basement, the boy appeared.

“He scared me!” the distraught father said in his 911 call shortly before 6:30 a.m. “I thought he was in school. I heard noise, so I went downstairs looking and he jumped out at me. …. Oh, God. Get here quick!”

The man told police he accidentally shot his son with a .45-caliber handgun. After initially telling the 911 dispatcher the boy was hit in the chest, he then said it was in the neck. The dispatcher told him to put the gun on the kitchen counter, then talked him through first aid steps and tried to calm him until police and emergency vehicles arrived.

The boy died at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Police identified him as Georta Mack. They didn’t immediately release the name of the father, who’s heard in the tape repeatedly shouting, “Oh, God, please hurry! Oh, God!”

There was a similar story recently of a woman who shot and killed her daughter when the girl arrived home unexpectedly. The woman kept a loaded gun by her bed.

When are people going to wise up and stop listening to the fear mongers? Picture here Senator Lindsey Graham talking about ISIL, fluttering his hands and crying, “We have stop ISIS before we all get killed here at home!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ae7EXUSyhc)

Really? A few fanatics are going to cross the ocean and kill 300 million Americans? Just like that? What an idiot.

This kind of fear mongering benefits only the politicians who thrive on generating fear to get elected (with empty promises to make everyone safe) and weapons manufacturers who conveniently fund the campaigns of those very same politicians. See a connection?

When did Americans become so easy to scare? When did we all become so gullible and paranoid? Someone’s chance of dying in a home invasion is so small as to be negligible, but unintentional homicides like the one above are all too common, as are other accidental shootings, often by toddlers who get a hold of that same gun that someone believed was going to make him or her “safe.” Only a handful of Americans died at the hands of terrorists last year, but over 30,000 died as a result of firearm homicide, suicide, and accident. Few people seem to care about that, even though that really IS a scary statistic.

I’m not opposed to responsible gun ownership, but keeping loaded weapons at the ready as though you live in a war zone is a recipe for tragedy. Maybe it’s time Americans re-discovered their backbones and their senses and stopped listening to the spineless (or just cynical and opportunistic), frothing-at-the-mouth fear mongers in Congress and on TV.

What If You Won $400 Million?

Like so many other people this week, I’m indulging myself in the fantasy that I could win the biggest lottery jackpot in history. 800 million dollars! That’s $32 million every year for 25 years. Or, if you take the cash award, about $400 million after taxes.

Now, I realize that my chance of winning is so small as to be statistically zero, but if I don’t buy a ticket my chance of winning is definitely zero. So, what the heck? I bought a ticket. Just one. Buying hundreds of tickets, as I have seen some people do, only increases one’s chances by an incremental amount (they’re still so close to zero as to be negligible). I’m not going to waste that much money. I’m very fatalist about it. I figure, if I’m going to win, I’m going to win, whether I buy one ticket or a thousand.

So what if I do win? Well, I’ll admit I have indulged myself with a bit of fantasizing.

I would give most of it away. Let’s face it, who needs $400 million? Nobody. I confess I have zero respect for all those super-rich billionaires we’re always reading about, whose only purpose in life seems to be accumulating even more money, no matter who gets hurt or no matter how much the Earth is damaged. If you already have $40 BILLION, why would you want more? What could you possibly do with it? It just doesn’t make any sense to me to spend all one’s time accumulating more when you already have more than any sane person — or any sane thousand people, for that matter — could possibly need. There’s way more to life than that.

Anyway, back to the fantasy. First, if I won, I would use a very large chunk, perhaps as much as $100 million, to create a trust fund. The purpose of the trust would be to provide grants and low-cost loans to small farmers who want to convert to organic but can’t afford the cost. In this way, I would be able to increase dramatically the number of organic farms. People would be healthier, the Earth would be healthier, and the cost of organic would probably decline, perhaps even approaching the cost of “conventionally produced” food. (I love the use of the term “conventional” to describe the practice of dousing food with toxic chemicals, as though that’s how food has always been produced. In actual fact, until about 70 years ago, conventional food was all organic.)

Second, I would also provide hefty chunks of cash to a variety of environmental and social justice charities, because I believe we need to take better care of the Earth and because I think that people should be treated with dignity and respect. Sure, there are undesirable elements that don’t deserve respect (you know, like some of those avaricious billionaires I just mentioned, sitting in their fortified mansions, fondling their money). There are always going to be predators and parasites, in nature as well as in human society. But I believe most people just want to be treated fairly and live honorable, peaceful lives. If I can use some of this lottery windfall to help some of them do that, then so much the better.

Third, I would of course provide my extended family with enough money to erase their financial worries, for the rest of their lives if they manage it well.

And finally, yes, I would indulge myself. I’d like to have a nice house right by the beach so I could surf every morning without fighting traffic. I’d like to travel more. And I’d like to be able to charter a plane whenever I need to fly in the continental U.S. so I can avoid the hassle of flying commercial. And I’d like to have a Ferrari. Or maybe a Porche. I’d keep — and invest — just enough to allow me these things without having to worry about finances ever again. I don’t need much more than that.

What about you? What would you do if you won $400 million?

UPDATE: Now the jackpot is $1.5 billion. Holy smokes. I can barely conceive of that much money. But my priorities remain the same, just more for each. It’s fun to think about winning, of course, but there is a very real danger that winning that much money could completely destroy someone’s life. Perhaps that’s another reason why I would give most of it away.

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Earth as seen from Antarctica

Some things take on a certain resonance when viewed from a windblown, polar desert. Since I arrived here at McMurdo Station a little over two weeks ago, the weather has been, shall we say, challenging. It has been an endless parade of storms, sometimes with wind in excess of 50 mph, frigid temperatures (-10F), and blowing snow. There have been times when I haven’t been able to see more than a few feet in front of me. One must be particularly vigilant for large vehicles (as in bulldozers and forklifts) and blowing debris in conditions like those.

It is here that I have just finished reading my signed copy of “Earth,” by David Brin. As I have come to expect from Mr. Brin, the novel is imaginative, thought-provoking, thrilling, and exceptionally well written. And frightening, because it invokes a future world that is all too possible. In fact, in some respects, I would say inevitable. It is perhaps because I read it in Antarctica that I have been pondering the future–both the fictional one as well as the impending real one–in rather stark terms. One cannot spend as much time as I have here in the bitter cold and desolation without coming to appreciate the generally life-friendly environment found elsewhere on our little planet. One also comes to an understanding, on a very fundamental level, that the rest of the planet could look like Antarctica–if not in frigidity, then certainly in desolation and lifelessness–if we’re not careful.

And we are not careful.

I have to wonder about us humans. Individually, we are rather smart. As a species, not so much. Oh, we are certainly clever. We invent all kinds of new technologies and modify our environment on a scale that has only happened once before in Earth’s history, when cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere from neutral to oxidative. But that took eons. We’ve made our changes in, literally, the blink of an eye. And the changes have not been good.

As a biologist, I understand the basic imperatives that motivate all living things: pass on DNA to the next generation; gather resources to facilitate this activity. The more resources, the better, in most cases. When humans take this to the extreme (which, frankly, most humans would do, given the opportunity), it’s called greed. But other animals are greedy too, when they have the option. I’ve had dogs who are never satisfied with the toys they have, they want all the toys in your hand or hidden in your pockets. Some animals, when given access to all the food they can imagine, will eat themselves sick. “More, more, and more” seems to be the default position.

I had hoped, once upon a time in my youthful optimism, that we humans would see the bigger picture and moderate that destructive influence. We certainly have the capacity to do so. We have the brain power. But we seem unable to harness that brain power to see the bigger picture and make decisions that will ensure our survival. Just the opposite, in fact.

Look at how fishermen have historically mismanaged the resources that provide their livelihoods. They will notice how a fish stock is diminishing, but instead of getting together and coming to an agreement designed to ensure the fish stock remains robust and sustainable, they try to outcompete each other to grab the last little bits, to get as much money as possible out of it before it’s gone. And then when it’s gone, they blame the seals, or the whales, or sport fishermen, or the government. The only reason some fish stocks still exist is because that government stepped in and imposed much-hated regulations. It is only because of those regulations that any fish are left at all! In some cases, the regulations came too late and certain fish stocks became economically extinct.

And now we have well-moneyed and powerful oil and coal barons who fight tooth and nail to maintain their lucrative industries, vociferously denying the negative impacts of their industries even as those negative impacts become more and more obvious. They have used their money and power to purchase politicians–purchase our republic, actually–essentially removing the only impediment to oligarchic control: a functioning, democratic government. They are not the only ones, of course. Pharmaceutical industries, agritech industries (like Monsanto), “healthcare” giants, and others have done the same, and their damage to our political and physical health should not be underestimated. But no other industry has the long-term, potentially devastating influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Sure, we are all guilty to an extent. Most of us drive cars, purchase consumer goods manufactured far away and shipped across oceans, and burn fuel to stay warm. But in many cases, we have little choice. Decisions made by industry and government limit our choices, even though we decry those limits and press for more reasonable alternatives. There are those who have sounded the alarm for decades. Thirty years ago I wrote an essay (published in the San Diego Union-Tribune) in which I offered this analogy: If you place a culture of bacteria in a petri dish and leave it to its own devices, one of two things will happen–the bacteria will multiply until all the food is used up, then they will all die, or, if they are of a particular sort, they will poison themselves with their own waste products, and they all die. Sometimes both things happen at once.

So how are humans different?

Clearly, we are not. That is glaringly obvious. Any living creature will multiply to the greatest extent possible, and it is only external factors (such as predators) that keep the population under control. We no longer have any predators, other than ourselves. But populations freed of predation will succumb to the bacteria scenario, or their populations will be brought under control by the two last-ditch methods the ecosystem has: mass starvation and density-dependent disease. It is the height of hubris to not understand, despite all our technology, that we are subject to the same controls. The current Ebola crisis is just the latest that mother nature has sent our way. It won’t be the last. (Unless, of course, the Ebola virus evolves the ability to transmit itself in the air while retaining its virulence.) And starvation, well, that’s where this conversation is now headed.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, there took place the worst of several mass extinction events in Earth’s history. About 90% of all life, on land and in the ocean, perished. The event, which took a thousand years or so, was apparently caused by massive volcanic activity in the area now called Siberia. Volcanoes spewed huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which warmed the globe by a process that any five-year-old can understand, but that which deliberately escapes the comprehension of certain rich and powerful (some would say stupid) people. Warming reached a point at the end of the Permian where pent-up methane was released from permafrost and from the deep ocean and polar seas. At that point, the feedback loop went into overdrive. The globe warmed as much as 10-12 degrees Celsius, drought ravaged the land, acidification ravaged the seas, and pretty much everything died.

That same process, which took place because of natural events over the course of thousands of years, is happening again. Only this time it is happening with a rapidity that ought to boggle anyone’s mind. It is a rapidity that is absolutely unprecedented in Earth’s history. It takes a broader perspective to see this, and humans seem generally limited in their ability to see beyond the next day, or the next quarterly report. But if you understand biology and ecology, if you understand geological processes, if you understand the grand reach of time that characterizes our planet’s history and development, it become very clear indeed. In the geological equivalent of a nanosecond, we are irrevocably altering our environment in a way that is making it incapable of supporting human life.

Brin’s book paints this kind of picture, but in that fictional account there is still hope. I am not so sanguine. I know what happens when a massive system is pushed out of balance. It seeks a new balance, and it reaches it sooner or later, but in most cases that new balance is dramatically different than the starting point.

Earth’s climate is just such a massive system, and massive systems have a lot of inertia. Like a huge freight train, it take a lot to get it moving, but once it’s in motion, it is not stopping anytime soon. We have put Earth’s climate into motion. The train has left the station. We might have been able to moderate the effects and stave off the worst of it a few decades ago, when wise and prescient people first sounded the alarm. That opportunity is lost. Researchers have already measured methane seeping out of permafrost, and people have seen methane bubbling up from the Artic ocean. Even knowing this, we continue to make the situation worse. Carbon emissions are predicted to increase by 2.3% worldwide next year and beyond.

At some point, they will begin to decrease, not because we have suddenly wised up, but because the effects of our foolishness and profligacy will finally start to be felt, in diminished economic activity, diminished food production, and diminished population. That point is coming sooner than anyone wants to believe.

People may decry what I am saying as “doomsday hysteria.” It is nothing of the sort. As a scientist and philosopher, I can look at what is scathingly obvious with a certain amount of professional objectivity. Earth has gone through this before, and she always recovers. After the devastating Permian extinction, it only took her a few million years to repopulate the globe with a whole new diversity of plant and animal life. She will do that again after we are gone.

And we will be gone far sooner than anyone wants to believe. It doesn’t take much to destroy a civilization, even an advanced technological one like ours. It has happened many times just in the brief span of human history. Take away food, and everything falls apart. I think human beings will be extinct in less than 300 years. Maybe a lot less. The victim of our own greedy, selfish stupidity, and mainly the greedy selfish stupidity of a relatively few people. All their money and power will do them no good at all when there is simply no food to buy. It is a shame that they cannot see that.

Still, it is sad, and I am profoundly disappointed. We humans held such promise. I think of the sublime miracle of consciousness, the very fact that we can be self-aware and can also look out upon the universe and be amazed and humbled and filled with wonder. I think of the miracle of love, which I have to believe goes far beyond the simple facts of procreation and hormonal influence. There is a spiritual component to love that far surpasses those biological imperatives.

I think of the sublime beauty of this planet, with its stunning diversity of life. There is certainly nothing like it in our solar system. And even though there are almost certainly other planets with life, there may be nothing quite like the Earth in the entire galaxy. What a shame to despoil such a place.

I also think of all the beauty we have created, and the noble and courageous things we have done. Art, music, individual acts of love and heroism. What other creature demonstrates these things? What other creature looks out upon a beautiful sunset with wonder and then feels compelled to paint it, or write about it, or compose a song to it?

I think of all the amazing things we could have done. We could have traveled to the stars! There is a whole universe to explore! Think of what we might have discovered! Think of what grand artistic and scientific and technological things we might have accomplished, if only we could have seen a little clearer.

Of course, people do and have done some terrible things, too, to each other and to the planet. There is no excuse for any of it. But the most terrible thing of all has been to kill our mother.

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I came across this the other day:


I had seen it before, but this time I decided to fact-check it. As it turns out, both Webster’s New World Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary not only corroborate this definition but go much further.

This made me wonder how on Earth this word has been made to mean something bad to so many people. The way some pundits and talking heads spit out the word “liberal” as though it’s a piece of rancid cheese, you’d think being liberal is downright un-American. And yet, the exact opposite is true. This country was founded on the most liberal principles known to humanity at the time. In fact, they were downright revolutionary! (No pun intended.) Imagine! Government by the people instead of a king! It was practically heresy.

And even now those people who most vilify the word “liberal” nonetheless continually espouse liberal principles — such as tolerance of others, favoring individual freedom, broad-mindedness, and democracy — even as they demonstrate exactly the opposite in their words and actions. Yes, I’m talking about you, Faux News.

The word “liberal” literally defines the United States of America, both in its founding and in its often-stated principles. So how did this fine little word come to mean something so foul to so many ill-informed people?