Thursday, January 27, 2011

Safe, Legal, Free, and Rare

Last Saturday, Jan 22, marked the 35th Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, in which the Supreme Court legalized abortion.  Every year the anniversary is marked with marches, pro and con, and the same arguments on either side.  The irony is that although abortion is legal, it is inaccessible for most women who need it either because of the cost or because no doctor or clinic in their community provides this service.  In the early days of working for abortion rights, feminists insisted that abortion be safe, legal and free.  Eventually we settled for “legal” only, dropping the demand for “free” and assuming that legal would insure “safe.”  In retrospect, as many feminists predicted, this was a major mistake, in large part because the power to determine what is legal remains primarily in the hands of men and the decision to have or not have an abortion is not something men will ever experience directly. 

What is a commons view of abortion?  To think this through requires stepping back to a larger view of health care, which of course, would be universal and would include a range of reproductive choices.  Excellent free pre-natal care, day care, maternity and paternity leave would insure that no one had an abortion simply because they could not afford to have a child.  Access to a range of birth control, along with a social norm that says sex between consenting adults is not only normal but even fun and joyful, would mean that people would not get pregnant unless they wanted to or in the rare occasion that birth control failed.  Abortion in the case of rape or incest would be the norm and no one would have to justify seeking an abortion under those circumstances.  In a commons society, abortion should be safe, legal, free and rare.

The above scenario seems so simple, but it requires not just universal health care, but a larger change in our society—to accept ourselves as sexual people free of guilt and shame over our sexuality and the fact that we are sexual—we have sex, we want to have sex, we enjoy sex.  When we can accept that, we will take appropriate precautions when we want to have heterosexual sex if we don’t want to become pregnant. 

The debate over abortion and birth control is complicated and multi-faceted.  The so-called “pro-life” forces are often anti-abortion but pro death penalty and rarely seen at demonstrations against war.  The so-called “pro-choice” forces have not done enough to address all the issues surrounding reproductive justice, which include making sure women don’t work in toxic environments that can cause miscarriage and infertility or making sure that women are not bribed or forced into birth control.  And both forces ought to join sides to call for universal health care, then debate all that would be offered under that rubric.  As it is now, the debate is about power over women, and who will have it.  When the debate becomes about the common good, we can really address the issue of abortion in an appropriate and larger context.  Until then, look for more anniversaries of “legal” and more notices of women dying of back alley abortions, or bearing children they have no social safety net to help them raise.   

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Where Does the Money Go?

As I wait for tonight’s State of the Union and think about the role of the economy, the budget, the deficit, and reflect on the vitriol coming from Washington, this book (with accompanying website) was a nice distraction and a breath of fresh air from the coverage I’ve been seeing:

Where Does the Money Go?

From the website:
New 2011 Edition:

The battle over the federal budget is on, and it's not just an inside-the-Beltway argument. The rising national debt -- and what we choose to do about it -- will affect your savings, your retirement, your mortgage, your health care, and your children. How well do you understand the government decisions that will end up coming out of your pocket?

Here is essential information that every American citizen needs—and has the right—to know. This guide to deciphering the jargon of the country's budget problem breaks down into plain English exactly what the fat cats in Washington are arguing about. Where Does the Money Go? lays out the ideas put out from the left, right and center, explores why elected leaders have so far failed to address this issue effectively and explains what you can do to protect your future.

The updated edition includes new sections on:
  • So whose fault is it? President Obama or President Bush?
  • The stimulus and Wall Street bailouts: Did they help or hurt us?
  • Health care reform: Will it bankrupt us, or is it the first step in controlling costs?
We’ll have more this week and next on our thoughts about tonight’s address, but in the meantime, enjoy.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guns and Power

When I was a child, I was fascinated with guns.  Partly this is from the television shows of the time, such as Bonanza, The Virginian, Branded, The Rifleman and so on.  I watched all of them and imitated the main characters.  I owned toy six guns, rifles, shotguns and small handguns.  I very much wanted to be a boy as a child.  The women on these shows did not have fun, and I could not see myself in the character of Miss Kitty who ran the saloon and was one of the only characters who appeared often.  Many of the women got shot or died in childbirth or got run over by horses—as though the writers could not really think about what to do with their characters so wrote them out of the scripts.   I imagined myself a Sheriff or some other heroic and fearless cowboy, shooting bad guys with deadly accuracy and no remorse. 

When I was about 16, I got a job working for a real estate firm as a secretary.  The building I worked in had a very small pond next to it, which had been put there as part of the design.  It was stupid, since we lived in an area prone to drought and with few, if any, natural ponds, but the real estate firm thought it was lovely.  They stocked it with a male and female duck who then had ducklings.  My desk looked out on this pond and over the course of two days, I realized that the ducklings were disappearing.  My boss figured out what was killing them—a big rat would go in the water or simply snatch them as they swam by.  He gave me what he called an “air rifle”—basically a small rifle used for killing small animals.  He told me to shoot the rat in order to save the ducklings.  “Aim a little ahead of where the rat is swimming and pull the trigger nice and slow.  One bullet should do it.”  Despite my many imaginary killings, I had never handled a real gun with real ammunition and found it was not nearly as exciting as I would have thought.  Further, although I did want to save the ducklings, and I did not really like rats, I couldn’t really imagine killing one.  For a few days I thought I had dodged this bullet, so to speak, because the rat did not appear and no more ducklings disappeared.  But then one afternoon, when I was alone in the office, I was watching the ducklings swimming around and I saw the rat come out of a hole near the pond and go in the water.  I went outside with the rifle, took aim and shot.  I killed the rat with one bullet.   For several minutes afterwards, I felt almost euphoric and powerful.   I hoped that another rat would emerge I could kill.  Then I felt really freaked out.  “What kind of a person am I?” 

My boss was pleased with me.  “You are a real cowgirl!” he said.  “I didn’t imagine you could really do it—I thought I was going to have to do this myself.”  I was pleased and pretended it was nothing, but I realized what was upsetting to me about this shooting:  it was so easy to pull the trigger.  Once I decided to obey my boss, I simply looked down the sights of the gun and with one little movement of my forefinger, I killed this animal. 

I decided that I would never own a gun after that.  For me, it was way too easy to use. 

Much has been said about the shootings in Tucson two weeks ago, and I hesitate to think that I could add anything original or helpful.  But reflecting on my own gun story has made me wonder what a commons perspective is on gun control.  I am in favor of gun control laws, but I don’t think gun control laws will really solve the problem of gun control.  In my case at least, I had to come to terms with what I would do with absolute power (in this case over a swimming rat) and realize that there is something addictive about that kind of power.   As commoners we must reflect on the nature of power, and what are healthy expressions of power.  We must ponder how we can feel powerful without making someone else feel powerless.   Gun sales went up 60% in Arizona in the days following the shooting.  Two congresspeople have said they will carry a gun when they are out in public.

We all imagine ourselves the shooter, and not the shot.  But our frame of reference has to move to an entirely different analogy if we are to live in a violence free society.  Pondering these shootings in Arizona, where so many of the gun battles of my childhood imagination took place, I see how seeped in violence I am, and how differently our society has to be constructed to not have these regularly occurring mass murders.  Deconstructing the nature of power is the first step.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fortunately, this holiday is still a day where many people reflect on the lessons that King taught, the actions he took, and the life he sacrificed to bring about a more just nation and world. It hasn't yet been reduced to just another day for stores to put sale signs in their windows and workers to take the day to be consumers. But the myth-making and re-telling of who Martin Luther King was is too often watered down and de-toothed, so on this holiday it's important to think about the full range of what he stood for -- both the struggles that were won and the ones that are sadly ongoing.

There are many thinkers and scholars who will write about the true meaning of Dr. King today, but here's a sampling:

The Meaning of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday
by Coretta Scott King

Dr. King once said that we all have to decide whether we "will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life's most persistent and nagging question, he said, is `what are you doing for others?'"

Martin Luther King's Vision of the Beloved Community
by Kenneth Smith and Ira Zepp

Plainly, King’s vision of justice included all the world’s poor -- blacks, whites, browns and reds: North and South Americans, Africans, Asians and Europeans. Economic justice, he held, is a right of the entire human race. He was aware too that securing this right for all would require elimination of the structures of economic injustice characteristic of capitalism.

We Twisted King's Dream, So We Live With His Nightmare
by Tim Wise

Were this tendency to render King divisible on multiple levels -- abstracting non-violence from justice, colorblindness from racial equity, and public service from radical social transformation -- merely an academic matter, it would hardly merit our concern. But its impact is greater than that. Our only hope as a society is to see the connections between the issues King was addressing and our current predicament, to see that what affects part of the whole affects the greater body, to understand that racism and racial inequity must be of concern to us all, because they pose risks to us all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top 2010 posts from

As 2011 gets off to a start, we thought it was worth revisiting the top 5 commons stories of 2010 as chosen by the On the Commons readers. Enjoy...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tax breaks for charitable giving?

Many years ago, I had a chance to ask a dentist for a very large donation to an organization I was working for.  As is often the case when asking for money, I learned a lot about his philosophy of giving.  We had in common being religious and believing that the Bible commands that everyone “tithe” a portion of their income.  A “tithe” is commonly understood as 10% of your income, but more important than the percentage is the notion that you are not giving away anything but rather that God has given you everything and you are to return 10% to the common good.  Further, you are to give the first 10% --the first crops, the first paycheck, the first livestock.  This man said, “I give 20% because the first 10% is not mine to give—that is owed to God.  The second 10% is my true gift because I don’t have to give it, but I want to.”  At 20% of a very successful practice, this man gave away about $50,000 every year. He was African-American and laughingly, if ruefully, told a number of stories about sending large amounts of money to various organizations, then having fundraising staff or board members come visit him to thank him or to ask for more, only to have those people be completely shocked that “a man of my race could attain a station in life to be able to give such a big gift.”  He had been honored once at a Gala.  When he walked in, the Chair of the Gala, an older white woman, said, “Are you Dr. Smith’s driver?  Does he need any help coming up the stairs?”  He said, “I feel sorry for these people.  I am not surprised by them, but they are surprised by me. It is not up to me to judge them; Someone with way more power and insight will do that eventually.  I am to love them which is a lot harder than judging them.”

I thought of him recently because another thing he told me is that he never declared his charitable giving on his taxes.  “Why should the government have less money because I am doing what I am commanded to do?  I am supposed to pay taxes also—not reduce my taxes by my giving.” 

One proposal for broad base tax reform includes getting rid of the charitable deduction for giving, something which I completely and totally support.  71% of Americans receive no tax benefit for their giving because they don’t exceed the standard deduction and they file a short form.  One of those 71% is my mother.  She owns her house free and clear and has no other deductions so despite the fact that she gives often and generously, close to or surpassing the Biblical 10%, her tax bill is not reduced.  Contrast to someone I know who earns $250,000 per year, gives at most $2,000, declares all of it and proudly announces “It only cost me $1,200.”  Richard Thaler, writing in the Dec 19, 2010, edition of the New York Times, calls this, accurately, I think, a tax subsidy.  The government is subsidizing wealthy people’s giving while ordinary people (the majority of people) get nothing.

Of course many charity leaders are squawking that getting rid of the charitable deduction will be another body blow to nonprofits.  In fact, it will be a minor scratch to the people who receive tax benefits for giving.  And one such person who receives tax benefits for giving is me.  I own a house, I have a mortgage deduction (which I also think should be abolished) and my partner and I give away 5-10% of our income.  I am more of a hypocrite than my dentist friend so I have always declared my giving. 

Thaler and others have suggested that if the government must incentivize people to make gifts, at least make the tax advantages of charitable giving fair.  This could be easily done by changing the deduction to a credit.  A credit comes off of income for everyone and would be capped at some amount—say 15%.   If I give $1000 and my income is $10,000, I save $150.  If I give $1,000 and my income is $100,000, I also save $150. 

The charitable deduction will be much debated in the next period of time.  It is very important that those of us who work in and for nonprofits think through what we believe about whether we should be able to save on our taxes while patting ourselves on the back for being charitable, or whether giving should be its own reward.