5 Wednesday Observations From An Already Wild Political Week

photo credit: The Associated Press

photo credit: The Associated Press

1. The White House and Republican lawmakers like Devin Nunes really need to stop pretending they don't know who Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort are, or downplaying their involvement with the Trump Campaign. The facts are the facts. Carter Page worked as a foreign policy advisor to the campaign. General Mike Flynn also worked closely with the campaign and practically never left Trump's side for many months before being appointed to NSA. And despite what Sean Spicer would like us to believe, Paul Manafort ran the Trump campaign for 122 days, including at the time of his nomination at the RNC. Managing a campaign is not a "limited role" and 122 days is not a "limited" amount of time when you consider Bannon was campaign CEO for just 82 days. (More on Manafort below). C'mon y'all. We're smarter than this. You're smarter than this. It might be best to just keep quiet at this point and let the investigation run its course. 

2. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said earlier this week that Judge Neil Gorsuch should be confirmed "100-0." While I don't necessarily agree that he should be unanimously confirmed, I've listened to most of the hearing to date and must say aside from a couple of key philosophical differences on some of Gorsuch's past decisions, the Democratic opposition to Gorsuch took a big hit this week as his interview wore on. Gorsuch has been calm, warm, articulate, and independent. He's practically tripped over himself to distance his ideologies from Trump, to prove his allegiance to the rule of law, to put the constitution above politics, and to prove he's an impartial adjudicator. Here's the thing, the Democrats have to be very careful here, because on its face Ben Sasse's statement is more true than false. Gorsuch is qualified, experienced, and he's crushed his hearing. The only obstacle to his appointment at this stage would be the Merrick Garland grudge, and that grudge is looking less and less valid as the hearing wears on. Plain and simple, the Democrats gave Gorsuch a hearing, so they should go ahead and give him a vote, too. How that vote shakes out remains to be seen, but I would think it unwise to drive the stake too far into the ground on this particular nomination, especially with all the chances to capitalize on the unforced errors that loom with the Trump administration. Chuck Schumer has suggested delaying a vote until the conclusion of FBI investigation. That move hedges too much on a Democrat-friendly finding in that investigation. Follow the process. Show you value norms, and vote on Gorsuch, Dems. 

3. Donald Trump is losing his bully status - and fast. Director Comey and Admiral Rogers this week essentially made Donald Trump's wiretapping claims a cold case. That was significant for two reasons. One, it proved the president once again ran down a rabbit hole that reeked of conspiracy only to find nothing. And two, because Comey and Rogers publicly and authoritatively discredited Trump - along with the Intelligence committees in both houses - they defanged his Twitter bite. Republicans aren't scared of his weaponized Tweet storms anymore, and they showed it on Tuesday. Freedom Caucus members were threatened, and they promptly called the president's bluff. The AHCA is likely to be Trump's first major policy failure (I'm not counting the EOs on travel because they haven't included Congressional input). He can't bully his way out of a bad bill, and he can't Tweet away the seats of Republican lawmakers he doesn't like. Healthcare, as expected, is an albatross. Healthcare, as expected, is an issue that perks the eyes and ears of voters. It doesn't just pique their interest, it has their full attention. As Rep. Thomas Massie from Kentucky said yesterday, he got 274 calls from constituents asking him to vote "no" on AHCA, and 4 to vote "yes." A bill that unpopular will never be undone with brute force. You're in Washington now Mr. Trump, not a boardroom, and lawmakers answer to their voters. We may be reaching unprecedented levels of cynicism that push us farther and farther away from actually believing that fact, but occasionally it's redeemed. The AHCA opposition is proving it.

4. I'm no expert in optics or public relations, but if you're the Rex Tillerson and the State Department it's proooobbbably not the best idea to cancel a meeting with NATO and replace it with a nondescript trip to Russia the same week the FBI confirmed the Trump campaign is under investigation for possible coordination with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Just sayin'

5. Expect the investigation to take a while. There's going to be a pressing urge from media and Democratic lawmakers to "Maddow" any and every detail that drops from now until the conclusion of the probe. As content consumers we can't bite. This is going to be long. It's going to be thorough. And above all else, it's going to be close to the vest. If Comey's testimony taught us anything, it's that 6 months is short in the grand scheme of counter intelligence investigations, and he's not gonna say jack squat about it. That means media outlets and investigative reporters are going to try their best to fill in the blanks, i.e. today's AP report on Paul Manafort. Is it important information? Sure. Should we be consuming it? Absolutely. Is it going to lead to some monumental breakthrough in the investigation? Probably not. I guarantee you if the AP knows it, the FBI knows it too, and if it was the missing piece to break the case wide open, we'd know about it. Get comfortable in your seats, y'all. Grab some non-perishable snacks. Get some beers on ice.  It's gonna be a while. 

Letting Maddow Marinate: Some Substance Behind The "Non-Story"

Last night was perhaps the most significant insignificant live TV moment to date in the Trump presidency. Everyone tuned in. Everyone waited patiently for Rachel Maddow to take a leisurely, Maddow-like stroll through the cliff's notes of her months-long reporting on Trump's possible Russian ties. And everyone (mostly) left feeling like they'd just sat through every M. Night Shyamalan movie not named The Sixth Sense, i.e. overwrought plot, no big payoff. 

This column will not comment on the merits or faults of Maddow's execution, timing, hype, general show format, or any other litany of rapid-fire criticisms hurled at her throughout Tuesday night's broadcast. We're less than 24 hours out from the live event and that territory has already been slashed and burned. Instead I wanted to share what kernels of insight we can take away from the otherwise unpalatable nothingburger that was the 2005 1040 reveal. I stumbled upon a thread that brings up some valid points if you strip away some of the far-reaching logic peppered in. Sam Abramson is a columnist for Huffington Post Politics, so as always, consider the source. 

Point #1, though it fails to clarify that there is still no evidence Trump did so willingly, is valid. The statement released by the White House prior to the MSNBC broadcast essentially verified the authenticity of the documents, and leads to points #2, #3, and #4. The WH when given wind of breaking news has shown a propensity to immediately comment (see 9th Circuit decision). Those comments in turn prove that Trump's excuse for not disclosing his taxes is and always has been a front. We also now know that it's likely more tax info will "find its way" to news outlets and they are emboldened to run with it. Point #5 is more speculative than genuine, but we are in an era of feelings, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Trump's skeptics will lean on this return (whether correct or not) as the first crumb in the trail leading to nefarious places. 

Point #7 is interesting because it does raise the concept of the Alternative Minimum Tax, "a supplemental income tax imposed by the United States federal government required in addition to baseline income tax for certain individuals, corporationsestates, and trusts that have exemptions or special circumstances allowing for lower payments of standard income tax," into the national conciousness. Why is that important? I'm not sure people care so much as to whether he paid it or not in 2005, but more the important question would be in point #8, or how it could affect his tax policy making. If the public knows his tax plan, which advocates for the removal of the AMT, could directly benefit his personal wealth in drastic ways, could it put more pressure on Congress come tax reform time? That remains to be seen. 

This run of tweets I find particularly poignant, mostly because they categorizes the event for what it will mean, not necessarily what it meant. What we learned from Maddow's break was actually kind of good for Trump. We learned he actually paid taxes, and in a larger percentage than public perception would suggest. Overall that's a win for Trump. BUT, Maddow's show did bring Trump's taxes from the sidelines back to center court. Both Maddow's blog and David Johnston's sites crashed due to traffic volume. People want to know, and now Trump can't dismiss that. The White House also perhaps made the knee-jerk misstep of responding too quickly and defensively to the breaking news, inadvertently validating the documents and setting the precedent that any further documents will also require public comment. That begs the question, "Can you pick and choose when to lend credibility to tax documents when they leak, especially when the credibility of the president and staff has already been challenged in numerous, verifiable ways? Can the WH control the tax narrative?" 

The answer in the short term is "No, it cannot." And that's a big problem going forward. It's reasonable to believe the pressure will increase on the administration to answer more questions about Trump's taxes. It's also reasonable to believe more details/leaks will likely complicate the nature of the answers the administration can give. Last night was a softball over the plate for the White House, and it made a timid, jerky swing and was able to foul tip it safely away. But what happens when the sharp curveball comes? We'll need more than a haphazardly drafted statement and contradictory morning tweets from the president to clarify those records. Eventually if records are released, with no avenue for WH recourse, Trump will be in a war of attrition. Either pull back the curtain of transparency, or have it nibbled away bit by bit by ravenous lawmakers and voters. This story might not have been the whopper Maddow & company hoped for, but they got the pilot light on the grill lit. Now we just have to wait and see how hot it gets. 

 

5 Steps To Creating Financial Stability in a Politically Uncertain Time

Editor's note: Matt Becker is a listener and founder and CEO of Mom and Dad Money, a fee-only financial planning service dedicated to helping new parents make money simple. This is his first contribution to the Pantsuit Politics Blog

In November 2013, I lost the only full-time job I’d ever had. At the time, my wife was staying home with our 1-year-old son and our second boy was due in a month. We had no income and increasing expenses.

Like any reasonable person would do in my situation, I decided to start a business - from scratch - without even the official certification I needed to operate it.

If that sounds crazy, well, that’s because it kind of was! Taking on the responsibility of starting a business, supporting a family, and bringing a second child into the world all at the same time was more than a little stressful. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that we decided to move cross-country just a few months later. (Yeah, I know.)

But from a financial perspective, it wasn’t a reckless decision. My wife and I ran the numbers and determined that we had plenty of runway to give this a shot without jeopardizing our family’s financial security.

We’d spent years making financial decisions designed to give us maximum flexibility, and this was the moment where it was paying off big time. It was the rainy day everyone waits for.

There’s Always Uncertainty

Life is full of both opportunities and obstacles.

Some of them are exciting, like the opportunity to stay home with your baby, change careers, start a business, or travel the world.

And some of them are scary, like losing a job, needing major home repairs, or wondering what crazy thing our President or government is going to do next.

We live in a particularly uncertain time right now. There’s always an adjustment period with a new administration, but many people are more worried than normal about what the next four years will bring in terms of the economy, healthcare insurance options and cost, national security, and even basic human rights.

Those are all valid concerns and we should absolutely be paying attention to them. But there’s only so much you can control and it’s impossible to know how all of this will evolve over time and how it will affect you.

What you can control is the financial foundation you build in the face of this uncertainty. Because while money can’t buy happiness, it can certainly buy you the flexibility to deal with whatever happens on your own terms.

Here are 5 steps I’ve taken to create financial flexibility in my own life, and that you can use to give yourself more options in times of uncertainty.

1. Spend Less Than You Earn

My friend JL Collins likes to share the parable of the king’s minister and the monk. You can read his version of it here, but the main message can be summed up in this exchange:

Minister: “You know, if you could learn to cater to the king you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.”

Monk: “If you could learn to live on rice and beans you wouldn’t have to cater to the king.”

Most people think of limiting their spending as a hardship, but there are a big benefits to consistently spending less than you earn:

  1. It’s easier than you think - Humans are adaptable and money doesn’t lead to happiness. You might feel short-term pain from cutting back, but you’ll quickly get used to it and be perfectly content.

  2. You can save - We’ll talk more about saving in just a bit, but it’s the biggest key to creating financial options and it’s only possible when you spend less than you earn.

  3. You have more opportunity to make positive life choices - It’s easier to switch to a single income, change careers, or go back to school if you have fewer financial obligations. It’s also a lot less stressful to stop for ice cream on the way back from soccer practice.

  4. You can weather bigger storms - Thinks like losing a job or need a big car repair are easier to handle when you have more room in your budget.

  5. It’s not all about cutting back - Negotiating a raise, earning money on the side, or otherwise increasing your income are all powerful ways to give yourself more flexibility.

The bottom line is that spending less than you earn is likely to make you happier, more relaxed, AND open up more opportunities for you and your family.

2. Build Basic Savings

I’m a huge fan of building up a sizable cash cushion in a basic savings account.

On the one hand, that money can help you deal with big expenses you didn’t see coming without having to resort to debt or otherwise blowing up your budget.

And on the other hand, that money is available to help you take advantage of opportunities that come your way. My wife and I used our savings account for our basic expenses while I built my business up.

Either way you look at it, having money safe and sound in a savings account gives you a lot of flexibility.

3. Protect What You Can't Lose

My wife and I have more insurance than just about any of my friends.

We both have life insurance. I have disability insurance. We have an umbrella liability policy. And of course we have health insurance (thanks Obama!).

All of these insurance policies protect us from financial risks we couldn’t handle on our own. And with those safety nets in place, we have more freedom to take chances in pursuit of a life that makes us happy.

Because at the very least, we know that our family will always have the financial resources to handle its basic needs.

4. Pay off Debt the Smart Way

I hate debt with a passion. Every dollar I owe to someone else keeps me beholden to them and restricts my ability to make my own choices.

If you can avoid debt, do it. And if you have debt, figuring out how to pay it off as quickly and efficiently as possible will save you money and create more flexibility for you and your family.

There are a lot of debt repayment strategies, but my favorite is to pay off your highest interest rate debts first. And the reason is simple: it saves you the most money and gets you to debt-free soonest. Any other approach costs more and takes longer.

I like this free spreadsheet for creating a personal debt repayment plan.

5. Invest in Your Financial Independence

I love my job. Every day I get to help real people make good financial decisions so they can build a happy, healthy, and enjoyable life. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

But eventually I’d like to get to a point where I no longer need to work in order to support my lifestyle. This point is traditionally called “retirement”, but I prefer the term financial independence.

To me, financial independence is simply the point at which you’re able to make decisions based on what makes you happy rather than what makes you money.

Financial independence could lead to retirement, but it might simply free you to work on projects purely for the fulfillment and enjoyment they provide. And you could get there in your 60s, but there are plenty of people who are able to reach this point in their 50s, 40s, and even their 30s.

No matter what financial independence looks like to you, getting there requires investing. It means contributing to your 401(k) at least up to your full employer match. It means contributing to IRAs and other investment accounts. It means investing in a simple portfolio of low-cost index funds.

By taking advantage of the tax breaks these accounts provide and the long-term returns of the stock market, you can eventually create so much flexibility that no one can require you to do anything.

That’s true financial independence.

One Step at a Time

The five steps above are a lot to take on, especially if you’re new to the whole personal finance thing. Even I’m not fully taking advantage of all of them, as my wife and I are still trying to get back on track with investing as grows closer to what it used to be.

The key to creating more financial flexibility is taking it one small step at a time. Maybe start by trying to cut back on one expense, then redirect that money to a savings account each month. If you can repeat that process a few more times, you’ll quickly build up some significant regular savings. Give it a little more time and you can move on to getting insurance, paying off debt, and investing.

It’s not always easy to take these steps, but remember that what you’re really doing is buying yourself the freedom to make your own decisions, no matter what life throws your way.

Trump's Congressional Address: America's Working Relationship Is At Stake

The first month of Donald Trump's presidency can largely be summed up with one word: relationships. The American media, public, and government officials alike have all taken to various platforms to psychoanalyze, scrutinize, and assess the health of Donald Trump's various relationships - whether it's his feud with the press and the intelligence community, his potential ties to Russia, his factional family inside the West Wing, his real family outside of it, his sometimes diplomatic, sometimes awkward relationship with U.S. allies, or his complicated relationship with information. The bedrock beginnings of his most important relationship of them all, however, will happen tomorrow night at 9 P.M. when president Trump addresses his co-workers. 

To this point, members of Congress have taken a variety of non-committal and deflective stances toward the Trump administration, and for the most part, who could blame them? When Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell see Trump, they see a signature on a tax cut, or a repeal of the ACA, much like Sylvester the Cat looks at Tweety Bird and sees dinner. The president they'll watch Tuesday night, to them, is a means to an end. Anyone paying attention to Republican congressional leadership knows that they'd love to ignore Trump if they could, but he is figuratively the largest elephant in a room full of elephants. Why is this conversation so important? Because he won't be addressing fans, or a red meat crowd at CPAC, or a room full of wealthy donors, or his guests at Mar-a-Lago. He'll be looking square in the face of the people (Republicans and Democrats) he needs to help him "Make America Great Again." And for Congress, the relationship with the man at the podium and his agenda is one that will likely define a generation of American politics. This open monologue to Congress (an equal branch of government to the executive and judicial branches despite what Stephen Miller says) will set the working standard for the next four years. 

Will Congress be able to work with Trump, or will they have to waste valuable energy working around the distractions he creates?

Will they be able to coalesce around a singular legislative vision for the country?

Will the president implore them to get to work, so the power and volatility of the executive branch is diminished, not only for this administration but for the next?

Will Congress make that a priority for themselves if the president doesn't?

Will the calls for unity from Trump be a mere bone to toss out randomly in speeches and press conferences to maintain appearances, or will he use this address to find issues where Democratic ideas can be a valued and respected?

Will he set the agenda and goals for how his new "business" will run? Or will he continue to shut them out in favor of a less-experienced, less stable inner circle? 

Will he discuss gridlock and congressional disapproval, and lay out a plan to reverse both trends?

As midnight strikes on Wednesday morning, we may find all of these questions unanswered, and some likely unposed. But if there is one moment where Trump can erase some of the blunders and early unforced errors of his presidency it is tomorrow night. I hesitate to call whatever that speech might look like a pivot. We are far beyond the point of hoping for or expecting a pivot. A focus on working order, though, is still not only possible, but plausible. It won't take much effort from Trump to steer a ship veering dangerously away from a place resembling governance back on course. He fancies himself a business man, and there's no better time for him to get down to business. And he must remember, the country will be watching.

Aside from the hardest core Trump supporters, the public is tired of hearing about fake news and the media. The daily judgement of what is reported on a day-to-day basis by this administration doesn't do one damn thing to make an American life better. It doesn't add one job. It doesn't insure one sick person. It doesn't fix one structurally deficient bridge. It doesn't stop one terrorist. It doesn't solidify one foreign relationship. It doesn't fill one glass of lead filled water with clean water. It doesn't empower one small business owner to expand. It doesn't help one student get a better education. It doesn't help one graduate pay down their debt. It doesn't help one person practice their religion safely. It doesn't heal one broken bond between a community and its law enforcement. It doesn't stop one shooting death. It doesn't do one thing to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. It doesn't help support one service person abroad or here at home. It doesn't help establish free and fair trade. It doesn't help one family afford a home. 

Aside from the hardest core Trump supporters, the public is tired of hearing about the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, and the margin of victory. The public is tired of hearing how nobody believed in "the movement." All those issues I listed in the last paragraph? None of them get addressed by touting electoral margins of victory either.

Aside from the hardest core Trump supporters, the public is tired of hearing "believe me" and "trust me" because, so far, there isn't much from the administration to believe or trust. It has been wholly unable to synchronize a collective message or agenda. It has rushed multiple executive orders and conflated motion with the idea of progress. It has made promise after lofty promise, with not so much as a whisper of Congressional consensus on policy that can be put forward. And if the Republican town halls are any indication of just how tired that public is of getting rhetoric instead of answers in regard to those speedy promises - a war of attrition is already underway.

My guess is also, Congress is tired of hearing media talk, election talk, and "believe me" too. Republicans are in "bigger fish to fry" mode, and Democrats are trying to unify around the resistance movement (the effectiveness and direction of that movement TBD). Everyone in Congress has more important conversations to have, more important work to do, and more important obligations to the American people. The ones relishing and engaging in Trump's pettier posturing will probably regret it come 2018.  

At Pantsuit Politics we love a productive conversation, and no matter which side of the political fence you stand on, more stagnation is something we should all vehemently reject. If you've ever been on a conference call that ends with a concrete plan, you know that invigorated feeling you get when you sit back at your desk. Your notebook is full. Your to-do list is in front of you. Your cube lighting looks a little less fluorescent. The clock feels a little less taunting. Even if all the meetings before that one were a disaster, all it takes is one great one to change perceptions, change the culture, get things moving forward. Even Trump's biggest opponents want to see someone focused more on his work and his country work than himself. They want to see the bare minimum of selfless effort the highest office of public servitude requires. They want to see him realize the purpose of the presidency. 

Purpose - real purpose - is a powerful feelingIf Trump can find it between now and his first address to Congress, dignified leadership might not be a lost cause after all. 

Politics and Meditation: I Promise We Aren't Crazy

After we finished recording our episode, Resistance and Backlash, I realized that Sarah and I resolved our conversation by deciding that meditation is the answer to polarization--a conclusion that probably prompted loads of eye-rolling or at least confusion. While we always try to offer something that you don't exactly find on cable news, we stepped way out of the mainstream this time and have some explaining to do to those of you who aren't sitting in stillness every day. 

One of our core realizations in creating episodes of Pantsuit Politics is that political conversation has to be about personal growth to be effective. If you're engaging to convince other people of anything, you're pushing against rope. Meditation is a key contributor to personal growth for both Sarah and me. Meditation teaches you to observe your own thoughts, and that sort of mind-management has become an essential part of my political thinking. 

For example, this morning, I was thinking about universal basic income in the shower (WEREN'T YOU?). I decided that UBI is a good option even for fiscal conservatives (doesn't it have to cost less than the bureaucracy wrapped around loads of other social programs?) and libertarians (doesn't it honor the personal freedom and inherent autonomy of people better than our current welfare system?). Then I heard myself thinking, "of course, there are the crazies who think all taxes are forms of stealing." 

"The crazies." Not exactly nuanced. 

I paused, and I methodically took myself through the logic that a reasonable human being might use to determine that we should not have to pay any taxes. I do not agree with that reasonable human being, but I can see that argument and think about that person with respect. 

Catching these moments of thought loops and mental laziness makes a major difference in the way I interact with information and people. I'm trying to consistently check in with my "observer" self before I tweet something snarky, unfair, unsubstantiated, or generally unproductive. When we receive emails that rip into me for something I've said on the show and I feel this flash of heat or sickness in my body, I've started labeling that feeling almost immediately and letting it go. I read the message, experience the sensation, and tell myself, "Beth, you are allowing a person you've never met to make you feel inadequate right now. Stop." It's pretty effective.

And when someone I do know and usually love says something that I find shocking, I let myself experience that sick feeling then say, "Beth, you hate what this person is saying, and you love this person, and also this has nothing to do with you."

This is all to say that when we know our minds better, we can engage in conversations without devolving into rage, sarcasm, or estrangement. And, we aren't the only ones who think so. Gunilla Norris expresses it more effectively than I can: 

Within each of us there is a silence
—a silence as vast as a universe.
We are afraid of it…and we long for it.

When we experience that silence, we remember
who we are: creatures of the stars, created
from the cooling of this planet, created
from dust and gas, created
from the elements, created
from time and space…created
from silence.

In our present culture,
silence is something like an endangered species…
an endangered fundamental.

The experience of silence is now so rare
that we must cultivate it and treasure it.
This is especially true for shared silence.

Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.
When we can stand aside from the usual and
perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.
Our lives align with deeper values
and the lives of others are touched and influenced.

Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,
to our selves. It locates us. Without that return
we can go so far away from our true natures
that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.

We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.
We endanger the delicate balance which sustains
our lives, our communities, and our planet.

Each of us can make a difference.
Politicians and visionaries will not return us
to the sacredness of life.

That will be done by ordinary men and women
who together or alone can say,
“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,
remember to care,
let us do this for our children and ourselves
and our children’s children.
Let us practice for life’s sake.”

Let us practice for life's sake. So, download the Calm app, friends. You won't be sorry; you'll be more nuanced. 

Secrets Don't Make Friends...Or A Stable Government

Editor's note: Jason is an avid listener of the show and frequent contributor to the blog.  He is a U.S. Air Force Officer, and his views expressed are entirely his own and not that of the United States Air Force or the DOD.  Follow on Twitter @jbbakes3

I have a new found appreciation for print journalists with deadlines. I told Pantsuit Politics editor Dante Lima late last week that I could get him something for this week dealing with some current foreign policy and national security issues. It was going to serve as sort of a primer/commentary on our policies and dealing with allies and the importance of such.

Then as I was getting into bed Monday night, my phone buzzed and the news alert stated that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was resigning.

Edit.  Select All.  Delete.

Now, I find myself writing down some thoughts about how Retired General Michael Flynn helped everyone who took the under on number of days he’d last cash their bets out.  The position had previously been held for an average of 949 days.  Mr. Flynn gave it the old comrade try and got to 24. In Russia, job resign you!  That was forced, I’m sorry.

The White House is in pure chaos, and even Trump’s harshest critics should not take joy in this.  Aside from the fact that an American National Security advisor was lying to his bosses and is possibly compromised by the Russians, North Korea is expanding their missile program, the aforementioned Rooskies are ignoring treaties and deploying missiles, Yemen is limiting our ability to conduct raids to hunt terrorist leaders, and the refugee ban is bolstering ISIS recruiting numbers.

Were all of this being handled professionally and in good order, this would be the time where all of my Republican friends reminded me they said it would be ok. I told you he’d change. I told you he’d surround himself with the right people. I told you that you had nothing to worry about, I told you that it would be fine and we had to vote for our team to beat the email lady. Instead?

Absolute, crickets on a quiet rural night, silence. 

I’m not going to continue to preach, I’m going to ask you all for a favor. In the name of Pantsuit Politics nuance, and keeping faith with everything I’ve ever written here about partisan politics, I ask this of you:

Please let our system work. Is it not so far? Judges are pushing back on the ban, patriots in our intelligence community are not being bullied into ignoring wrong doing, and our right to a free press is presenting the information. We live in a country where in the past week alone, our courts used their checks and balances, and the press of a free society brought to light issues that brought actionable wrong doing to the surface. Nobody was dragged from their home, nobody was locked up, and no blood was shed. As you think to yourself these are unprecedented times also ask yourself this: In the long history of this world, how often are such violate disagreements handled with the rule of law and the upholding of governing documents?

Tell your elected representatives you want answers and demand accountability.  Stay informed and be aware of current events, your rights, and what you can do with them, but let the system work. As badly as I want to see this issue investigated from top to bottom, I just as badly want it to be the end of it. I sincerely hope that a full investigation reveals that Flynn acted alone, lied, was caught, and our President dealt with it. I believe the time and resources spent doing such a thing would be well spent in the name of establishing some much needed order on the National Security front.

If IC members exposed secrets and methods that could compromise the position and safety of our officials and operations, then they too have to be investigated. Two wrongs don’t make a right. And if the investigation leads elsewhere? Well then we need to know that too. It’s not just about asking questions anymore, it’s about finding answers – answers our country desperately needs to maintain order and integrity.

If You Can't Prove There's A Problem, You Can't Fix It - The Defense of Data Collection

Editor's note: Evi Roberts is a listener and Master of Public Administration candidate at Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. In the interest of full disclosure, I have marketed the MPA program for the Voinovich School in a past life, but I no longer do and was unaware of this relationship until Evi emailed me this post. 

The Pantsuit Politics call for writers is rather timely as I am looking to spread the word about a piece of harmful legislation that has been introduced into Congress. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has proposed a bill on behalf of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee - Section 103 of the proposed Local Zoning Protection Act - which would cease access to and collection of federal data on disparity indicators related to race and access to affordable housing. 

Put simply: the data used by governmental agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private sector companies regarding affordable housing and racial disparities would no longer be collected, and access to existing data would be denied.

This data is necessary to assess the potential and evaluate the actual impact of policies, regulations, and legislation that affects racial minorities and low-income individuals.

It's necessary to support grant applications by organizations seeking funding to address racial and economic disparities.

It's necessary to understand the health and wealth of a community, as well as the social inequity its denizens may be experiencing.

It's necessary to track how different demographics fare under the Trump presidency, and to confirm or disconfirm the narratives Trump tells us regarding inequitable treatment on the basis of income and race.

I'm concerned because if this legislation is passed, Ben Carson, the unqualified and inexperienced new head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be responsible for creating and writing the regulations to implement this legislation.

Researchers and community organizers - the people on the ground working to improve lives in their communities - know that if there isn't data, you can't prove there's a problem and you certainly can't fix it.

I'm concerned the Local Zoning Protection Act could usher in a wave of additional bills that dismantle other valuable data collection practices which now provide barriers to protect communities from unequal policies and have the potential to expose Donald Trump. Because there is no easier way to "prove" one's competency than to erase all other indicators to the contrary.

I urge listeners to call their congresspersons with the following message:

"I am your constituent from [location] and I want to strongly encourage [rep name] to oppose the "Local Zoning Protection Act, S. 103 which seeks to suppress data regarding racial disparities and segregation. This is an attempt to hide how the most vulnerable people in our country are not being counted. Please do not support this bill."

We have word-of mouth stories and media documentation of police brutality, and sexual assault, and starvation, and a hundred other narrative-based indicators of inequity, but unless we have data to back up our claims, it is easy to dismiss those concerns. For people like you, and me, and many Pantsuit Politics listeners, data is the foundation of our worldview, the neutral arbiter to which I turn when I need answers to controversial questions. If we lose access to this information, then we will never truly know the consequences of Donald Trump's administration, and citizens on both sides of the aisle should be concerned about that. 

Please see https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/103/text for the complete bill. Scroll down to section 3 for the details regarding data collection practices.

I'm Gonna Let It Shine: Why Now Is A Time To Show Christianity's Potential

Editor's note: This blog was submitted by listener and progressive Christian, Lacey Weil. This is her first time writing for the Pantsuit Politics blog. 

American Christianity is in crisis. It seems that those who speak the loudest are also the ones who sound the least like Jesus. Let's take for instance conservative Facebook phenom, Tomi Lahren. The 24-year old host of TheBlaze.com's "Tomi" seems to pop up weekly on my feed with her infamous Final Thoughts, a segment dedicated to what can only be described as a rant against the liberal agenda. Millions watch as she rails against Black Lives Matter, immigrants, feminists, Islam, and Hollywood elites. But it's not the content of the video that doesn't sit well with me, it's the last 10 seconds. She finishes every Final Thoughts segment with "God bless".

Here is a young woman, who is smart and savvy with mass appeal using her platform to further enrage her base and then calmly signing off with a simple "God bless." I imagine every video with an asterisk of conditions: *with the exception of protesters, liberal snowflakes, immigrants, Hollywood elites, the mainstream media, on and on. The Jesus I know doesn't have a list that long. The Jesus I know doesn't have a list at all.

You see, I'm Christian. I haven't always been, in fact for the first 20 years of my life, I wasn't much of anything. I didn't grow up in the "Church" or have very many religious friends. But I sure had thoughts about what it meant to be Christian.

I saw Christians rallying around the California bill, Prop 8 that would solidify the state constitution to reflect marriage as between a man and a woman. Not between the several gay couples I knew growing up that reflected love, compassion, and a dedication to their family.

I saw Christians fight against science. While working on the California Youth Leadership Council on environmental concerns, there were always people at any meeting or demonstration denying climate change and scientific facts.

I saw Christians exclude people who didn't look like them, or talk like them, or pray like them.

I saw Christians do a lot of things that were not, in any way, Christ like.

And then I started going to church, reluctantly. I liked the band and I liked being around kids my own age and I liked feeling like I was learning a little something on a Sunday morning. And then, all at once, I started liking church. And I started liking Christians.

I have been battling ever since what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be one in our culture. I hesitate to tell people I go to church, or that I think Jesus is freaking amazing because I'm embarrassed of my fellow Christians. I'm embarrassed to be associated with people who use Jesus to wound. I'm ashamed to have the same label as someone who believes words inside the Bible can ever be used against another human being.

I refuse to be against another human being. So instead, I'm going to be against the church. Or at least the church who has turned away so many people for not being enough. The entire point is that we are all enough. We belong to each other.

I'm a Christian who believes same sex marriage is beautiful and holy.

I'm a Christian who believes that my Muslim neighbors have the same rights to pray any way they like, just as I do.

I'm a Christian who believes that if we don't stand together with #BlackLivesMatter, than we are sending a profoundly selfish message that only our lives matter.

I'm a Christian whose heart breaks wide open thinking about a child in Syria being turned away from all this country has to offer because we are afraid.

I don't have all the answers, hardly any of them in fact. But I know that Christianity and Christians have so much potential in this period of turmoil to show what the church is really about. I worry there are thousands of people like me, watching what high profile Christians like Tomi Lahren are doing, and equating it with the church. I'm afraid they will watch her say that Lena Dunham looks like a boy, or that people who mourned the defeat of their candidate were cry babies and think that the "God bless" send off at the end is not for them.

Trust me when I say, the blessing is for you even if Tomi Lahren isn't.

I feared that this election cycle would turn me off of Christianity entirely. It did the exact opposite. Don't let the loudest voices in the room stifle the growing masses of progressive Christians who are ready to stand with the most vulnerable amongst us. That is exactly what Jesus had in mind for his followers.

Betsy DeVos Was Confirmed. Be Encouraged

Editor's note: Lee Williams is a marketing copywriter, blogger, activist, and friend of the pod. His work has been featured in The Huffington Post, but this post was written from the heart on his personal Facebook page. He has gladly allowed us to publish it. 

If I were to explain today’s Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos to my sixteen-month-old son, I’d tell him, with great emphasis, that nothing is promised in this world. Not even a free education. And any hope we place in the hands of our fellow men and women — even the idyllic hope of doing the right thing — is a hope placed in shifty hands.

We should never look to others as our key to better place in this life. They are as undependable as they are unpredictable. Instead, I’d direct him to look within himself, his faith, interests, hopes, dreams, and goals; to chart life by his own path, pave his own way, and learn to define it by his own means.

That’s truly what education is — it’s an enlightened experience within a body of knowledge. And it’s going to take a lot more than a bunch of bureaucrats to prevent that from happening — no matter how many school vouchers they allow, which schools they give funding, and what class structure they benefit.

But one thing for certain: You cannot expect people to “do the right thing.” That’s an objective phrase. For some, the right thing is a definition that marginalizes others, builds up walls, and keeps the refuse of the world out. The “right thing” may be rooted in fear and profit and upheaval.

He’ll know, after our conversation of conversations, that his education isn't controlled by the hands of a few; it's his and his alone. And it doesn’t begin or end at a brick-and-motar building — it’s just a part of the journey. That journey, like elections, administrations, or appointments, are just flashes in the pan of life. And it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, mentors and friends, to inform that journey with enlightenment.

A bureaucrat can’t do that.

A presidential appointee can’t do that.

A budget decrease can’t do that.

But if each one teaches one, then my friends… that is a true step forward in the life of any child. We can all do that.

Be encouraged.

The Pigskin is Now Political: How Donald Trump Undercut The Super Bowl and the NFL

In 1966, John Lennon famously said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. It was a powerful and politically charged statement about the cult of personality and popular culture overtaking an institution, and in some ways, Lennon wasn't wrong. 

Some have compared the NFL to a religion in the U.S., and I wouldn't go that far, but the surge in popularity the league has seen since the 90s is unprecedented in sports. Nearly every franchise in the NFL is now valued over a billion dollars. Fantasy football used to be something dorky kids like me and my high school friends used to play (hint: it wasn't cool then, probably still isn't cool now). Now you'd be hard pressed not to find everyone and their mother, brother, friend's boyfriend, and mechanic's cousin in a league. The billion dollar contracts the NFL holds with Fox, CBS, and ABC/ESPN have cemented it as not only America's last reliable source of advertising real estate, but the dying breath of live TV as a necessity. 

The league has endured multiple domestic violence scandals and cover-ups, controversies surrounding concussions, player bounties, and players kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner. And through it all, it seemed nothing could topple the league. That was of course until Donald Trump. 

I have been watching the NFL since I was 12 years old, and in the nearly 2 decades of Super Bowls I can never remember one with less fanfare than today's game. There's only one logical reason. Donald Trump and the coverage surrounding him have swallowed everything. 

Numerous NFL reporters like Bill Barnwell, Rick Reilly, Michael Silver and Jason LaCanfora are now tweeting more about politics than they are about the NFL. Players have taken this moment to embrace activism in a league that is practically allergic to "distractions." The New England Patriots - who were once considered the heroic embodiment of American courage in the 2002, post-9/11 Super Bowl - are now akin to the NFL's "axis of evil." The Patriots' popularity was plummeting anyway, first for the smugness, second for the cheating, third for the winning. But now with Patriot brass like QB Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichik, and owner Robert Kraft coming forward as Trump supporters, the nail has been hammered into the coffin of the Patriots' popularity. 

This evening, America's most important game will take place. It's a moment where everyone stops to watch, a unique and unifying event for American sports, commercialism, and to a lesser extent, pride. Football is our sport. Nobody else in the world plays it like us. Nobody else in the world loves it like us. Yet, the "big game" is not to be overshadowed by Trump's big ego. Halftime shows usually involve A-list performers and the most expensive commercials. For most it's the only part of the spectacle worth caring about, and never, almost ever, is a political figure even thought of in association with the Super Bowl. Donald Trump, however, is not to be outdone by the NFL. His pre-taped interview with Bill O'Reilly will air before the game, and it's likely to make more headlines tomorrow than even the most outrageously exciting finish the game could have. When the eccentricity of Lady Gaga is certain to take second fiddle to Trump's thoughts on Iran during a Superbowl, you know we've reached an undeniable cultural shift. 

Politics used to stay out of sports. Sports used to be the oasis for the politically disinclined. Not anymore. Those worlds are clashing. When constitutional crisis is in the daily vernacular, when tweets have the possibility to trigger trade wars (and real wars), when our allies no longer know where we stand, and when the judicial branch and a free press are under siege from the West Wing, men tackling each other for sport suddenly seems even more trivial than we ever could have imagined. 

Donald Trump may not be bigger than Jesus, (or the Beatles), but he's bigger than the NFL and he wants to make sure you know it. 

 

I'm a Confused Democrat: Reconciling Resistance and Reality In The Trump Era

The resistance is here. It's time to grab a sign. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd write on mine if I was heading to a protest or a rally, or any one of the dozens of mass mobilizations that have come to symbolize the resistance and I've settled on one.

Don't Fail Us Again. 

Some of you may be thinking, that's an odd sign for the resistance. But isn't the point to voice whatever displeasure or conflict you see in the current political climate? If that's indeed the case, then my sign is directed straight at my party. 

I want with every fiber of my being to give in to my greatest impulses and direct my anger and frustrations solely at Donald Trump, but I can't get there. His administration has had a more disastrous start than even most bed-wetting liberals had in mind. It's been a sloppy, disorganized messed peppered with leaks and internal dissent, seemingly void of any clear hierarchy of influence, and as hasty and impulsive as the most tenuous days on the campaign trail. It's been draped in Donald Trump's eternal vanity - a cloak so heavy and suffocating that he botched slam-dunk presidential moments honoring fallen CIA members, Black History Month, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and The National Prayer Breakfast. He's in 2 weeks brought more global uncertainty to the United States' standing as keepers of a wider liberal order than George W. Bush and Barack Obama did in 16 years. He's incited needless bickering with one of our largest trade partners and one of our most trusted allies. And yet, despite it all, this isn't his fault. 

My liberal friends are going to hate this rambling from me. They often talk about how we liberals tend to purity test ourselves into oblivion. My dad says the Democrats are too weak, and that we need to stoop to the Republicans' level in order to win. And they may be right, who knows? Maybe I'm naive for thinking that this isn't about governance, or principles, but it's really just a power struggle and the sooner I come to that realization the better off I'll be. But the resistance isn't helping lift my spirits because I fear that the Democrats are taking pages from the same playbook that got us into this place of powerlessness. We're demanding our elected officials to spend the bread crumbs of political capital they have left on meaningless opposition stances in battles we simply can't win right now. 

A march isn't a vote. A protest isn't governance. And no matter where I look within my party I see the same faces, espousing the same tactics that don't win. Tom Perez is Mitch McConnell with a D next to his name. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are too entrenched in the same petty squabbles they've been fighting for years in the halls of Congress like chickens pecking at each other. Elizabeth Warren has her moments when she's focused. Cory Booker tries too hard. And above all, they are still playing the politics of being better people. AND IT'S NOT WORKING.

Take the Muslim Ban, for example. What is the heart of the issue? In my mind, the Muslim Ban is a misguided solution to the problem of easing public fears on national security. And whether real or not, the perception for millions of Americans is that we're not as safe as we once were and extremism is a threat. What has been Democratic leadership's response - more tone deaf calls of bigoted politics, un-American values, questions of who we are as a nation. It's philosophical, it's moral, but it's not a solution. It is a strategy that once again, like much of the entire campaign, says what we're against, what we don't want to be, than what we are. We're still trying to be the "best" people in the room, not the most helpful. Like it or not, Trump saw a perceived problem with the voters he was speaking with, and he gave them an answer. 

What I'd say to Democrats is this: lead with the solution to the problem. Ease the perceived fears of the public first. Tell Americans how good we already are at vetting refugees (2 arrests of conspiring to commit terror since 9/11 despite allowing 750,000 refugees globally). Tell us about our strategic partnerships with forces within those Muslim majority countries that will be harmed by this policy. Tell us about the deployed service men and women who will now be in greater danger due to a perceived war on Islam in extremist camps. Show them the propaganda the ban is creating. Don't be afraid to get REAL. The best thing to come out of a Democrat's mouth since the ban is from Chris Murphy, who said "This policy is going to get Americans killed." It's a compelling entry point to the safety issues this policy will cause, not fix. Go above and beyond by instantly proposing added vetting measures for extra security that wouldn't include a ban. Give an ALTERNATIVE. Show the American people that this isn't a choice between A and B, like the Trump administration wants to make it - i.e. "We are either safe with this policy, or doomed without it." Instead, say we can protect our people, protect our values, and uphold the moral obligation to do our part in the world. But I really can't continue to support a party whose main stance is we're better than you. 

I want the Democratic party to be better. I want real leadership. One that is more focused on organizing and less on settling scores. I want real organization that mobilizes emotion into votes. I want us to win back seats - the right way - through better policy solutions for Americans. I want a better message. Inclusivity and a big tent is great, but if you aren't articulating why Democratic ideas lead to better outcomes, everyone in the tent is still stuck in neutral. I want us to stop looking backwards. The GOP played dirty pool to get to where they are, but now they hold all the cards so let them own this mess that's brewing, and be there with a mop and bucket for the American public when they call "clean up on aisle 1600." I want strategy. And reform. And decisiveness. 

I want to be able to say I joined the resistance, and I got more from it than just a lousy sign. 

It's Not Me, It's You: Why I'm Breaking Up With The GOP

Editor's note: An avid listener of the show and regular contributor to our blog; Jason is a military officer and makes very clear that his thoughts and opinions are his own as a private citizen and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.  He is; however, a strong advocate for stronger military-civilian relations and everyone being able to use their First Amendment rights.  You can follow his sarcastic antics on Twitter @jbbakes3

Sitting in front of the TV staring at my phone, I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.  I looked over at my fiancée, took a deep breath, and finally said it: “I can’t do this anymore.”

She nodded with knowing approval.  She knew this was coming and that it was just a matter of time.  The relationship had been deteriorating for so long.  The baseline foundation was still there, but the list of our disagreements was piling up by the day, and it appeared nothing was going to be done about it. Despite the longevity of the relationship, the time has come:

I have to breakup with the Republican party.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth that will occur among those close to me is probably akin to if my personal relationship was crumbling.  That’s sort of the problem though, isn’t it?  “He’s a good Republican,” I used to hear - as if being a blind follower of a letter next to someone’s name was a desirable personal trait.  Right now though, the definition of a “good republican” seems to mean going along with what the top wants…no matter what.  “It’s our turn” “We had to deal with it for 8 years” because it’s just a game we play, right? Bad policy is only bad if the other party is the one implementing it.

I, like many others, became a Republican because my family was. That’s the honest truth. As I got older though, I decided that I identified more with the party all about personal responsibility.  I agreed that we should spend our money wisely. I went to college and studied political science and economics and strengthened those beliefs.  Free trade was good for our own economy, and our relationships around the world.  Strong foreign policy involved a strong military, but also a diplomatic moral high ground others around the world could respect.  We weren’t great because we said we were, we were great because we did great things.

Now the Republican party is killing trade deals. It’s proposing to investigate completely unsubstantiated “voter fraud.” A country with a long, adversarial history with the U.S. is using strong arm interference in our elections, and isn’t a big deal to Republicans. I stop here to ask:  Does anyone think Republicans would not be ready to go to war with Russia if their influence had been interpreted to have elected Hillary Clinton? My party used to claim that “not having the money” was why infrastructure couldn’t be updated, or health and welfare issues couldn’t be addressed; but now we can find a way to fund a wall on our border—even if it starts a trade war and makes the goods American consumers and companies need more expensive.

But Jason, not all Republicans like these things! You would be right, but I actually find it more appalling that those who know these aren’t their beliefs sit idly by.  So great is the party’s ambition to retain power and “win” for once; that it would compromise its core political beliefs. There is not enough space here to list out the things that have transpired in recent days that I KNOW Republican lawmakers detest, but we hear nary a word.

COME JOIN US DEMOCRATS! Hold your horses, my Democratic friends. Just because I disagree with the way one party is currently being run doesn’t mean I go running to the other.  (See previous rant about compromising beliefs).  I took an online political quiz this morning that stated that my party agreement was 65% Libertarian, 55% Republican and 55% Democratic. As much as I would love to dedicate myself to the Libertarian cause a) 35% of the disagreement there would be based on uses of government I just can’t compromise and b) until you can have a national convention without someone taking their shirt off, you’re wasting my time.

So it’s a tie ballgame between the Rs and the Ds then. Looking through my list of tie breakers, the party using their unexpected victory to take a victory lap of poor policy that is alienating a huge portion of the country doesn’t get the win.

Breakups are tough, and right now I think I just need to be on my own for a while.  Truthfully, I, and we, could use a big dose of independent thinking.  As I have written on this blog before, in this last election I voted for Republicans, Libertarians, and even Democrats.  An odd thing happened when I checked those non Republican boxes: I DIDN’T DIE! I did not spontaneously combust! And the ghost of Ronald Reagan did not appear and warn me of my rebel ways.

I can’t say this enough:  If something seems wrong to you, if a policy seems bad, if it makes your hair stand up; then don’t wait and see what letter is next to the person’s name. Don’t be afraid as a Republican to write the senator you voted for and tell them you oppose a policy they support.  Conversely, don’t be afraid to write that Democrat and say “I think you’re right, thank you.” Sixteen years of calling the other side the devil, and not finding any common ground, has led us to a political landscape where bipartisan politics seemingly can’t exist. 

If it went against your political or moral beliefs 1 year ago, the outcome of an election alone shouldn’t change that. Your patriotic duty is to be informed, involved, and stand up for what you believe in. For me, that means some time away from the GOP.  Maybe it can call me someday for coffee when it gets its act together.

10 Things You Can Do To Improve The Mental Health System

Editor's note: This blog was contributed by our listener Debbie Cohen and resident mental health expert. 

As a follow-up to the primer and this week's conversation on mental health, here are ten things you can do within your own life to support mental health system improvement:

1. Remove “ic” words from your vocabulary. Do not call someone a schizophrenic.  You would not say “that person is a heart disease.” Use person-first language, instead of labeling someone only by their illness.

2. Do not immediately lump individuals with schizophrenia with violent criminals.  If you think of violent criminal tendencies and mental illness as two circles in a Venn diagram, research shows there is a very little overlap between them.

3. If you are a manager or business owner, look up your local mental health center and see if they have a supported employment program. Contact the program, and state your place of work is interested in hiring individuals from their program.  

4. If you work with children in any capacity, encourage the use of the wraparound model to coordinate services for youth with complex needs.

5. Say hi and genuinely ask others how they are doing on a daily basis. You may be the person who shows someone who is contemplating suicide that others do care about them, and they can get help.

Within most communities there are not enough psychiatrists. Encourage the elected officials within your state to follow a growing trend to:

6. Allow Advanced Practice Nurses to have full prescriptive authority after they obtain independently licensure.

7. Provide a special training program to interested psychologists to prescribe certain psychotropic medications.

Further there are many legislative barriers that prevent different qualified individuals from obtaining reimbursement for services within the state that work

8. There is a lack of parity between individuals who obtain a master’s degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy, and a master’s degree in social work. Encourage elected officials in congress to change rules to allow all independently licensed, master’s level counselors and marriage and family therapist to have billing parity with independently licensed social workers. 

9.     Encourage elected officials to promote peer support and family partner services within your state, and make them Medicaid billable.  

10.  And lastly, promote hope and not disability. Almost all individuals who have a mental illness are able to live independently and hold a job. We need to change the view of mental health within our nation, and make it easier to access psychiatry and other mental health services so that people can lead productive, independent lives.    

Unintentional Feminism

Usually, my husband Chad and I divide and conquer the morning—I take our little one, Ellen, to her babysitter on my way into the office, and he sees Jane, our kindergartener, off to school before beginning his telecommuting work day. Today, he needed to run an early morning errand, and a virus hit me a few minutes after he left. 

Jane rose to the occasion of being her sick mom’s helper. She made her bed and brushed her teeth without being asked. She turned on Sesame Street to entertain Ellen. She grabbed her own breakfast. She donned her shoes and coat and told me to feel better before walking herself outside to wait for the bus. I stood at the window in our dining room so I could keep one eye on her and another on Ellen, who was happily eating cereal in her high chair. It had been drizzling on and off, and some neighborhood kids were waiting in cars with their parents. Jane pulled her hood up, seemingly unfazed by the weather. A minute later, a much older girl came to wait for the bus. Jane looked up (at least an entire foot) at this girl and started talking. By the time the bus came, Jane was full-on storytelling, gesturing wildly and moving her head emphatically. 

Suddenly, I found myself sobbing and laughing at the same time. I was overwhelmed by Jane, who had seemed to age dramatically in one morning. Then I heard Ellen’s voice: “Oh no, Mommy!” as she dropped her spoon. Tears rushing but smiling, I walked over to help Ellen and made it back to the window just as the bus pulled away. Maybe I felt some sense of grief that Jane’s childhood is so rapidly flying by. Maybe it was a sense of sadness and shame that I’m usually not here for these morning moments. Maybe it was worry that I’m missing so much more of Jane’s and Ellen’s lives than I want to. Maybe it was pride for this wonderfully independent, confident child I’m raising. Maybe I’m feeling extra sensitive about everything because of my complicated views on what it means to be a woman in 2017. Maybe I was tired and dehydrated. 

It was probably all of that. My experience as a mother has taught me these emotions are not definable and that trying to define them is useless.

When I look at the Women’s March and the barrage of reactions to it, I feel some version of “all of that.” I've come to think of myself as an “Unintentional Feminist” (which wave is that?). I studied business in college. I’ve never boycotted or protested anything. It was a shock to me to learn, upon graduating law school, that glass ceilings still exist. I resisted women’s events for the first half of my career because I interpreted them as women placing ourselves at the kid’s table. I’ve rolled my eyes at the concepts of bonding and work-life balance. 

But life informed me, as it so often does. I showed up at court dressed in a black suit and white shirt, and opposing counsel asked if I was a witness. I went to a charity event for an education association with my firm and was asked by someone I had met many times if I was a teacher. The subtle comments started to amass despite my attempts to ignore them, which made the blatant comments (including those from women, comments like, “I’m not sure why you’d have children if you aren’t going to raise them") cut that much deeper. Add these experiences to a growing awareness of my own privilege, and I've had a big wake up call.

I now devote much of my professional and avocational energy to supporting other women and considering the structures that hold them back. When I think about that, and especially when I think about what it requires of me, I laugh and sob exactly as I did this morning. This isn't the career that I wanted, but armed with more information than I had in my twenties, it’s the one I’ve chosen. Unintentional feminism, for me, means I’m a walking mix of frustration with both men and women, resignation, patience, grace (even marginal effectiveness for me requires a constant effort to understand, appreciate, find something approaching absolution for the sensibilities of men), and empathy. I’ve developed a habit of digging my index fingernail into my thumb to manage my facial expressions, which is both literally true and the most apt metaphor of my life. 

The Women’s March, which in many ways represented what now feels like a good part of my life’s work, felt alien to me. It built a sense of community for millions of people, but I felt alone standing at my dining room window crying about my daughters. Despite all of my efforts, despite all of our efforts, I know with certainty that they will both have versions of this moment. These emotions are not definable. The best I know to say, as an Unintentional Feminist, is that I hope in all of the momentum building, those who marched will recognize and make space for those of us who are quietly digging our fingernails into our thumbs every day toward the same ends.

Proficiency vs. Growth and Why Betsy DeVos Should Know The Difference

By: Sandra Almeida 

During Betsy DeVos’ recent confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Education under President-elect Trump, Al Franken presented DeVos with a simple task: Present your argument on whether students in America should be assessed to measure proficiency or growth.

To the average person who is not involved in matters of education, this may have sounded like a complicated question. For teachers, like myself, watching the hearing from all corners of the country, it was a familiar debate and one which we hoped would be presented during questioning. As most of us know by now, DeVos painfully stumbled as she attempted to answer the question before the Senate.

DeVos’ answer demonstrated a clear confusion between the two measures of school and teacher effectiveness. In simple terms, measuring students by proficiency entails measuring them according to their level of mastery of grade level material. For example, a Kindergarten student should know how to identify story elements such as character and setting by the end of the school year. Measuring students by growth entails evaluating them according to the learning gains that they make during a particular time period, which is typically a school year.

Given that assessment results weigh so heavily on school funding and teacher evaluations, and often determine which schools should be targeted for instructional improvement, it would be desirable for the potential Secretary of Education to know the difference between the two and have an informed opinion on which of the approaches would best serve the students in our country.

At first glance, the answer may seem obvious. Naturally, we want students in America to reach mastery, or proficiency, and to be on grade level by the end of the school year. However, given the complexity of American society, the answer is not that simple.

As a teacher in Miami, I have only worked in areas of high poverty. The disadvantages with which children in these at-risk population schools navigate the school system can be truly shocking to anyone who is not aware.

Imagine a child who is raised by a single mom with a minimum wage paycheck. This child attends a low-quality child care facility because it is the one that mom can afford, or it’s the closest one in the neighborhood and mom does not have a car to get her child to one of greater quality. Additionally, books are a luxury in their household, because money is tight and needs to be used for the bare minimum necessities. Access to a computer and the Internet is limited or nonexistent in the home. Fast forward to this child’s first day of Kindergarten. He is starting school with a limited knowledge of concepts of print, does not know his letter sounds, and cannot write his own name. Somewhere else in Miami, another student lives with two parents. She lives in a neighborhood with a quality VPK (Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten) program. Her parents have the resources and flexibility to take her to the museum on the weekends, and she has an entire bookshelf full of books in her bedroom. By the time she enters Kindergarten, she is reading beginner level books, can write a sentence, and most definitely her name.

If we lived in a country where these two students attended the same school, we might be able to fairly assess and compare schools according to proficiency. However, the reality is that well over half a century after Brown vs. Board of Education, our schools are drastically segregated based on race and socioeconomic status. As a result, some teachers begin the school year with a class full of students who are already on their way to proficiency at their grade level, while others begin the school year with students who are two or more grade levels behind.

Since we compared two students, let’s compare two teachers.

One second grade teacher reviews his students’ test scores after administering a pre-test at the beginning of the school year. Ninety percent of his students demonstrate mastery of middle of second grade concepts. By the end of the school year, after administering a post-test, his students test at a second-grade level, meaning they are proficient in grade-level concepts.

At another school, another second-grade teacher reviews her pre-test results and discovers that most of her students are still struggling with Kindergarten level concepts such as sounding out words, and thus score poorly on comprehension. By the end of the year, most of her students test at an end-of-first grade level, meaning they are not proficient in second-grade content but have made significant learning gains.

Which teacher is more effective? Assuming these two teachers represent the overall effectiveness of their respective school, which one would be considered a higher quality school?

If we are going to assess teacher and school effectiveness based on proficiency, the first teacher is obviously going to be considered as the most successful, because his students have demonstrated mastery of grade-level content by the end of the school year. The second teacher, who has managed to bring her students up almost two grade levels in ten months, is deemed unsuccessful because her students are not demonstrating proficiency, even though they started the school year with a massive deficiency which the other teacher’s students did not have to overcome.

If we were evaluating according to growth, we would recognize that the teacher in the first scenario has kept his students on grade level but possibly neglected to build beyond grade level expectations. The students with the teacher in the second scenario are much closer to closing the educational gap that they faced at the beginning of the school year.

Which of the two is the fairest way to assess schools and teachers is up for debate. But one thing is not: a potential Secretary of Education for our country should know the difference. Betsy DeVos does not, and I question whether her lack of experience as a student, teacher, or parent in public schools blinds her to the reality of everyday students and teachers in America; a country where, according to the National Center for Children and Poverty, almost half of children live in low-income families.

If you have concerns over Betsy DeVos’ nomination and choose to vocalize them, or simply want to find out more about where your elected officials stand on the proficiency vs. growth debate, you can find contact information for your state Senator at https://www.senate.gov/index.htm

The 2016 Election Sent Me Back to Church

Regular Pantsuit Politics listeners know that I’ve been wrestling with institutional trust for months. During the 2016 election, I felt that the Sanders and Trump movements were all about rejection of our existing institutions, about a hunger for not just change, but upheaval. I saw both primaries as evidence that the parties are broken beyond real repair.  I heard arguments about Director Comey as partisan commentary from both sides, indicating that our institutions of justice are no longer sacrosanct or even credible. I’ve read journalism as punditry and concluded that the press as an institution has lost its way. And now, in the wake of evidence about Russian interference in our election and fierce arguments over culpability, degree, causation, and plain old facts, I see more and more evidence that our institutions are vitally important and in serious jeopardy. 

As I’ve considered ways that I can personally contribute to reviving some of our institutions, I’ve found myself directly confronting one of the most powerful institutions in my life: church. 

Growing up, I was in the pew if the church doors were open. My family was active in every part of church life. I loved the people in my congregation, and my minister profoundly and positively influenced me. But (could you feel that “but” coming?)…after a traumatic car accident, church stopped making sense to me. Looking back, somewhere along the way, I started to resent the idea that God would “take away” any pain I was feeling. Because of the messages I was receiving and the struggle I was enduring, I decided that church might be nothing more than a country club for the middle class. I doubled down on my distance from church when my husband and I visited a few churches after relocating to Northern Kentucky. We heard sermons about the evils of gay marriage and found the structured welcome wagons at each congregation more than a little creepy. I just couldn’t reconcile my understanding of God with what I found in churches. 

So, for ten years, I stayed away from church — not from faith, but from church as an institution. 

As I watched the 2016 election unfold, church started surfacing in my mind again. I started thinking about how much church creates community, about the wonderful people who shaped my upbringing because of church. I heard Sarah speaking in such compelling ways about keeping politics in perspective. And I felt spiritually dehydrated by the constant anger pouring out of my social media feeds in a way that I couldn’t quite manage on my own. 

I decided to look for churches, regardless of denomination, with women pastors. My husband has given me some grief about the “woman” criterion. Here’s my explanation: I’m exhausted with the patriarchy and have two daughters. The end. 

My search has led me to a beautiful church with not one but two women pastors. I’ve been attending for a couple of months now. My daughter Jane loves it and says hilarious things like “John the Baptist took people to the ocean to tie dye them.” All of the wonderful things church meant for my family growing up are coming back to me. I heard a message on the Ecclesiastes passage I love (a season for everything) that made me feel so much calmer about the state of the US post-election.

More than anything, I’ve realized that church, like all institutions, will never be perfect, and neither will I. Church, like all institutions, requires me to actively look for the good and to be part of the purpose, rather than waiting for the purpose to be delivered to me. Church, like all institutions, requires give and take, grace and forgiveness, participation and reflection. Church, like all institutions, will only be for me what I choose to make it. 

I’m learning and growing because of that understanding, and I hope to translate that understanding to other institutions that connect more directly to politics at some point. For now, I’m content to take one Sunday at a time and to appreciate the teachings that do directly apply to my political discussions - especially this advice from Colossians, which couldn't be more relevant as we head into the Trump era: "put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." 

 

 

 

 

How Switzerland Changed Me

I grew up on a dairy farm in a town that still has no stoplights. There were 400 kids in my K-8 Elementary School that served two communities. "Going to the grocery" meant a thirty-minute drive, and shopping of any substance meant an hour. So when, at age 13, my great-great-aunt Ann (yes, two full greats) took me with her on a tour of Switzerland, I entered a new world. 

I have no explanation for why Aunt Ann wanted me to join her on this trip, and it has never mattered to me. We spent eleven glorious days based in Lucerne. I remember our first night there. Jet-lagged, we napped for a few hours then walked Lake Lucerne and bought chocolate ice cream that melted in just-made waffle cones. The mountains overwhelmed me. Everything was pristine--no trash in sight, flowers in every window. Even through the eyes of a small-town 13-year-old, people moved more slowly than in America. 

We saw parts of Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria. We rode trains and boats. I realized that Americans are loud and take up too much space. I worried about milk sitting at room temperature in the dining hall of our hotel.  I felt embarrassed that I couldn't speak the language. I realized that every single structure I had ever visited in my life to that point was new, that America was a baby-country. I was underwhelmed by the Black Forest, perhaps because of the weird, corn-covered salad I had in a nearby restaurant. I was awe-struck by Mount Pilatus. 

The adults on our tour fascinated me, too. Wives constantly apologized for their husbands' off-color, context-less humor. My Aunt Ann rolled her eyes at how lazy the rest of our group seemed. About halfway through the trip, I heard our guide talking about how she drank a bottle of red wine alone in her room every night. I remember feeling disappointed that her life might be slightly less glamorous than I had thought.

There are huge parts of my life that I have trouble recalling at even a high level, but I vividly remember most of this trip--how the hotel butter tasted, the chill in the air at high altitudes, that I met a kind and wise woman named Solange who told me about plants and cathedrals. I think the trip is anchored in my memory because of my connection with one particular attraction: the Lion Monument in Lucerne. 

Mark Twain has called the Lion Monument "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world." I could not stop staring at it. A tribute to Swiss mercenaries killed in the French Revolution, the sandstone lion was majestic, powerful, dying, simultaneously at peace and in agony. It was magnetic for me. I couldn't move. I couldn't look away. I couldn't say anything. Staring into its life-like face, I felt like the lion was teaching me things about sorrow that I would need to understand later--that grief can be strong, that being wounded can be beautiful. Aunt Ann seemed to understand that I needed more time to take it in, so she waved off the tour guide who came over to rush us to the next spot.

I don't know how long we stayed there, only that we caught up with the group halfway through dinner. It's impossible for me to articulate all the ways in which my views on conflict, death, and loss were impacted by seeing this art. When I was involved in a fatal car crash four years later, recalling the image of the monument was more comforting than anything else. It's my mental short-hand for everything that seems to matter. 

It wasn't a political trip, but certainly, having seen more of the world changed my understanding of our government, the scope of our problems, our geography, what we learn and don't learn about the rest of the world. Every time I recall the trip, I'm overcome with gratitude for the experience (and for Aunt Ann and my parents allowing me to have it) and with affection for a country that taught me so much. When I learned of the gunman who killed three people in Zurich last week, I almost took it personally. That might be the greatest lesson of my trip--experiencing other places and people make them real, and when they're real, they're precious.  

How Wonderful

BY IRVING FELDMAN

How wonderful to be understood,
to just sit here while some kind person
relieves you of the awful burden
of having to explain yourself, of having
to find other words to say what you meant,
or what you think you thought you meant,
and of the worse burden of finding no words,
of being struck dumb . . . because some bright person
has found just the right words for you—and you
have only to sit here and be grateful
for words so quiet so discerning they seem
not words but literate light, in which
your merely lucid blossoming grows lustrous.
How wonderful that is!

And how altogether wonderful it is
not to be understood, not at all, to, well,
just sit here while someone not unkindly
is saying those impossibly wrong things,
or quite possibly they’re the right things
if you are, which you’re not, that someone
—a difference, finally, so indifferent
it would be conceit not to let it pass,
unkindness, really, to spoil someone’s fun.
And so you don’t mind, you welcome the umbrage
of those high murmurings over your head,
having found, after all, you are grateful
—and you understand this, how wonderful!—
that you’ve been led to be quietly yourself,
like a root growing wise in darkness
under the light litter, the falling words.

 

Rapid Reflections on 2016

There is no shortage of opinions floating around the internet regarding 2016, so while you can still stomach them, I'll feed you a few more. 

- In 2016 we gave far too little attention to Aleppo and far too much attention to Donald Trump's twitter mentions. Unfortunately by the time videos began surfacing from civilians trapped in the city sending their last goodbyes, Aleppo was already in the clutches of the Syrian government. The U.S. especially will look back on the Syrian Civil War with its head hung, as a shameful time of inaction. (Yes, I fully understand the complexities surrounding Syria, but that didn't stop us in Bosnia or in the Gulf War)

- 2016 was the year principled opposition got a poster boy, and his name is Evan McMullin. If you want the blueprint of how to simultaneously exist within a system, believe in it, and work to correct its many flaws look no further than Evan McMullin. He gives me hope for American politics. 

- This year was a reminder that terrorism and gun violence can hit much closer to home than I could have ever imagined. It will be years before I understand the true impact the Pulse tragedy made on my hometown but what I do know in the present is that even in the face of unspeakable evil, community and compassion will always rise above it. 

- This year, a certain someone taught me that if you put enough love into your community, put enough of your heart and mind out there for others to see, and knock on about 5 million doors you can make your dreams come true and be a true agent for change in your community and an inspiration to women (and men, too) everywhere. Love you, Sarah. 

- Another certain someone made me think harder than anyone else this year, made me re-evaluate my beliefs and define them, was a kind and caring friend for many moments in 2016, and was my guiding light toward grace. Love you, Beth. 

- 2016 taught me to never again underestimate anger as a driving force in politics. Let's hope we never see it on this scale again. 

- We spent far too much time criticizing and politicizing the information being given to us in 2016, instead of looking inward. Confirmation bias, echo chambers, and group think ruled this year. Not every source is biased. Not all information needs to be filtered for you. The burden is on us as much as it as on the 4th estate. Lose the skepticism and gain more understanding of how information is collected, how to cross reference your own findings, and in general just be more willing to let conclusions find you instead of searching for them. 

- Even in defeat, a woman was nominated for President of the United States. Hillary Clinton's campaign was historic. Her concession was pure class. And her achievement will ripple in American politics forever. Little girls now know it's possible. Women everywhere are motivated to run. Her legacy - though complicated - will always be essential when telling the story of women in American government. 

- Michelle Obama is my favorite American. She always makes me proud. This year was her finest moment. 

- The singular face/name of evil I'd known since I was a little kid, Fidel Castro, died. Nobody should wish death on anyone, but for Cubans and Cuban Americans, we had a right to process this in our own way, and for many who were oppressed by Castro (my great grandfather was jailed by Castro) or families who fled the revolution (both of mine) it was a cathartic day.

- Flint, MI STILL doesn't have clean drinking water. This is disgraceful. 

- 2016 was a year that shattered a lot of political norms: the importance of decency, proper use of social media, endorsements, the need for PACs/Super PACs, the importance of debates, the importance of not being a sexual predator, having a favorable view of your country, its military, its institutions, its constitution, etc, a basic understanding of how our government works, the importance of not having conflicts of interest, the importance of facts, trustworthiness. Basically everything you THINK you knew about politics no longer applies. (I'm kidding) (Am I?)

- Things I can do with less of in 2017: Partisanship, Hamilton/Lin Manuel Miranda (I know I'm going to take crap for this, but we've reached critical mass), Talks about "Fake News" "The White Working Class" or hot takes on why the Democrats lost the election, Fox News pretending it's not a mainstream media outlet, liberals calling people racists, conservatives telling liberals to go find a safe spaces, any use of the term "Real America" or "Real Americans," Russian interference in our democracy. 

- Things I want more of in 2017: Evan McMullin, as previously stated, Pantsuit Politics followers, nuance, bi-partisanship, legit policy discussions, ingenuity from the Democratic party, criminal justice reform, respectful conversations about race in America, pics of my friends' children, deep Twitter convos,  great albums, and recipes for delicious food.

MY BIG 2016 TAKEAWAY: There's still lots of good in this world and this country. I see it every day in this community. I've never been more proud to be a part of something as I am of Pantsuit Politics and I look forward to the continued influence we can bring to the world of politics and people's lives in general. Let's focus on ways to challenge each other, learn from each other, help each other, and work together in 2017. It's been a great year making new friends and I know there's so much more in store for us. Love and hugz - Dante