June 1, 2020
This past weekend has added a new national crisis, one that has now touched us at the local level as well. Following yet another senseless murder of an unarmed black man by a poorly trained and undisciplined police officer, we have seen non-violent demonstration and civil disobedience across our nation. In light of decades of violence against blacks by police and others, this is an entirely justified and proportionate reaction. Sadly, under cover of this rightful indignation, criminal elements have seized the opportunity to engage in looting and wanton destruction.
In one sense, this is not a new crisis. For far too long African Americans have been made to feel like they don’t belong (keeping in mind I’m white and can’t actually speak for the black community), and far too many have died as a result of our prejudiced attitudes. Discrimination, overt and subtle, has been a fact of life here for the last 400 years.
I was at the demonstration and march on Saturday, and thought it was exactly the right type of protest. Well attended and civil, respecting the rights of the community, many or most of whom share our values. I was less comfortable with blocking the intersection of Glidden and Lincoln, but it was still a non-violent protest, and perhaps made more of a point. But the looting and violence are going too far, and must be condemned. Yes, members of our community are frustrated, and have seen peaceful protests produce no results. While we don’t yet know who’s behind the illegal activity – if these are people angry at the system or merely opportunists - these latter actions distract from the real crisis, the systemic mistreatment of a significant and important segment of our society. In DeKalb, at least, it appears that the looting was unrelated to the protests, and in fact some protesters stepped in to try to stop the looting. Please, let’s keep the protests numerous and large, but civil. Let’s not judge entire populations by the actions of a few, but let’s call out those bad actors who give their communities a bad name. And please, let’s treat all people as equals, and thus end the need for these actions. Far too many of us have been far too silent for far too long. We need to work together to bring about a country that guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for ALL of our citizens.
April 5, 2020
Today is International Geologists Day. Really! Who knew? But there it is.
I've really enjoyed my time as a geophysicist. It's taken me, in one form or another to places like Costa Rica, Montana, the Grand Canyon, Mt St Helens, and the Black Hills for field work. To the Jet Propulsion lab for summer fellowships. To Guam and the western Pacific as a shipboard scientist. And to Venus, Mars, and Jupiter's moon Io (in an abstract sense, of course - my department chair was too cheap to spring for the trillion dollars or so an actual expedition would cost) as part of my research.
So, to all my geology friends out in the field, geochem friends in the lab, and geophysicist colleagues in front of their computers, celebrate a career (and/or hobby) well chosen! I always like to point out that geology is the true "capstone" field - to do it well, you have to incorporate physics, chemistry, biology, and math. Really why do those fields exist, except to help us better understand the world around us - and studying the world is literally what "geology" means.
February 26, 2020
Governor Pritzker delivers his annual budget address. Last week the Governor laid out his vision for this year's budget. He started off promoting Illinois, noting many qualities that make us an attractive place to be. It was a welcome change from all the doom and gloom of his predecessor. That said, the Governor did acknowledge that we still have issues to deal with, and among the most pressing of those is the public pension shortfall that has been created by underfunding over the past four decades (by Democrats and Republicans alike). Pritzker, noting that we must honor our obligations, has proposed making the full payment due the system this year (duh!), plus $100 million - this would be the first time we've ever made an extra contribution to help pay down the pension deficit. The Governor also spoke of increasing support of the MAP program (assistance to college students) as well as the state's education system, both higher ed and K-12. He would also like to do more for various other services the state provides, such as for DCFS, our mental health programs, and healthcare in general.
All of this is dependent, however, on passing the Fair Tax Amendment in November. Pritzker estimates this would give the state an addition $1.4 billion in revenue for this year's budget. But as that is not a certainty, of course, the fiscally responsible thing to do is to operate on the assumption that it won't pass. This means not spending a lot of money on education and services until and unless the amendment passes. Some Republicans have accused the Governor of holding these funds hostage to the Fair Tax, but in my opinion, the Governor is just illustrating what is possible if the amendment passes.
February 7, 2020
Impeachment reflections. Like you, I followed the impeachment proceedings closely and I am very concerned about the state of our country. The questioning period and the final vote has only confirmed my concerns. The issue at hand is was serious as we have ever faced – is the President abusing the power of his office to assure his re-election? Is the President at all accountable to Congress, and by extension the American people? Our answers to these questions shouldn’t have been based on party affiliation, but yet not one Democrat voted to acquit, and with the exception of Mitt Romney, not one Republican voted to convict. Any Senators who voted their party’s line, rather than their true convictions, put their own and their party’s interests ahead of those of the country. This has turned what should be a representative government into nothing but a power struggle between parties. Rather than trying to probe the two sides’ arguments, the vast majority of the questions were asked only to allow the questioner’s party to emphasize the same points they had been making all along. Truth no longer seems to matter. Only political power does. When deciding whom to vote for this election, we should try to determine who will put our interests above their own.
July 4, 2018
Happy Birthday, America! What is it that makes America great? In my opinion, it's that we're a country that strives to allow, even encourage, all of our citizens to reach for their dreams. We're a country built by and made of people from all over the world, drawn here by the freedom to live the life we choose, to pursue the careers we enjoy, and to express ourselves as we see fit. We're not perfect, but the optimist in me believes that we, as a country, will continue to push America towards that ideal. Now let's get out there and enjoy some fireworks!
June 8, 2018
I like this article, and not just because it agrees with what I've been saying... Sure, people don't like to pay taxes. But most of us see taxes as part of the cost of living. What really upsets people, in my opinion and from what I've heard from those I talk with, is the idea that they're not getting anything from the taxes they pay. High taxes and crumbling streets, failing schools, and dysfunctional government make for a dissatisfied populace.
September 4, 2017 (Labor Day)
Happy Labor Day, everyone! I'd like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who works for a living - growing crops, making goods, and providing services needed by our community. Merchants, waiters, teachers, craftspeople, first responders, and other occupations too numerous to name - every one of whom help contribute to our well-being, our comfort, our economy, and our society. Thank you all.
But I'd like to also thank the efforts of organized labor on this day. For decades our unions have fought for living wages and livable working conditions. Their efforts have given us many of the benefits we take for granted - benefits like weekends and 8-hour work days. Unions level the playing field between employer and employee. Rather than management arbitrarily determining wages and working conditions, unions ensure that workers have a say in their working environment, and are paid what their efforts are worth. I'd urge all of us to remember, and not just today, the labor movement, and the sacrifices they've made for all of us.
August 30, 2017
Bernie in Aurora
Just saw Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speak at the Paramount in Aurora. For any one who's been paying attention, he didn't saying anything terribly new. He will be introducing a single-payer health care bill in the next couple of weeks. A couple of points he raised did resonate with me (and what follows is a mixture of his words and my thoughts) - first he stressed that the most important advances we've made as a country result from grass-roots efforts; i.e., it's the people who drive change, not the elected officials. Or to put it another way, the people are the leaders, not the elected officials. Sanders also talked about income inequality, and how it's grown exponentially in recent decades. He talked of the Walton family (Walmart), one of the richest in the world, and how Walmart employees make so little money that they are often on food stamps and Medicaid - programs we, as taxpayers, pay for. So in a way, we're subsidizing the Waltons. CEOs now often make 400x what their average workers make (that number used to be much closer to 40x). Have they really improved the quality of their work that much? Or has crony capitalism thoroughly corrupted our system? Capitalism - the idea that the best products will be the most profitable and companies making those products therefore will be the most successful, has been usurped by incestuous executive boards that reward each other rather than success. Sanders touched on Illinois' brand new voter registration law and the American ideal of one person, one vote. An ideal corrupted by big money contributors and by voter suppression efforts. Elections should be won on the strengths of the candidates and their ideas, not on who they can get to vote, or prevent from voting. The American system, as originally envisioned, should guarantee a government responsive to all its citizens, not just the well-off. We need to fight to restore the ideal.
August 13, 2017
While the tragic and deplorable events in Charlottesville yesterday are far from home here in Illinois, they reflect the growing rift threatening our entire country. We as Americans value the freedom of speech first and foremost. That is why it is guaranteed (along with religion, the press, assembly, and to petition) in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Those who would deny that right to others are certainly not patriots in any sense of the word. They are, in fact, as un-American as can be - they strike at the founding principals that define us as a nation.
Stand strong Charlottesville. We are with you.
July 30, 2017
McCain, McConnell, and our future
John McCain - hero or villain; villain or hero? He's filled both roles for most people this past week with his votes seemingly for and then against repealing the Affordable Care Act. Mitch McConnell - master legislator, or incompetent leader? Just when we all thought repeal was dead, he managed to keep the ball rolling, before ultimately fumbling on the 50-yard line (even if the last vote had gone his way, it remained highly uncertain that the House and Senate could have crafted a bill that would have passed the Senate). But this isn't an essay about "repeal-and-replace" - it's about the different philosophies McCain and McConnell brought to the proceedings.
McConnell used every legislative trick he could think of to try to fulfill the Republicans' 7 1/2- year long quest to undo Obamacare. He had to, since most Americans have grown to value the increased access to health care the ACA provides. McConnell had the Senate bill crafted behind closed doors, gave very little time for anyone to read and dissect it, danced around the filibuster, and finally resorted to trying to pass a bill no one liked in hopes that the House and Senate could work something out in conference - another behind-the-scenes process undertaken by just a few legislators. For McConnell, the process was only about winning, whatever the cost. Chalk up a victory for Republicans, perhaps protect a few R seats in the Senate. It didn't matter what the final product was, as long as it could be labelled a repeal of Obamacare.
McCain, on the other hand, was much more concerned about the process itself. His two key votes - to allow debate, and against the "skinny repeal" were about process, rather than the outcome. McCain stated more than once this past week his view of the Senate as "the world's most deliberative body." Voting to allow debate (or "deliberation", if you will) was purely in keeping with that view. But passing a universally-recognized lousy bill that was crafted by a small group in secret, just in hope that a conference committee could come up with something is the antithesis to what the Senate has been, and so McCain kept true to his values and voted against the skinny repeal.
I'm not expressing admiration for McCain for killing the repeal movement (at least for now), but I do admire his standing up for the Senate's integrity. I hope that body's next move is to do as McCain suggested - put health care reform through the normal process - committees, hearings, bipartisan participation, compromise, and hopefully wind up with a bill a majority of the Senate, including both Republicans and Democrats, can support. This is how our government is supposed to work. We've lost sight of that. These days we have a system where whoever has 50% + 1 makes all the rules and tries to cram their agendas down everyone else's throat. As a result, we lurch to the left, and then lurch to the right. When we should be moving forward - sometimes with a rightward drift and others with a leftward drift, but always in the same overall direction - we now just stutter-step left and right, and we're getting nowhere. We need to stop putting party first, and recognize that people we disagree with still can have valid concerns and good ideas, and get back to incorporating as many of those as possible into our path ahead. This is true at the federal level, and it's true at our state level as well. Neither the US nor Illinois can make any progress until we stop fighting each other and start working together.
July 25, 2017
Well, they're at it again...
The state passed a budget. Yippee! So all is right with the world? Of course not - this is Illinois, after all. As most of you are aware, the Legislature and the Governor are now playing chicken over SB1 - the funding formula for K-12 education. Playing chicken is just plain stupid - but playing chicken when it puts our children at risk borders on the criminal.
SB1 revamps the way we fund K-12. Looking at a suite of factors, with an eye to a minimum baseline to properly educate every child in each district, the bill would actually increase state funding for every district in the state. I think just about everyone agrees with the new formula. The hangup is the bill's funding of the Chicago Public Schools. Some see the provision as leveling the playing field for Chicago; others see it as a bailout of the CPS. And rather than sitting down at the table to work out a compromise on this one issue, once again our leaders are more concerned with playing politics than with addressing our problems.
Meanwhile school districts are left twisting in the wind. How can they plan for the upcoming year when they don't know what support they'll be getting from the state - or if they'll get any at all?? While most people thing some resolution will eventually be reached, this is Illinois.
July 12, 2017
So, the state finally has a budget, despite the Governor's wishes. What do you think of it?
As for me, we'd reached the point where almost anything was better than nothing. Service agencies and our institutions of higher education had been starved for far too long, and serious harm (in some cases irreversible) has been done. The state racked up nearly a billion dollars in unnecessary interest payments by playing chicken with the state budget. That might be fun for our leaders, but it's been disastrous for us.
But what about the budget that was actually passed? It cuts spending across the board (real cuts, not merely slowing down increases in spending) - 5% for most agencies, 10% for higher ed. from 2015 levels. Everyone is being asked to do more with less. A burden on our state workers, to be sure, not to mention our citizens who require state services. Taxes are going up on individuals and corporations as well. An additional burden on everyone. (The median family income is about $60K/year; the additional tax burden for the median family would then be about $60/month.) Illinois has serious budget issues, so it would be unreasonable to expect there to be an easy solution. This budget spreads the pain around.
Two of the key pieces you may have heard about are the provision to pay down $8 billion (of the approximately $15 billion the state owes). This is to be done by passing a bond issue. So we're borrowing money to pay money we owe. The advantage is that we get a lower interest rate. But not as low a rate as we might have been able to get if we hadn't been playing games with our finances for the past two years. The other piece was "pension reform". The plan that had been floating around Springfield for months (and which, imho, was clearly unconstitutional) was pulled at the last minute, and instead a Tier III option was introduced. It is claimed that this option will save the state $1.4 billion. I'm very skeptical. New hires and current Tier II (introduced in 2010, drastically reduces pension benefits for those hired on or after Jan 1, 2011) recipients have the option to take a further diminished defined benefit and be part of a state defined contribution plan. Any real savings the state will see won't be until Tier III people actually retire (although the state's unfunded liability goes down immediately since we're not planning on paying out as much when they do finally retire). And since this is optional, it's unclear how many people are willing to gamble their retirement plans on the stock market (as is the case with defined contribution plans), especially since they don't have social security to fall back on. I'm guessing anyone who remembers 2008 would be very hesitant to take that gamble. Which means even less in "savings" for the state.
So, is this plan perfect? Far from it. But it's something, and we desperately needed something. But Springfield's work is far from over. We need to be sure they know that.
For more details on the budget plan see http://www.gregharris.org/wp/2017/07/07/illinois-balanced-budget-details/
July 4, 2017
Happy Independence Day, everyone! I hope you enjoy whatever it is you've got planned. But if you get a chance between parades, hot dogs, fireworks, friends, and family, why not take a few minutes to reflect on what it means to be an American, and what it is that makes America the great nation that it is?
July 2, 2017: House Passes Budget:
The Illinois House passed the last part of its budget Sunday, and it includes some tax hikes. No one likes having to raise taxes, especially in tight financial times. But to those who believe the answer is to cut spending only, please say where, specifically, you'd cut. Too often I hear cut waste and fraud, cut "services", or something similar. Well, there's not enough waste and fraud to make much of a dent in an almost $5 billion hole in the budget. In my opinion, it's easy to say "cut services," but it's much harder to say which ones should be cut. Step up and say we should cut education, or maintenance on our roads and bridges, or law and order, or medical assistance for the young and the poor, or whatever. Take a stand and defend your position, estimate the savings, and let's debate it.