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Free market will heal healthcare ills

– As originally published on AllSides.com

Finding a way to make health insurance affordable for everyone is laudable goal. Those without health insurance face severe hardship and insurance is excessively expensive for us all.

It would be wonderful if government-controlled healthcare could effectively accomplish this. However, healthcare issues are business problems, and politicians are historically lousy businessmen. It’s no surprise the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is off to a rocky start. There are several valuable policies in the 11,000-page legislation, but the ACA doesn’t resolve one of the major issues that has contributed to the exponential cost of health care: the lack of competitive pricing for medical treatment.

Advocates of government-controlled programs point to other countries that provide good care with universal health coverage. However, European countries such as Great Britain and France are drowning in costs and their systems are becoming insolvent. We need to learn from their mistakes. The U.S. government already spends more of its revenue for healthcare than other OECD countries while providing its citizens less coverage. Getting costs down is the first step towards a sustainable system.

Our health care system is broken, but it’s difficult to contend that the free market is to blame. We really haven’t had much of a free market in the health industry in a long, long time. In fact, it’s fair to say that our health insurance industry problems stem from government intervention in the first place.

Lack of competitive pricing keeps medical costs up

The way our system works, doctors don’t price competitively, nor do hospitals for diagnostic tests or procedures. A family can’t choose to save money by going to a large clinic for minor ailments like ear infections to see whichever nurse practitioner is on call.

American consumers shop and compare the prices and quality of goods and services ranging from groceries to housing. But as the National Center for Policy Analysis explains, “health care is the only major sector of our economy where consumers typically do not make decisions based on comparison shopping.” The statistics prove that when the government sets the cost prices rise dramatically. The cost of out-of-pocket elective surgeries has risen by about 30% since 1992. In comparison, the price of general medical care has increased an average of 118%. When consumers are incentivized to get the best price, costs stay lower.

As government programs grow, so do health care costs

The U.S. consumer is far removed from what medical care actually costs. Individuals pay their co-pay for drugs or services and think no more about it. When we go to the doctor for a routine problem and he orders a battery of tests, we don’t ask what those tests cost. Often the doctor himself doesn’t know, nor does he care.  That isn’t a good recipe for efficient pricing.

Since 1970, healthcare spending per capita has grown at an average of 2.4% faster than GDP. During that same period,the portion of U.S. healthcare expenses paid by government doubled from 24% to 49%. It’s been primarily Medicare and Medicaid that have set the costs for medical care since the 1960’s. Contrary to popular perception, the government already funds nearly two-thirds of U.S. healthcare costs. In 1960, before these government programs were instituted, 48% of healthcare costs were paid for directly by consumers. In 2014 it was just 11%.

In healthcare, as in other industries (such as the military), the government has demonstrated a poor job of controlling costs. As government-run programs became a larger percentage of the healthcare market, prices have escalated.

When I was a kid in the 1970’s and my dad was a self-employed house painter, he could afford to buy health insurance for his family. It didn’t cover a lot of things, including routine doctor’s visits. He wrote a check to the doctor when I had chicken pox, but knew that if I needed surgery he was covered.  He knew just what Dr. Jones costs for an office visit compared with Dr. Smith. Today it would cost an average of $160 for an office visit, out of reach for most low-income people.

The federal programs have been rife with wasteful spending and abuse. In 2008 Obama, like many other presidents before him, promised improvements that would cut waste and costs. But just as in the past, that hasn’t been the case.In 2015, the Department of Health and Human services found that Medicare and Medicaid wasted $251 million in just 18 months by overpaying for prescription drugs.

We need to make health care more accessible to everyone. Lowering costs is a vital element in achieving that goal. Given the dismal record of past government programs, it’s difficult to believe the current design of the Affordable Care Act will lower costs. All evidence demonstrates that any system in which the state sets healthcare costs leads to higher prices.

The only proven way to keep prices down is through consumer choice and competitive pricing. Health care won’t become affordable just because the government (i.e. the taxpayer) is footing the bill. No matter who puts the Band-Aid on the wound, the infection will continue to worsen until the cause of the ailment is treated.

Black Lives, Blue Lives: Resolutions

As originally published on AllSides.Com

The issue of police brutality doesn’t have to be a subject that divides us.

As discussed in parts III and III of this four-part series, we don’t have to choose between supporting police officers and defending abused minorities. Not only is it possible to talk about police brutality without picking sides, it’s absolutely essential.

Evidence shows that, while the majority of police officers perform their job justly and conscientiously, police brutality is widespread and racial minorities bear the brunt of the abuse. But while race is certainly relevant, getting bogged down by particular statistics and arguing over who’s more to blame tends to distract us from our ultimate goal: finding solutions.

In order to seek resolutions, both sides must acknowledge factors that contribute to the rise of mistreatment by police:

  • a concentration of crime
  • officers’ fear and mistrust of the communities they serve
  • anger about the lack of cooperation from the community

These issues have been fueled, in part by:

  • a concentration of poverty
  • a militarized mindset due to a shift in officer training
  • the pursuit of a failed “war on drugs”

Minorities are more likely to be involved in crime, resulting in an overrepresentation of both black homicide victims and murderers. Blacks are more likely to be uncooperative with police investigations, more likely to be engaged in altercations with police, and more likely to be victims of police brutality. This is due to:

  • a lack of opportunity
  • fear of retaliation by criminals if they aid police
  • subconscious and sometimes deliberate profiling by police
  • little trust in law enforcement

These issues have compounded and reached the boiling point. How do we bridge the chasm between law enforcement and the public, particularly in the minority community?

Listening to one another is the first step towards regaining trust. Here are some steps in the right direction.

Eliminate the military mindset

As Newsweek has described, “America has been quietly arming its police for battle.” Back in 1990, faced with a bloated military and what was perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the National Defense Authorization Act permitted the Department of Defense to transfer arms, ammunition and armored vehicles to police. Specifics on these procurements are not matters of public record.

An ACLU report found that, “policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight…Analysis shows that the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a “warrior” mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.” For example, police units “are forcing their way into people’s homes in the middle of the night, often deploying explosive devices…simply to serve a search warrant on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of drugs.”

In June 2014, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) introduced an amendment to the NDAA to prohibit the Department of Defense from gifting excess equipment, such as drones, armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, and bombs to local police departments. As Grayson said to the House of Representatives before the vote, “Those weapons have no place in our streets, regardless of who may be deploying them.”

Unfortunately, the amendment failed by a wide margin, 355 to 62. Neither party gave the amendment significant support.

As the ACLU says, “neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies.” Policy must change at both the federal and local level for the police to win the trust of the public.

Earn community trust through better police training

The problem of discord between the police and the public has finally reached the attention of the federal government.

In July of 2016 Congress created a bipartisan group to examine the issue. “It’s clear that more must be done to end excessive use of force, strengthen police accountability, prevent violent attacks on law enforcement and improve the relationship between police officers and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, “says joint leaders Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.)

In a formal statement they write, “It seems as though there are two factions forming: one pro-police and one pro-racial justice. As Members of Congress, we strongly reject this notion of division… Just days before his murder, Montrell Jackson, an African-American  police officer, summed up these issues  in a Facebook post: ‘In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat…These are trying times.’ The group promises to “candidly discuss the issues fueling the current state of distrust between some of the public and law enforcement.”

However, most of the meaningful work can’t be done at the federal level.

For example, when the Department of Justice sued the Los Angeles Police Department for pervasive misconduct in 2000, the LAPD was forced to adhere to reforms under supervision of federal courts. As a Harvard University study concluded, the effect of the federal oversight was to “erode morale… sapping the confidence and spirit that effective policing requires.” This initially led to an even higher crime rate, until Los Angeles hired new police chief William Bratton. Bratton brought in a policing regime that “discouraged the use of force even as it ramped up enforcement.” Over the next decade, not only did crime decline, but officer morale rose. Force incidents declined by almost 30%, fewer than at any point in the previous decade. Public satisfaction rose, with 83% of Los Angeles residents saying that the police did a good or excellent job.

When police departments can prove that it’s possible to reduce crime, increase police morale and lower the incidence of police brutality— all at the same time—the public has more reason to put their faith in the system.

More accountability for police who engage in brutality

As the Libertarian party states, there can be no peace without justice.

When witnesses are unwilling to cooperate with police, criminals evade justice. When police are not charged with crimes for brutality, it’s officers who evade justice.

The police have a duty to protect themselves and those around them, and are sometimes required to do so without the support of the community. But no matter what the circumstances, every time a police officer kills they are effectively playing judge and jury. We all have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Policemen are often able to hide behind the doctrine of qualified immunity to avoid being charged for brutality. According to the FBI, “this shield of immunity is…designed to protect all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”When suits are successfully brought against officers, police departments generally pay out settlements, but the officers themselves receive no punishment.

As an article in The Nation describes, indictments of policemen are nearly impossible. The Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer can use deadly force only if he “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” But courts generally prohibit second-guessing of the officer’s decision, and wide latitude is granted to the officer’s account of the situation, even if evidence proves it to be mistaken.

The White House has advocated the use of dash cams and body cameras to document police behavior. But this has little usefulness if police continue to be immune from repercussions.

Police need protection from being charged for reasonable engagement in the line of duty. But in order for the public to trust the system, officers who engage in misconduct or unjustified force must be prosecuted in the same manner as any citizen who commits a violent crime.

Increase community outreach

Studies show that police officers are more likely to erroneously assume that a black suspect is armed, and more likely to use force on blacks. However, even while confronting racism, it must be acknowledged that blacks are six times more likely to commit murder, and much more likely to commit any type of violent crime than non-blacks. Regardless of the reasons for these statistics, it makes sense that fear, suspicion and overreaction are natural byproducts.

The best way to rid police of the “black male fear factor” is to help officers and communities get to know one another, says Constance Rice, civil rights attorney and founder of the Advancement Project.

Police relations consultant Dr. Ellen Scrivner says such things as body cameras and enhanced training help, but she believes the real answer is building trust where there is none – which takes hard work on both sides.

Community outreach programs such as Hero911 seek to build relationships between police and the public through school events and local meetings. The goal of these organizations is to build trust within the community, motivate citizens to report crime and foster understanding.

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan, who lost his father to murder, contributed $1 million to both the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund “in the hope that we can come together as Americans through peaceful dialogue and education.” Jordan says, “we need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.”

On one hand, it’s important for the community to understand that the job of a police officer is fraught with danger and sometimes involve terrifying situations that must be dealt with in a blink of an eye. For example, resisting arrest greatly increases one’s chances of being engaged in police violence. However, as a Mother Jones article points out, some blacks run from police or resist arrest not because they’re guilty, but because they fear prejudice at the hands of the law enforcement system. Each side needs to understand the other’s fears before they can work together.

Acknowledge the failures of the wars on drugs and poverty

Despite billions of dollars, the government’s 50 year War on Poverty and War on Drugs have been abysmal failures, leading to severe repercussions that were not anticipated.

Aggressive enforcement of the War on Drugs has lost its public mandate, says the ACLU, as 67% of Americans think the government should focus more on treatment than on policing and prosecuting drug users. They believe the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics in the war on drugs “results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”

There’s no question that the underground drug culture and financial deprivation that plague minority communities create hotbeds of crime. The unintended consequence of the war on drugs has been a thriving black market of illegal substances and violent gang warfare to protect the dominion of dealers.  When the most successful men in a community are gang leaders and drug lords, it makes sense that young boys aspire to follow in their footsteps.

If progressives and conservatives alike can acknowledge that these long-term policies have not worked, we have the best chance to find new, more successful alternatives.

Understanding bias

Bias is the enemy of logical introspection. It leads us to dig in our heels when discussing an issue instead of considering all points of view.

It’s impossible to avoid encountering biased stories in the mainstream and social media. But because these sources tend to mold our opinions, it’s important that we recognize their bias.  For example, the Democratic Party displayed bias when they invited the mothers of police violence victims to their national convention, but didn’t extend a similar invitation to the mothers of police officers slain in the line of duty. And the media creates bias when violent protests get the lion’s share of media attention though, as the Libertarian party points out, “the vast majority of black communities have been exercising their right to protest peacefully and admirably.”

The divisiveness between law enforcement and minority communities is a large obstacle to overcome.  It’s unproductive when the police force and minority communities work as adversaries.Once we have mutual respect, collaboration can begin.

Black Lives, Blue Lives Part III

As discussed in Part I and Part II of this series, police brutality and racism have people drawing sides. Often the sources from which we choose to gather information, whether it’s the media or our community, comes with a bias that prevents us from seeing the big picture. Many of us tend to focus on one aspect of the problem without considering, or sometimes even being aware of, opposing points.

Opinions on police are strongly divided along partisan and color lines. According to a Reuters poll, 53% of Democrats but only 19% of Republicans believe the police target minorities unfairly.  According to the National Institute of Justice, research shows “that race is a consistent predictor of attitudes toward the police.” Sixty-nine percent of African-Americans and 54% of Latinos believe police officers treatment of minorities is unfair. But just 29% of whites agree.

A typical argument about police bias might go as follows:

“Minority communities are unappreciative of police, and often make officers’ jobs harder by being uncooperative.”

“Many minority communities feel they have good reason not to trust the police. Some fear cops as much as criminals.”

Who’s right?

Each side has valid reasons for their grievances. Partisan organizations often try to pin blame, but Dr. Ellen Scrivner, an executive fellow for the Police Foundation and a former Justice Department official, believes the problems between police and the public are mutual. “People don’t trust the police, and the police don’t trust the people.”Suspicion on both sides leads to a dysfunctional relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. This distrust often thwarts justice being served, which hurts us all.

Confidence in police is at its lowest in 22 years, according to Gallup. As stated earlier in this series, poor, urban communities, where innocent people are most vulnerable to crime, are in vital need of a police force they can trust. But these communities are the least likely to have faith in police.

On the other hand, police officers often feel their difficult job is undervalued. “I’m not sure most people fully understand what police encounter on a day to day basis,” says Scrivner, noting the danger officers regularly face. While there has been much uproar about the homicides of civilians by police, the Washington Post found that 90% of those shot and killed by policemen in 2015 and 2016 were armed with a weapon and attempting to attack the officer or someone else.

What has created so much animosity between the people and the police?

Understanding the underlying causes for distrust on both sides is the best route towards bringing us together towards solutions.

Fear of retaliation silences victims

Supporters of police often complain that officers can’t adequately do their job due to uncooperative communities. For example, in Baltimore, the rate at which police solved homicide cases plummeted to about 30% in 2015. Police identified hundreds of shooting suspects but say they were unable to pin charges on most without the assistance of victims and witnesses. “People are literally getting away with murder,” says the State of Maryland’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

More than 90% of these homicide victims were black. Many victims were gunned down in broad daylight. Some were innocent bystanders struck indiscriminately. Nearly two dozen were children, many of them toddlers.

Why wouldn’t people help police catch perpetrators of these crimes?

Mosby calls Baltimore the “home of witness intimidation.” She says residents are too scared of repercussions by gang members of to assist police in tackling crime.

Witnesses of crime, trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, behave in the way that seems most safe. But the result is that the police are unable to adequately do their job through no fault of their own.  And when killers remain on the street, the public sees this as a sign of police ineffectiveness.  This gives witnesses yet another reason not to put their neck out and cooperate with investigations. Meanwhile the police lose trust in the community they’re trying to serve.

The militarization of police leads to fear of law enforcement

In many communities, the days of the kindly neighborhood police officer are gone. What happened? According to Radley Balko, author of The Rise of Warrior Cop, America’s relentless declarations of “war” against vague enemies such as crime, drugs, and terror have fueled a military kind of mentality among police.

Balko contends that the distinction between cop and soldier has blurred. He says that in the past few decades a “creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated American police officers.” Instead of serving the community, the community becomes an enemy of war. Our cops now get military training and use equipment designed for war. SWAT teams are vastly overused, particularly in low-income black communities where the drug trade is widespread.

Unlike the issue of police racism, views on police militarization are not strikingly divided along color or partisan lines. For years, polls show that the majority of Americans believe the use of military weapons by local police departments has gone too far. Most blacks, Hispanics and whites agree: the trend is disturbing.

Left-leaning Mother Jones points out that outfitting America’s cops has become big business fueled by the federal government. The Department of Defense has given $5.1 billion worth of equipment to state and local police departments since 1997, with things like grenade launchers and armored personnel carriers. Since 2002, Homeland Security has handed out grants for military equipment worth $41 billion. This money is supposedly earmarked for counterterrorism, but the DHS specifies that the equipment can be used for any law-enforcement purpose, from shutting down protests to serving warrants and executing home searches.

The right-leaning Cato organization says that state and local police departments areencouraged by the federal government to “increasingly accept the military as a model for their behavior and outlook.” Cato believes “confusing the police function with the military function can lead to dangerous and unintended consequences.”

The left-leaning ACLU estimates there are 45,000 SWAT raids every year. That’s 124 forced police break-ins every single day. They found that found that almost 80% of SWAT raids are to search homes, usually for drugs, disproportionately in communities of color.

As the right-leaning Foundation for Economic Education explains, SWAT teams were originally developed to handle rare and violent events, such as bank heists and hostage situations. But now they’re increasingly deployed to handle non-violent and routine law enforcement functions such as serving warrants. FEE says this results in the very opposite of what SWAT teams were originally meant to do: they actually create volatile and dangerous conditions instead of diffusing them.

When police are trained to think and act like soldiers fighting a war, is it surprising that many people are frightened of them?

Police militarization, and the police brutality it leads to, are problems that progressives and conservatives alike would like to see fixed. But while candidates haggle over thepolarizing details of police issues, there is nary a word from politicians on either side about such solutions as reining in the military build-up of local police forces.

Though it’s most pronounced in poor, urban communities, the fear and lack of trust between the people and the police is a problem that concern us all.

“Outsider” candidates who magnify problems

As originally published on AllSides.com

Few people believe Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have much in common. But while Sanders and Trump may be polar opposites in some respects, they’re alike in some very fundamental ways. And their popularity is driven by some of the very same reasons.

Congress’ job approval rating is 16%. Dysfunctional government was the single most important problem Americans mentioned in Gallup polls throughout 2015. Both Trump and Sanders are anti-establishment, which appeals to voters’ frustration. Both threaten to use the muscle of executive office to force change in the way they see fit.

World history shows that today’s conditions are ripe for a charismatic leader who promises to impose utopian solutions. Whether it’s bringing wage equality to the masses or protecting our nation from foreign intruders, when the people lose faith in their system, people seek outspoken leaders who pledge to bring order to the chaos. Sanders and Trump fill that role.

But it isn’t muscle and force that will lead to freedom, democracy, or a healthy political system. It’s electing politicians who are willing to work together to rid government of corrupt behavior and self-serving partisanship.

As Gallup points out, the rhetoric of candidates from both parties is very much alike: politicians are too beholden to political parties, to the rich and influential, and to big business to stick to principle or represent the people. Voters are very receptive to this message. Polls show that the very liberal, the very conservative, and many in between agree that Congress doesn’t operate with the best intentions of the people in mind. One third of Americans consider these issues a crisis.

Typically, politicians point their finger at the other party and ignore the misdeeds of their colleagues. Trump and Sanders are appealing because they’re willing to speak out not only against the opposing party but against the politically well-connected and elite of their own party. Many voters see this as an avenue to fix a broken system.

After all, back in 2008, Barack Obama had vowed that putting an end to the inappropriate influence of lobbyists in Washington would be a top priority of his administration. Yet little changed in eight years, and any small steps Obama did make have now been reversed by the Democratic National Committee.

What happened to his priority? Politicians continued to put partisan loyalty and the success of their party over ethical behavior. Influence and money equals votes. The “beat the other party at all costs” mentality has led to a climate in which corruption of the system has been able to thrive.

Real change would require that politicians not only take a hard look at their own behavior, but call out the improper actions of fellow party members. The problem is, that’s usually political suicide.

For example, senators avoid reprimanding others from their own party on the Senate floor, especially their party leadership. But Ted Cruz broke that rule when he publiclyconfronted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for lying about a deal McConnell had struck with other senators.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate, out of order, and I resent the hell out of it,” saidformer Republican Trent Lott of Cruz’s condemnation of McConnell. “It’s not good for the institution, it’s not good for the party, it’s not good for America.”

Republican Rand Paul says that he shares many of Cruz’s frustrations with Congress but says Cruz “is pretty much done for and stifled, and it’s really because of personal relationships” within the party that Cruz lost due his faceoff with the Majority Leader.

Hillary Clinton is a politician who works within the system. An illustration is hercensure of Bernie Sanders at a recent debate: “The kind of criticism we’ve heard from Sen. Sanders about our president, I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

Clinton’s mentality has helped her win approval of the political establishment and staunch partisans of her party. But it’s not a senator’s job to unilaterally support the president simply because he’s of the same party. Congress was designed to be a check against the Executive Branch. America doesn’t benefit when politicians suppress their honest views of their leaders.

Voters from both parties are reaching for extremes to solve this problem. The difference is that many on the left think that it will take the humanitarianism of a socialist like Sanders to break up the crony capitalism and the stranglehold of party brass, while the right thinks a blunt and savvy business outsider such as Trump who knows the game is the answer.

But while all the presidential candidates have acknowledged that government dysfunction is a problem, no top candidate has devoted much time explaining how their policies would fix it. Instead, the common   theme from the candidates, particularly Trump and Sanders, is that their party will expand the power and control of government, ignore concerns of the other side, and fight harder to win partisan battles.

Rather than encouraging collaboration to rid the system of corrupt influences, the candidates advocate using the heavy hand of government to push through their preferred causes. This leads voters to become sidetracked by partisan arguments on immigration, minimum wage, health care or gun control. And while these are all important issues, they distract us from the core problems of government that continue to worsen.

The exacerbation of the culture war leaves Americans fighting the wrong battle. When two-thirds of Americans say they don’t trust Congress to work in their best interest, it’s vital that we have a president who will ensure that Congress put aside personal interest and partisan gain.

While voters are preoccupied over whether to be ruled from the left or the right, any suggestion of bipartisan cooperation to prohibit back-room political deals, eliminate pork barrel spending, or purge special interest influence is hopeless.

For Americans who’ve become fed up with the duplicity of Washington, voting against the establishment seems worthwhile. But when “outsider” candidates plan to magnify the same bad habits, things can only get worse.

Black Lives, Blue Lives Part II

As originally published on AllSides.com

Police racism and brutality are topics that have people drawing sides. Part I of this series describes how many of us tend to focus on one aspect of the problem without considering, or sometimes even hearing, opposing points.

Often the information we gather, whether from the media or from our community, comes with a bias that doesn’t give us the opportunity to see the big picture.

For instance, a typical argument about police bias might go as follows:

“The treatment of blacks by police is unacceptably aggressive and violent.”

“No. The vast majority of police officers perform a dangerous and difficult job well. The media hypes police brutality against blacks more than the problem of inner-city crime.”

The fact is, both claims have merit.  Acknowledging one doesn’t diminish the other.

This series expands upon my Christian Science Monitor article and investigates the truth and the bias of each side of this argument.

Are police overly hostile?

It depends who you ask.

“Let’s be clear, there is no possible justification for [the Dallas police shooting],”said President Obama at the memorial for slain Dallas officers. “Our police have an extraordinarily difficult job and the vast majority of them do their job in outstanding fashion.”

There’s no doubt that the cold-blooded murder of police officers is indefensible.  Yet some would point out that resentment has been building against police in America. The increased use of body cameras, dash cams, and phone videos has displayed many graphic examples of abusive and excessively violent police behavior.

A few victims of police brutality listed in a Baltimore Sun article include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. A story by The Week exposes many occasions when police have been called to help someone in distress and ended up killing them instead.

Critics of police complain that there aren’t adequate repercussions for officers who perpetrate violence. As chronicled in many newspaper reports, U.S. police departments have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars annually in settlements and awards to victims of police abuse. But that money is generally paid by taxpayers, not law enforcement. And even when charged with senseless battery or murder while on duty, officers are typically protected from criminal charges and jail time by a doctrine of qualified immunity.

Defenders of the police emphasize that most officers perform their job justly and appropriately. But, as stated by the Libertarian Party, “when rogue cop after rogue cop gets off scot-free after using excessive force and changes are not made, and consequences are not felt, it causes this horrible tension we are feeling today.”

Is police brutality a racial issue?

Depending who you’re listening to, the story may sound very different.

Wall Street Journal writer Heather MacDonald doesn’t believe blacks are unjustly victimized. In “The Myths of Black Lives Matter,” MacDonald contends that it’s policemen who should be fearful of blacks. She points out that police officers are killed by blacks at a rate of 2.5 times higher than the rate at which blacks are killed by police. MacDonald also asserts that whites should be more worried about the police than blacks: 12% of all white and Hispanic homicide deaths were from police shootings.  But because blacks die from homicide at a much higher rate, only 4% of black homicide deaths are caused by police shooting.

These statistics are all valid and deserve thoughtful reflection. Defenders of police contend that groups such as Black Lives Matter disregard the extent of black-on-black violence that police face.

An example is Franchesca Ramsey, who defends Black Lives Matter in an MTV Facebook video. “Black on black crime isn’t a thing,” she states. Ramsey points out that people tend to murder others from their own communities, and 84% of white murders are committed by whites.

This fact is accurate. However Ramsey doesn’t take into account that, according to theUS Department of Justice, blacks are almost 8 times more likely to commit murder than whites, and 6 times higher to be a victim of homicide than whites. The Baltimore Sun reported that, “blood was shed in Baltimore at an unprecedented pace in 2015, with mostly young, black men shot to death [by other blacks] in a near-daily crush of violence.”

Heather MacDonald has a valid point that, if blacks are in more altercations with police, they are more likely to be victims of police shootings. On the other hand, others say the amount of violent crime perpetrated by blacks is irrelevant to the conversation. Franchesca Ramsey is also right when she says that focusing on black-on-black crime can divert us from the separate problem of police racism and brutality. Black men represent just 6 percent of the U.S. population, but made up nearly 40 percent of those who were killed while unarmed. As she states, if police aren’t doing their job to “protect and serve all communities, we need to reassess and find solutions.”

How the media affects what we think

Violent crime and police brutality are issues that should concern everyone. But the way in which these issues are depicted by social and mass media often divides us and makes us jump to the defensive.

Some point out that police brutality against whites has been underrepresented in the media. For example, when an unarmed white teen was recently killed by police there was barely a ripple in the news. The other side complains that demonstrations by black organizations against inner-city violence tend to be less publicized by the media than rallies by blacks against the police.

These claims are both true, and are important because what we see in the news colors how we perceive the problem.

George Washington University report found that personal experience had mixed effects regarding overall satisfaction with the police, but “repeated exposure to media reports on police abuse was found to be a strong predictor of perceptions of police misconduct, racialized policing, and support for reforms.” The report states that, “the role of the media has not received the attention it deserves from policing scholars; it may be an important dimension of any comprehensive explanatory framework of police-citizen relations.”

Police brutality is a serious problem that requires consequences and accountability from offending officers. Poor, urban communities, where innocent people are most vulnerable to both crime and police brutality, are in vital need of a police force they can trust. However, police are most often faced with dangerous criminals and perilous situations in minority communities. Both sides need to acknowledge that circumstances have left many blacks as well as police officers paranoid and suspicious.

Divisive arguments fail to show us the full picture. Finding a resolution to these complicated issues is only possible when we’re willing to acknowledge multiple truths.

Are Gender Neutral Bathrooms Our Priority?

As originally published on AllSides.com

Should bathrooms be gender-neutral? In recent months this question has been the subject of countless articles, television discussions and national magazine covers. The people at the Broadway show Kinky Boots have even produced a video featuring their take on the argument.

This is an issue that warrants thought and discussion. But the problem here is that the press and the public have dedicated a significant amount of energy to one issue that impacts a relatively small minority of people while other crucial, pressing threats to everyone’s freedom remain buried.

Why have gender-neutral bathrooms become such a high profile issue?

Because this is a partisan topic. No matter which side you’re on, the clear-cut bad guys are the people on the other end of the political spectrum. You’re either discriminating against a marginalized portion of the population, or you’re forcing people to accept an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation. It makes us angry—those idiots on the other side are never going to see the light, and it’s important to dismiss their silly concerns.

Narrow, defining issues are good for political parties. It keeps the party base faithful. Preoccupation with divisive issues is good for candidates. It allows them to avoid addressing more complicated subjects for which both parties share the blame. The press runs with the frenzy: promoting our differences makes great stories.

Another currently hot topic is abortion. Like gender-neutral bathrooms, this is not a subject to be belittled. I have a strong opinion on the matter. But my main concern is that there are many voters who choose a candidate based primarily on this one particular issue when the freedom of all Americans is in jeopardy in so many dangerous ways.

There’s plenty of common ground to be found when defending our rights and our liberty. Where are the headlines, cover stories and campaign speeches about issues that would unify conservatives and progressives rather than divide them?

When winning elections is the objective, the most important goal is making the other party look bad. It isn’t expedient for politicians or political groups to point out problems their party helped create. This is why important issues are ignored.  When the people are mired in partisan battles, they have less interest in unifying to tackle issues that have been caused by both parties. This has led us to overlook new laws and policies that jeopardize the very fiber of our American freedom.

We know about countries where police break down doors and haul people to prison because they’ve spoken out against a tyrannical ruler. It’s not something we worry about here. In the United States, we’ve been able to rely on laws to protect us from government oppression. We may not like the next president, or the one who gets elected after that, but we don’t worry that we’ll be locked up for criticizing them. Or that someone we love will disappear for speaking their mind. This gives us the ability to put our political focus on other matters, such as solving moral ills or improving our general quality of life in specific ways.

But while we’ve been concentrating on very specific partisan issues, laws have been passed by both parties that jeopardize the very foundation of our American way of life. These laws have evaded the spotlight because neither party is willing to address them.

  • Government spying

In the name of security, the Bush Administration passed the Patriot Act in October 2001, allowing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without warrant and without our knowledge. During the Obama Administration, the power of the NSA was strengthened, allowing law enforcement agencies to monitor, collect, and share our phone calls, emails, and private records without even the accusation of criminal activity. This clearly disregards our Fourth Amendment right against searches without probable cause. This power will pass into the hands of Trump, Clinton, or whoever is next elected president.

  • Indefinite detention

Signed into law in 2011 by President Obama, and with bipartisan support of Congress, our government has now granted itself the ability to detain American citizens indefinitely. Not only without a trial, but without providing any grounds at all. In other words, with only the vague and broad accusation of “terrorism,” our next president has the power to arrest any critic he or she deems to be a “threat” and lock them up forever. And said critic would have no legal recourse.

  • Asset forfeiture

Last year law enforcement seized more from Americans than robbers did. Asset forfeiture laws, created in the 1980’s, allow property to be seized if someone is simply suspected of a crime, and property does not have to be returned even once innocence is proven. Police confiscation has become a lucrative source of income for state governments. Through federal civil forfeiture laws, the IRS has seized millions of dollars from thousands of Americans’ bank accounts without proof of wrongdoing. The IRS has already been caught targeting political enemies at the behest of presidential administrations.

  • Restricted political choices

Don’t like your choices for president? If neither the Democrats nor Republicans will solve our problems, maybe it’s time for an alternative. Well, it’s not that easy.  Election rules written by the two political parties effectively silence all other voices. For example, presidential candidate Gary Johnson is a former two-term Republican governor running under the Libertarian ticket. He is expected to be the only other candidate to appear on the ballots of all 50 states. But his free market/socially liberal stance is difficult to categorize. As most of the media leans either left or right, he is typically ignored by the press and their political polls. This will guarantee that he’ll be unable to reach the 15% poll rating required by the “Commission on Presidential Debates,” a private organization jointly run by the Democratic and Republican parties to maintain their control of debates. The debates will remain strictly between the Democrats and Republicans as usual. Though the majority of Americans say a third party is needed, most Americans will never know other candidates like Gary Johnson exist or ever hear what they have to say.

Once our government can make us unable or afraid to speak out, then every one of our freedoms are at risk of being swept away, abortion and gay rights among them. Laws are already in place that, in the wrong hands, could silence any criticism of the government by stripping us of our assets or locking us up indefinitely.

Why aren’t these issues getting the attention they deserve?

Because politicians aren’t willing to bring up topics that detract from their message that the other party is the bad guy. The main priority of all candidates is to ensure that their party stays firmly in power and any opposing voices are disregarded. Partisan groups prefer to pursue divisive issues that put the other side at fault than to tackle problems that expose mutual responsibility.

If our goal is to guarantee that Americans have the freedom to speak their minds, make their own choices and safeguard their civil rights, it’s time to stop getting sidetracked by relatively minor partisan topics that keep us fighting among ourselves. Politicians won’t volunteer to retract the policies outlined here without an outcry from the public.

No matter what our political leanings, we must ensure that we devote our time and energy to issues that are vital to the future of our nation.  Let’s work together and speak up while we still can.

Sanders and Trump- not as different as you’d think

Few people believe Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have much in common.  But while Sanders and Trump may be polar opposites in some respects, they’re alike in some very fundamental ways. And their popularity is driven by some of the very same reasons.

Congress’ job approval rating is 16%. Dysfunctional government was the single most important problem Americans mentioned in Gallup polls throughout 2015. Both Trump and Sanders are anti-establishment, which appeals to voters’ frustration. Both threaten to use the muscle of executive office to force change in the way they see fit.

The problem is, muscle and force do not lead to freedom, democracy, or a healthy political system of checks and balances.

Today only a third of Americans are satisfied with the way our system of government is working (down by half from 15 years ago). World history shows that today’s conditions are ripe for a charismatic leader who promises to impose utopian solutions. Whether it’s bringing wage equality to the masses or protecting our nation from foreign intruders, when the people lose faith in their system, they seek outspoken leaders who pledge to bring order to the chaos.

As Gallup points out, the rhetoric of candidates from both parties is very much alike: politicians are too beholden to political parties, to the rich and influential, and to big business to stick to principle or represent the people. Voters are very receptive to this message. Polls show that the very liberal, the very conservative, and many in between agree that Congress doesn’t operate with the best intentions of the people in mind. One third of Americans consider these issues a crisis.

But what typically happens is politicians point their finger at the other party and ignore the misdeeds of their colleagues. Trump and Sanders are appealing because they’re willing to speak out against the political elite in their own parties. Many voters see no other alternative to fix a broken system.

After all, back in 2008, Barack Obama promised that putting an end to the inappropriate influence of lobbyists in Washington would be a top priority of his administration. Yet little changed in eight years, and any small strides Obama did make have now been reversed by the Democratic National Committee.

What happened to his priority? Politicians continued to put partisan loyalty and the success of their party over ethical behavior. This “win at all costs” mentality is exactly what Americans have been complaining about.

Real change would require that politicians not only take a hard look at their own behavior, but call out the improper actions of fellow party members. The problem is, that’s usually political suicide.

For example, senators avoid reprimanding others from their own party on the Senate floor, especially their party leadership. But Ted Cruz broke that rule when he publicly confronted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for lying about a deal McConnell had struck. McConnell had denied working with several senators to vote for a major trade bill in exchange for the majority leader’s help in reviving the Export-Import Bank.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate, out of order, and I resent the hell out of it,” said former Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Cruz’s condemnation of McConnell. “It’s not good for the institution, it’s not good for the party, it’s not good for America.”

Republican Rand Paul says that he shares many of Cruz’s frustrations with Congress but told Fox News that Cruz “is pretty much done for and stifled, and it’s really because of personal relationships” that Cruz lost within the party. Without the endorsements and backing of other Republican senators, Cruz’ popularity has continued to slip.

Hillary Clinton is a politician who works within the system. An illustration of her party allegiance is her censure of Bernie Sanders at a recent debate. “The kind of criticism we’ve heard from Sen. Sanders about our president, I expect from Republicans,” she stated. “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

Clinton’s mentality has helped her win approval of the political elite and the staunch partisans of her party. But does America benefit when politicians suppress criticism of their leaders?

Voters from both parties are reaching for extremes to solve this problem. The difference is that many on the left think that it will take the humanitarianism of a socialist to to break up the crony capitalism and the stranglehold of party brass, while the right thinks a blunt and savvy business outsider who knows the game is the answer.

In a way, our political parties have become caricatures of themselves. In the past, opponents have accused Democrats of being closet socialists and Republicans of being arrogant and greedy capitalists. While neither depiction accurately describes the typical Democratic or Republican voter, some of the 2016 presidential candidates fit the bill all too closely.

But while all the presidential candidates have acknowledged that government dysfunction is a problem, no candidate has devoted much time to specifics on how they’d fix it. Though two-thirds of Americans say they don’t trust Congress to work in their best interest, the common theme from every candidate, particularly Trump and Sanders, is that their party needs to expand the power and control of government, ignore concerns of the other side, and fight harder to win partisan battles.

The focus of candidates on both sides is what actions they’ll compel Congress to take if they’re elected president. Rather than proposing harmony, they advocate using the heavy hand of government to push through their prefered causes. This leads voters to become sidetracked by partisan arguments on immigration, minimum wage, health care or gun control. And while these are all important issues, they distract us from the core problems of government that continue to worsen.

This exacerbation of the culture war leaves Americans fighting the wrong battle. While voters clash over whether to be ruled from the left or the right, any suggestion of bipartisan collaboration to prohibit back-room political deals, eliminate pork barrel spending, or purge special interest influence is hopeless.  

For Americans who’ve become fed up with the duplicity of Washington, voting against the establishment seems worthwhile. Except that the outsider candidates plan to carry on the same bad habits, only intensified.