Taking a break from posting about my chapbook Hearts to update you on the United States’ struggle on the debt ceiling.
Both houses of Congress passed a deal agreed to by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy which suspends the debt ceiling until January 2025, after the next Congressional and presidential elections. It also limits some spending over the next two years and makes changes to some programs, such as food assistance and environmental project permitting.
While I’m grateful not to have the risk of default and national/global economic consequences hanging over our heads for the next two years, I would have much preferred for Congress to have passed a clean debt ceiling bill months ago. Then, they could have debated budgetary bills as part of the usual preparation for the fiscal year that begins October first. I also prefer raising taxes on the wealthiest individual and corporate taxpayers, in order to increase spending on social needs, while decreasing the extremely high military budget. (The CBS program 60 Minutes recently aired a piece investigating part of the reason.)
One of the absurd aspects of the bill is the inclusion of special permitting and judicial review provisions for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a partially complected methane pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia that has been held up over its poor adherence to environmental regulations. It’s a pet project of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, which he has tried and failed to include in past legislation. My heart goes out to the people and places along the pipeline route that will suffer damage because of its construction. It also flies in the face of our need, in light of global warming, to stop new fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure projects.
The best course of action for our financial future would be to eliminate the debt ceiling altogether. It seems to be in contradiction with the 14th Amendment, which states, “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Whether this action comes through Congress or the courts, it would at least keep us from going through a similar scenario in the future with Congressional Republicans threatening to damage the economy if they don’t get their way on future budgetary policy.
I am calling on my Congressional Representative, Marc Molinaro of New York’s 19th district, to sign the discharge petition to bring a clean debt ceiling raise to the House floor and to vote in favor of it there. I urge him to encourage his Republican colleagues to join him in this, which honors the 14th Amendment of the Constitution they have sworn to uphold.
After that is accomplished, all members of Congress should work on budget bills that prioritize human needs, such as programs for affordable housing, nutrition, and health care. These programs should be expanded, not cut, with additional revenue raised through making sure the wealthiest individuals and corporations pay a fairer share in taxes.
Please join me in this effort by contacting your own House member and sharing your opinions about the debt ceiling and about your budget priorities for the coming fiscal year.
As someone who participated in a COVID vaccine clinical trial, who has other vulnerable people in my life, and who tries to be a diligent and responsible community member, I’ve been following the science, public health information, and news about the pandemic over these last, long 3.5 years. I’ve done so many blog posts about it, I’ve lost count.
As you may know, the World Health Organization and the United States are winding down their public health emergency declarations.
This does not mean, though, that the pandemic itself has ended. COVID-19 is still widespread across the world and hundreds die every day as a result. There is still the potential for new variants and COVID is not yet seasonal, like influenza. Eventually, COVID will become endemic, as the flu is, but we aren’t there yet.
While some US programs, such as tracking hospitalization rates and wastewater testing, will continue, others will end. I will miss the COVID maps and risk ratings that the CDC has been providing. Besides the overall community risk assessment, the transmission rate maps were important to me in deciding how much public masking I needed to do or whether large, indoor gatherings were advisable at all. It’s true that, with so many COVID cases discovered through home testing and never officially recorded, the statistics are not as comprehensive as they were during the months of testing centers, but, for example, it’s helpful for me to know that my county has a moderate transmission rate but the county to our east is currently at the highest transmission rate level, two notches higher than here. Having that information could inform a decision between using a drive-through or dining in on my way through the county, as well as alerting me that the higher infection levels could spread in my direction. After Thursday, that information will not be readily available to me.
I’ll still follow the science and public health advice as best I can and will get my next booster when recommended. I’ll test at home if I have symptoms and avoid being in public when I’m sick with anything, COVID or not. I’ll keep a supply of KF94 masks in my size nearby for high-risk situations that may arise. I’ll try to do all the things we should be doing all the time, like eating well, getting enough rest, and practicing good hygiene.
I still, though, don’t want to get COVID if I can help it. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been infected, although I could have had an asymptomatic case at some point. I know very few people who are in that category these days.
Will the end of the emergency declarations and the resulting decline in data be a factor in my eventually contracting COVID?
When I read Linda’s prompt yesterday, I immediately thought of the song “I Like It Here.” I did search for the lyrics and to find the writer; I did find some similar versions to what I remember but it seems that no one knows who wrote it. I’m going to use the version from my childhood as I remember it in this post.
My sisters and I used to put on little performances in our basement for a very small audience, my parents and perhaps my grandparents or Harriet and Pres, family friends who were like an honorary aunt and uncle. We would sing and act out songs we learned in school.
One I especially remember is “I Like It Here,” a patriotic number that we used to close the show, at least once that I recall.
“I like the United States of America. I like the way we all live without fear.”
In my childhood, living without fear was pretty much a thing I could do, in my tiny, rural New England town. Today, though, there are many fears that are with us all the time – environmental destruction and climate change, gun violence, the troubling rise of authoritarianism, public displays of hate against any number of different groups of people.
“I like to vote for my choice, speak my mind, raise my voice. Yes, I like it here.”
Unfortunately, there are lots of laws in some states that are trying to suppress votes and to silence free speech. It’s discouraging. I appreciate the lawyers and organizations that are challenging these laws.
“I am so lucky to be in America and I am thankful each day of the year, for I can do as I please ’cause I’m free as the breeze. Yes, I like it here.”
While I am happy to be here in the place that is home, the threats to our freedoms are real. We are fighting to keep them but the recent trials of insurrectionists are a stark reminder of how much danger we were in and how much of that animus still remains, even within some in government service.
“I’d like to climb to the top of a mountain so high, raise my head to the sky, and say how grateful am I, for the way that I’m living and working and giving and helping the land I hold dear. Yes, I like it, I like it, I like it here!”
I have felt that, in my small way, I’ve added to life in the United States. For most of my life, I never thought that I would leave it to live in another, but the presidency of DT made me wonder if things would be so changed that I could no longer live here.
I feel horrible for even thinking of abandoning my country and the Biden presidency gives me hope but the bizarre spectacle the once-proud Republican party has become and the staggering level of corruption that has been uncovered are a constant source of worry.
I’m trying to do my part as a citizen to get us back toward the freedom and equality to which we are called by our Constitution and laws. Millions of others are as well, including many who have more power and ability to be effective than I do.
Because things have been so busy and because my continuing healing from cataract surgery is still making computer time a bit more difficult, I’ve put off posting on some topics that have been top of mind.
One of those is the continuing – and seemingly accelerating – plague of gun violence in the United States.
Over these past couple of months, there have been some personal reminders of gun violence. The April 3rd anniversary of the American Civic Association shooting in Binghamton and driving by the memorial to it, only a few hundred feet from the site, knowing that, fourteen years on, if the victims are remembered at all, they are just numbers in a long tally of mass shooting victims. A Lenten program on gun violence that was part of a series on social sin, which led to my contacting my Congressional representative to request federal action on gun violence, only to get a discouraging reply that he won’t support such practical actions as keeping military-style weapons and ammunition out of civilian hands.
All of this while hearing every day of more mass shootings and their aftermath. The fact that we are averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2023, 192 recorded by day 125, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The fact that firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents (ages 1-19) in the United States, far surpassing the rate in other industrialized nations. Laws being passed in some states to make it easier to carry weapons, despite the dangers to the public. The bizarre ousting of two state legislators in Tennessee for “lack of decorum” in speaking out against gun violence in the chamber, only to have those members re-appointed by their districts.
The feature of news coverage that makes these recent weeks even more disturbing is the increased attention to shootings that happened after harmless incidents. Being shot through a closed door for ringing a doorbell at the wrong address. After chasing an errant ball into a neighbor’s yard. While pulling out of a driveway in a rural area while trying to navigate to a friend’s home. Mistakenly going to the wrong car in a dark parking lot. All instances where you would expect a neighborly person to ask how they can help, not shoot and wound or kill.
I don’t understand.
Is it uncontrolled fear? Paranoia? Rage? Hate? Sense of entitlement? Illness? Racism? Misogyny? Addiction to power? Some combination of these, varying from incident to incident?
One thing that doesn’t vary? There’s always a gun.
We need legislation to address gun violence on the federal level. I live in a state with quite a few statutes regulating firearms but it is too easy for people to cross state lines or use the internet to circumvent them. I believe that military-style weapons don’t belong in civilian hands and that large ammunition clips should be banned, along with modifications that make a semi-automatic weapon behave like it is fully automatic. I think that there should be background checks, training, and licensing required for firearm ownership and robust laws against illegal possession and gun trafficking. People who have a history of violence or those who have restraining orders against them should not have guns. There should be universal red flag laws to make sure that those who are a danger to themselves or others do not have access to guns. Sadly, over half the gun deaths in the United States are self-inflicted; while people can and do die by suicide from other methods, guns kill a much higher proportion than other means. [If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or are in a mental health crisis, dial 988 in the US or visit https://988lifeline.org/ to live chat or find resources. In other countries, use a search engine to find similar programs. Or ask a trusted friend, family member, doctor, etc. for help.]
Public polling in the US shows a large majority want more regulation of guns but Republican lawmakers are almost universally opposed. That needs to change. Either they need to change their minds or the people need to replace them with representatives who care about their safety.
Meanwhile, the losses, pain, and trauma accelerate…
This month, my county (Broome in New York) has finally made it into the low community risk level for COVID-19, using the current US Center for Disease Control tracking method. Our community transmission rate is still in the medium category, the second lowest of four categories. Both of these are the lowest levels that I recall seeing since this tracking model went into effect.
In recognition of this, I’ve begun to back off from masking in indoor public spaces. For example, I went to church on Easter and this weekend unmasked. On Friday night, I ate and sang unmasked with Madrigal Choir at a retirement dinner in honor of a Binghamton University professor who is a long-time choir member.
It feels a bit strange after masking for so many months.
I know there is still risk. A friend came down with COVID a few days ago. I had not seen her recently, so I wasn’t exposed, but it’s definitely a reminder that I may not be able to stay COVID-free forever. The number of people I know in the never-been-infected category is tiny at this point.
I don’t want to get sick and I especially don’t want to transmit COVID to someone else but I’m feeling that, with the community risk level at low and major personal events like my two cataract surgeries and visit from our UK branch of the family completed, I can let down my guard a bit. I’ll still be tracking our local statistics so I can put more precautions back in place as warranted.
Madrigal Choir is going into a busy week, getting ready for our final concert of the season next Sunday, so fingers crossed…
A leak of a “low confidence” assessment from the United States Department of Energy that COVID-19 originated from a lab leak in China has set off another round of upset.
The base problem is that no one has access to all the data to come to a definitive conclusion and likely never will.
Most epidemiologists, researchers, and US government departments think that the most likely origin is from markets in Wuhan that dealt with wild animals that harbored the virus which then jumped to people. This article in Science is representative of that opinion. The animal to human route is a common mechanism which we have seen with diseases such as ebola and SARS-CoV-1.
Rather than arguing about lab leaks, we should put our energies toward strategies that will help to avoid or contain future illnesses. Yes to tightening controls at laboratories doing research on pathogens. Yes to limiting exposure to wild animals that can carry diseases to humans. Yes to rapid response and open sharing of information about emerging diseases.
No to wild speculation that is not grounded in fact. For example, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was lab-engineered rather than naturally occurring. It is irresponsible to share disproven theories.
As I know from public health statistics and recent cases among friends, COVID-19 is still out there, sickening millions and adding to the global death toll of over 6.8 million people. Protect yourself in accord with your local conditions and resources. Vaccinate and receive the bivalent booster if it’s available. Increase ventilation in indoor spaces. Avoid crowds. Wear a high-quality mask indoors when transmission rates are significant. Wash your hands. Take extra caution if you or someone you live with or visit is especially vulnerable due to age, medical condition, etc. Make sure you have accurate, scientifically valid information behind your decisions. Be respectful of those who choose to mask in public. They are trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. It’s possible they are getting over an illness themselves and are being cautious in order to protect you.
At some point, COVID-19 will become endemic. We aren’t there yet. Do your best to be a help, not a hindrance, to that end.
To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress. The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.
US President Joe Biden in the State of the Union address before Congress last night
This is a sobering weekend here in the United States.
The country is reeling from at least 49 mass shootings this month, as recorded by the Gun Violence Archive. I have to say “at least” because it could be more by the time I hit publish. This is in addition to all the shooting incidents with less than four victims and all the self-inflicted shootings, sometimes accidental but, sadly, most often deliberate. In the US, suicides have, for many years, constituted the majority of gun deaths. (If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or any other mental health crisis, please reach out for help. In the US, you can call or text 988 or visit this website: https://988lifeline.org/ any day/any time.)
As I’ve written about before, the United States needs to deal with gun safety issues, especially when it comes to military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, gun trafficking, poor licensing and training requirements in some states, and lack of comprehensive universal background checks. We need to vastly improve access to mental health care, on both humanitarian and violence-prevention grounds.
One of the stories that illustrates this need is the shooting of a first-grade teacher in Newport News, Virginia by one of her six-year-old students. She was seriously wounded but has survived. The boy was known to have been diagnosed with what has been termed by his family as an “acute disability” and is now being treated in a hospital. While this is a particularly stark example, many shootings, including mass shootings and suicides, are linked to mental health problems.
While guns are highly visible as a means of violence, videos released to the media on Friday illustrate that other means can be just as severe in causing injury, trauma, and death.
The country is also reacting to the shocking video of the police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, which led to his death in the hospital three days later. Five officers were fired soon after the beating and have just been charged with several counts, including second degree murder. Two additional officers have been suspended while the investigation continues. Yesterday, the Memphis Police Department announced that the Scorpion Unit that had included the officers who carried out the attack has been permanently disbanded. The public gatherings in the wake of this horror have been almost exclusively non-violent, as Tyre’s family has urged.
Sadly, there are a vocal few who use their power in the media to sow confusion – or even show support for those who perpetrate violence. Even with the release of the video, there were some still insinuating that Paul Pelosi knew his attacker and invited him into his home. Mind you, there is video of the attacker repeatedly bashing a glass door with a hammer in the middle of the night but these conspiracy-theory followers don’t let facts get in the way of their twisted beliefs. In so doing, they multiply the violence and harm.
What can we do?
Some of the things I try to do are live a non-violent life, seek out facts and relay them accurately, respectfully enter into dialogue, and advocate for public policy to reduce violence. Even though I am only one person, I know there are millions of others doing the same.
My hope is that more people will realize that both victims and perpetrators of violence could be their own family member, friend, or neighbor.
Earlier this week, I was listening to a discussion around Richard Haass’ new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.
The discussion centered around the dearth of knowledge among many in the United States on the basics of civics and history. The root of this lies seems to lie in our educational system.
Unlike most countries, the United States does not have a national educational system. Schools are controlled by local school boards with a greater or lesser role played by state education boards, depending on the state. This leads to a wide range of what students learn in school and the depth of that learning.
I went to public schools in western Massachusetts in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Civics and history were an important part of our schooling. I remember in the later grades of grammar school reading the US Constitution and summaries of landmark Supreme Court cases. We were expected to apply what we had learned from history to current events, such as deciding for whom we would vote for president in a mock election. This being small-town New England, we would attend town meeting day with our families, showing democracy in action.
Having already learned the basics of US and world history in our younger years, in high school, our coursework was designed to delve more deeply into particular areas of social studies. One of the best courses I took was one on minorities in America. I learned about such important historical events as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. We studied the Black experience in the US, from enslavement and Jim Crow through the civil rights movement, which was, of course, ongoing. I learned for the first time about the discrimination that had affected my own Italian grandparents and Irish great-grandparents. By the time I turned 18 and could register to vote, I had a good understanding of the complexities of our past and of how to evaluate issues of the present and future.
My daughters went to school in New York, where the State Board of Regents is the main driver of curriculum. The Regents set the required courses and use statewide exams in high school to ensure that the students are fulfilling the goals of the curriculum. While the State is fond of survey courses, they do expect students to do much more than memorize historical facts. A major component of history exams is a document-based essay, where the student is given primary source material, such as political cartoons, government documents, and newspaper articles, and asked to use them to write an essay expressing support or opposition to a given proposition. It demonstrates the kind of decision-making that voters need to do to evaluate candidates or stances on current issues. High school students, usually in their final year, also take a semester course on participation in government, which is considered the capstone of their civics education. This New York State framework, which my daughters used in the 1990s-early 2000s, remains in place today.
Some other states and localities do a poor job of educating their students in history and civics. Some even boast about the limitations they place on what is taught in their schools. A current egregious example of this is the state of Florida, which passed a law last year severely limiting teaching about race and identity. This led Florida to reject a pilot of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it includes materials about current topics such as intersectionality, the reparations movement, and Black feminist literary critique. They also objected to students reading works by such well-known Black scholars and writers as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Florida officials claimed the course was more indoctrination than education, failing to realize that one needs to learn deeply through the full spectrum of a field of study to be truly educated and able to make judgments. Perhaps, their own education was too limited for them to appreciate the complexities we all now face.
At this point, we have a lot of catching up to do, with adults needing more education in civics, as well as many younger students. Part of this effort must be to emphasize our responsibilities to each other as citizens, or, as Richard Haass calls them, our “obligations.” (I haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, which was just released this week, so the following thoughts are mine and not from his work.)
For example, the First Amendment states that the federal government cannot establish a religion or prevent anyone from practicing their religion. I have the right to practice a religion or not, as I choose. However, I have a responsibility to not impose my religious tenets on anyone else. The First Amendment also says that laws can’t be made to abridge freedom of speech, but I am responsible for what I say and should take care that it is truthful and appropriate.
There is some tendency in the US for people to be hyper-individualistic, crowing about their individual rights, viewpoints, possessions, etc. while ignoring that we all exist in community and relationships, with people who are similar to us and those who are different in some way. Part of the reason that education in civics is so important is to increase the realization that we are responsible to each other as members of the community and the nation.
We are responsible for finding out the facts on an issue, forming a reasoned opinion, and taking action. We need to be respectful of others and set a good example. We need to keep listening and keep learning, as new information and discoveries come to light every day.