Billionaires slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but couldn’t escape its problems

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If Bezos and co. wanted to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves and their billions on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

Billionaire space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have rightfully been taking some flack for sub-orbital jaunts earlier this month that garnered plenty of headlines but little in the way of actual scientific advancement, apart from trying to normalize the idea of routine spaceflight for other, exceptionally rich people.

With all the power of the rockets that propelled them and their titanic egos into the wild blue yonder, social media went incandescent with criticism, arguing persuasively that Bezos and Branson could have used their money to address a sprawling multitude of problems, from climate change to income inequality, back here on Earth.

“Jeff Bezos is going into space tomorrow. Yesterday, on earth, I saw a man search for food in a trash can,” the critic Charles Preston observed on Twitter.

Warren Gunnels, a top aide to U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., piled on, tartly noting that “class warfare is Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson becoming $250 billion richer during the pandemic, paying a lower tax rate than a nurse and racing to outer space while the planet burns and millions go without healthcare, housing and food.”

Others wryly noted that should Bezos, the former Amazon chief, need to relieve himself while rocketing through the skies, he could always use the same plastic bottles that his drivers have said they use as they try to meet punishing delivery schedules.

Bezos, at least, had the presence of mind to observe that his critics were onto something, conceding that they were “largely right,” CNBC and other outlets reported.

“We have to do both,” he said. “We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those and we also need to look to the future, we’ve always done that as a species and as a civilization. We have to do both.”

On one level, Bezos was right. There always has been a fundamental tension between humankind’s interstellar ambitions, which tend to be massively expensive, and the feeling that money could be better used to ameliorate more terrestrial concerns.

“I am not opposed to climbing mountains because they’re there, or pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but I would urge the Trump Administration to consider putting its scientific efforts into problems closer to home (climate change? Or, say, clean water in Flint?) before our plan to colonize the moon turns into a plan to escape to it.” Ana Marie Cox wrote in 2018 as the former president briefly floated the idea of lunar colonization before the Earth was plunged into the worst public health crisis in a century.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made for the utility of spaceflight of advancing the cause of human knowledge. The digital flight controls pioneered by the Apollo program is “now integral to airliners and is even found in most cars,” according to NASA, which, admittedly, has something to gain by touting the earthbound benefits of space flight.

Earthrise, the photo by NASA astronaut William Anders (Image via NASA).

Writing in Foreign Policy in 2019, Greg Autry reminded readers of the now legendary image of the Earth captured by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968: A big, blue marble looking alone and so very vulnerable in the vast void of space.  That photo, dubbed “Earthrise,” has inspired ever since.

“Today conservationists and other critics are more likely to see space programs as militaristic splurges that squander billions of dollars better applied to solving problems on Earth,” Autry wrote. “These well-meaning complaints are misguided, however. Earth’s problems—most urgently, climate change—can be solved only from space. That’s where the tools and data already being used to tackle these issues were forged and where the solutions of the future will be too.”

Knowledge — and money — deployed in the service of the greater good is almost always welcome. And I remain as much an evangelist for the exploration of interstellar space as anyone else. I agree with the premise that there is a mandate to explore — while gleaning the knowledge that comes along with it.

But in the case of the billionaire space race, there was almost no sense that this was, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, one giant step for humankind.

Rather, it was about puffing the egos of spectacularly wealthy men, who despite all the hoopla, never made it that far into space in any event, with negligible scientific benefit.

Bezos and Branson, slipped the surly bonds of earth, as the poet John Gillespie Magee once wrote. But they returned to a planet just as riven by inequality, war, a still raging pandemic, and the crisis of climate change.

I’d suggest that if they were looking, as Magee also wrote, to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves  — and their billions — on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

John Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.

‘It is a heavy load to carry’: New national report recommends pay hikes, labor reforms for essential workers

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If there’s been one enduring image during our pandemic year, it’s been that of the essential worker: The nursing home worker, the grocery store cashier, the postal service workers, and countless hundreds of thousands of others who kept the wheels of the economy turning, often at great personal risk, for shockingly low wages.

new report by scholars at the Brookings Institution attempts to quantify the contributions of those frontline workers, reaching a critical, bottom line conclusion: We need to do more than just call these workers essential, we have to treat them that way by paying them more, and lifting the barriers, such as structural racism, that prevent them from getting ahead.

“It is long past time that we treat essential workers as truly essential,” the report’s authors, Molly Kinder, a fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, and Laura Stateler, a research assistant in the same program, write. “Lawmakers in Washington and around the country have the opportunity to turn their policy rhetoric into real change. The recommendations in this report lay out how federal, state, and local policymakers can — finally — give essential workers what they have always deserved: the dignity of a living wage, lifesaving protections, and power in their workplaces.”

Brookings rolled out the findings included in the report during a webinar on Thursday.

The  truth of the economic challenges these workers are facing is right there in the data. Using an essential worker classification data set crafted by Brookings, and 2018 data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Kinder and Stateler found that 23.3 million essential workers were in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 an hour, “comprising approximately half (47 percent) of all workers in these low-wage occupations.”

In addition, Black and brown workers are overrepresented “among essential workers in low-wage frontline positions that pose health risks,” the two scholars found.

(Source: The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program)

One such essential employee, Tony Powell, works as a unit secretary at a hospital in the southeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood where he grew up. He shared his experience of being a frontline worker during the pandemic.

“It is a heavy load to carry,” Powell told Kinder and Stateler, according to the report. “Sometimes it feels like you are carrying a car up a mountain. You can’t put yourself in a bubble when you see people around you dying. I see people I went to school with and grew up with. They’ll come in and just like that, they are gone. It is really mind blowing that you can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

In addition to hiking the federal minimum wage to $15, as has been proposed by congressional Democrats and the Biden administration, the Brookings report also makes several other policy recommendations.

They include: Read more

Congressional Dems bent the universe toward justice last week. We need to keep pushing

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Hopes of getting an increase to the piteously low federal minimum wage tucked into the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill were dealt a serious blow this week when the U.S. Senate’s Parliamentarian ruled that it couldn’t be included in the massive legislative package now moving through Congress.

The announcement that came Thursday night was widely expected, and the ruling from the strenuously nonpartisan arbiter threw a major roadblock into Congressional Democrats’ path to raising the current federal minimum from $7.25 an hour, where it has sat since 2009, to $15 an hour by 2025, the Associated Press reported.

But if there is a ray of hope here, it is that it now feels like it’s a matter of when, not if, the government will move to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

And it was one of two developments on Capitol Hill this week that signaled that, after a four-year pause, the United States is back on the path toward living up to the promise of equality and justice for all.

That other development was the U.S. House’s vote Thursday approving a sweeping LGBTQ rights bill, known as the Equality Act. The legislation bans sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination across a variety of arenas, including employment, housing, education, public accommodation, credit, and jury service, according to NBC News.

“The LGBTQ community has waited long enough,” U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the bill’s sponsor, said during remarks on the House floor, according to NBC News. “The time has come to extend the blessing of liberty and equality to all Americans, regardless of who they are or who they love.”

The need for that embedded protection was driven home, ironically enough, not in an employment law case in a state court, but in the halls of the U.S. Capitol this week during a pair of incidents.

During a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, President Joe Biden’s pick for the No. 2 position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Rachel Levine, of Pennsylvania, endured a transphobic rant at the hands of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, tried to draw a pernicious equivalency between female gender mutilation and gender affirmation surgery for transgender youth. If she’s confirmed, Levine would be the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the federal government, the Capital-Star’s Laura Olson reported.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., meanwhile, was blasted this week after she hung an offensive sign outside her office to mock a colleague across the hall who had displayed a transgender flag outside her office in support of her transgender daughter and to protest Greene’s opposition to the Equality Act. Greene’s sign read, “There are two genders: Male & Female. Trust the science.”

Greene’s assertion, by the way, flies in the face of current scientific assumptions about gender.

But the two incidents are emblematic of the sort of hostile workplace behavior that LGBTQ Americans endure every day without blanket federal protection, though there are a patchwork of protections at the state level, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Read more

Biden’s executive orders aren’t the problem. A broken Congress is

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It was tough not to chuckle at a New York Times editorial last week chastising President Joe Biden for the barrage of executive orders that have gone flying out of the Oval Office during his first week behind the Resolute Desk, as if he were the first president ever to do so.

“This is no way to make law. A polarized, narrowly divided Congress may offer Mr. Biden little choice but to employ executive actions or see his entire agenda held hostage,” the Times’ editorial board soberly inveighed. “These directives, however, are a flawed substitute for legislation.”

They’re not wrong — but more on that in a minute.

Biden has, indeed, been busy. He’s committed to the United States rejoining the Paris Climate agreementundone a ban on transgender Americans serving in the armed forces; killed the Keystone XL pipeline; halted construction on the border wallended a hateful Muslim travel ban, and he took action Thursday on a variety of healthcare-related measures.

Predictably, Republicans have grumbled about what they see as wild executive overreach by the 46th president of the United States. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, complained on Twitter: “30 executive orders and actions signed in only 3 days’ time. @POTUS, you can’t govern with a pen and a phone,” according to Newsweek.

The Times’ bellyaching, meanwhile, isn’t off the mark. The editorial board’s bottom-line assessment that legislative authorization is always preferred to executive action is entirely correct. So too is its conclusion about the instability and unpredictability that’s created by governing fiats that disappear in the wind with every change of administration.

But this isn’t a problem that’s particularly unique to Biden. Former President Donald Trump signed a flurry of executive orders, as he sought to undo the legacy of ex-President Barack Obama.

Rather, it’s an issue that goes back decades, as presidents have wielded their powers more broadly, and as Congress has seemingly abdicated much of its law- and war-making authority to the executive.

A review of the last 50 years of executive orders highlights that trend, based on data compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Read more

Biden’s speech was a benediction — and the challenge of our times

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Joe Biden didn’t have to do a lot with his inaugural address Wednesday, just deliver a concise, clear speech that somehow knit together the soul of a deeply fractured nation; offer healing and comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives have been ripped apart by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sketch out a vision for the next four years that spoke to both Main Street and Wall Street.

In other words, no pressure.

But Biden, a politician with the soul of a parish priest, pulled it off, delivering a speech that appealed to the nation’s better angels, while never shying away from the titanic challenge of healing the gaping wound that his predecessor ripped in our body politic with four years of gaslighting, sledgehammer attacks on our institutions, and a social media presence where he was America’s schoolyard bully.

But where his predecessor nursed grievance and exacerbated division, Biden on Wednesday sought reconciliation and, perhaps, even a kind of forgiveness.

“And so today, at this time, in this place, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another,” he said in remarks that stretched an economical 20 minutes. “Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.”

He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name. He didn’t have to.

Trump, the first president to skip an inauguration in 152 years, skulked out of Washington hours before Biden took to the stage at the U.S. Capitol. He left the city in much the same way he entered it, in a funk of self-aggrandizement and a barrage of self-serving falsehoods.

That graceless exit saw Trump try to deflect attention away from the defining facts of his legacy: More than 400,000 Americans dead from a pandemic he was too disinterested in to stop and the attempted coup d’etat he incited just two weeks before, leaving him the only chief executive in American history to be impeached twice by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Biden’s prayerful address, prefaced Tuesday night by a ceremony on the National Mall honoring the pandemic’s victims that was, by turns, beautiful, painful, and consoling, strained for connection for the American public. It was a reflection of a veteran pol who’s known for lingering for hours along a rope line, as he pulls out the life story from a stranger he’d met only moments earlier.

“We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs,” he said at one point. “We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”

The contrast with Trump’s dystopian “American Carnage” address, delivered four years, and several lifetimes ago, on the same spot, could not have been more stark. Read more