Prisoners of War

I am happy to know that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been the only US prisoner of war in Afghanistan for the past five years, is back in the hands of the United States armed forces. I’m glad that he will be returned to his relieved parents after he has recovered from his long imprisonment.

I am, however, dismayed by the people who are saying that he should not have been exchanged for five prisoners that the US had been holding in Guantanamo. Exchanging prisoners of war is a long-standing practice, especially near the end of the war, which is approaching quickly from the perspective of US involvement. The problem is that, due to the machinations of President George W. Bush’s administration, many people do not consider these five men as prisoners of war, instead categorizing them as”detainees” or “enemy combatants.” In this way, they have skirted international law about how prisoners of war are to be treated and blocked moves to release them or even bring them to trial. This shameful behavior has to stop. Prisoners of war have to be called prisoners of war and justly treated as such, in accord with international treaties to which the US is a signatory. Congress, having authorized the president to conduct the war, should not intervene as they have been doing in what is essentially a military matter to be handled by the chain of command up to the commander-in-chief.

The other issue that critics are lamenting is that the United States negotiated with terrorists. However, the exchange was negotiated through a third party, the government of Qatar. The US did not directly negotiate with the Taliban. The US did not release the prisoners to the Taliban. Again, we have a problem with words and with history. The war in Afghanistan was fought against the Taliban, which was the ruling party at the time, because they were sheltering Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was the terrorist organization against which the US-led coalition was fighting; the Taliban was the ruling party of the country in which many Al-Qaeda members were hiding. The Taliban who became US prisoners were fighting for the government of Afghanistan; while it fits the narrative of critics of the current administration to portray them as terrorists now, it doesn’t fit the fact that these five men were part of the ruling government of Afghanistan, which should make them prisoners of war. Although the Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan, it doesn’t change the fact that they once did.

I am sorry that some people are marring what should be a time of relief and joy for Bowe’s family, his hometown in Idaho, and the country. It’s time for all of us in the United States to pull together and help heal the wounds of war. We owe it to those who have been deployed so long and so many times to celebrate their service to our country and find peace back home.

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school district election day

Today, across New York State, voters are heading to the polls for school district elections. For some reason I have never been able to ascertain, school budgets are the only ones that are voted on directly in New York. Unfortunately, sometimes this means that school budgets fail as a general statement against taxes, forcing second votes on revised budgets or austerity budgets that cut all extracurriculars and all-but-bare-bones transportation.

This year, there has been an unusual amount of advertising to pass the school budget. I think it is to convince people not to use the budget vote as an opportunity to take out their frustration with the contentious rollout of common core standards in the state. For the record, I no longer have school-aged children in my household, so I haven’t experienced common core directly in my family. I do support the concept of common core, to cover fewer topics in a school year, but in greater depth, in contrast to the current trend toward a mile wide but an inch deep approach. New York State’s curriculum has long been infected with survey-itis. For example, in the social studies curriculum, a survey of US history is taught in fifth grade, again as a two-year sequence in seventh and eighth grades, and then again as a one year Regents course in high school, locally usually taken in 11th grade. Because so much time is devoted to rushing through large amounts of material, there isn’t time to engage in in-depth analysis of any time period or theme. When I was in high school in Massachusetts several decades ago, we had options for semester-long US history courses in Civil War and Reconstruction, Minorities in America, Presidential Greatness, or several other options. Already expected to have an overview of our country’s history, we were able to develop deeper understanding of the hows and whys of history, which also helped to inform our lives as active citizens.

The upset over the implementation of common core seems to mirror two statewide changes that happened during my children’s school careers, the ending of local high school diplomas in favor of more rigorous Regents diplomas for all graduates and reform of state-wide tests in fourth and eighth grades and high school Regent exams. It also mirrors the transition to a new high school honors program on the local level. The root of the problems with all these changes was not that the final goals, but the transition itself, in which students are tested in the new framework without the benefit of the years of preparatory study that is in place when the transition is complete, resulting in lower test scores as these students catch up to the new standards. It seems that the same mechanism is happening with the transition to common core.

The other oddity of this election locally is that we have eight candidates running for four board of education seats. Given that candidates often run unopposed or with only one more candidate than seats available, this year is a hot contest. Even more unusual, there is a group of four being presented almost as a slate, advertised together in mailings, on yard signs, and in hand-delivered fliers, and endorsed by the local teachers’ union.

Voting is from 12-9 PM today at the local elementary schools. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

UPDATE:  The budget passed by a wide margin. All four of the candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union were elected; the two incumbents who were running for re-election got only 50-60% of the voting totals of the successful candidates.

Open Letter to President Obama on Climate Change

http://ecowatch.com/2014/01/16/obama-climate-keystone-xl-fracking-arctic/

The letter that is part of the article above encapsulates what many of us have been saying for years. Let’s hope the President is finally in a position to take action to push renewable energy and reduce fossil fuels.

I did finally get a reply to the letter I sent to the President after his appearance at Binghamton University last August. https://topofjcsmind.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/letter-to-president-obama/  It was disappointing, as it failed to acknowledge any points that I had made, just re-iterating the accomplishments of the administration in renewables and the “all of the above” strategy that is causing us to lost ground even further on fossil-fuel-induced climate change.

Obviously, an open letter signed by so many major environmental organizations has much more sway than letters from unknown constituents such as myself. Even then, is it possible to move the bureaucracy and the Congress in the right direction?

IBM

My relief over the last minute legislation from Congress last night is being tempered by two things. First is fear that the Republicans still have not learned their lesson that their job is to cooperate in governing, not obstruct it. I’m trying to develop hope that the budget conference committee will finally arrive at a more just and equitable budget by December, so that sequestration ends and other badly needed legislation can be debated and enacted, but I keep thinking about the Supercommittee that was supposed to have solved this because sequestration was too horrible a threat and didn’t.

The second is that, on a day when I expected the stock market would be trending up in relief at last night’s deal, IBM is tanking, down twelve points at the moment, after earnings fell short of expectations. IBM is very important in my area, which is its original birthplace. Virtually everyone who lives here has a connection to IBM, personally or through family, friends, and/or neighbors. For decades, employees here were loyal to the company and the company was loyal to them. That all changed when Gerstner became CEO. Instead of being valued assets to the company, employees became expenses, to be gotten rid of to cut costs or replaced by lower-wage workers overseas. In our area, workers retained their traditional loyalty to IBM longer than in other parts of the country, despite sale of divisions, offshoring, “resource actions” AKA terminations, buy-outs, the dissolution of the pension program, cuts in benefits, continual monkeying around with the salary plan, sale of IBM properties, and other indignities. Now, the last vestiges of that loyalty have crumbled, even here in IBM’s birthplace. Wall Street didn’t help, cheering every time more lay-offs were announced or more stock bought back. Instead of the traditional long view that IBM took, everything became about the next quarter and projecting a year ahead became long-range planning.

Today, the pigeons came home to roost.

Analysts are finally realizing how much of IBM’s gains have been from “financial engineering” rather than from the traditional strength of the company, its superior products, backed by the exceptional training, intelligence, and dedication of its committed workforce. The question is has IBM gone so far away from its traditional core values that it will not be able to regain its footing and continue as a driving technology force in the coming years. IBM workers here will continue to work hard for their customers, despite being overburdened with work as more and more workers are laid off with no reduction in the amount of work that needs to be accomplished. Will upper management finally notice?

Congressional dysfunction

I have been trying to stave off ever-growing discouragement/dread about the government shutdown and debt ceiling situation. I am trying to be hopeful that the government will be re-opened, the debt ceiling raised, and an actual non-sequester budget produced out of conference committee, as though Congress actually functioned as it is designed.

I’m trying, but it is a huge challenge.

The last several years have been filled with discouragement as the Republicans have demonstrated over and over that they are incapable of meaningfully participating in governing. How else to explain the hundreds of filibusters that have prevented legislation from moving forward, even when the majority of Senators support it, the string of do-or-die moments with the budget and debt ceiling, the failure to conference on the budget, the failure of the supercommittee to avoid sequestration, the failure to accept the Affordable Care Act as law, the seeming misunderstanding of basic economics, and on and on?

We voters elect our Congress to pass legislation on our behalf. They are to “promote the general welfare” as our Constitution requires. Any Representative or Senator who is not capable of fulfilling this mission should resign to make way for the election of someone who is.