Saturday, February 28, 2015

More Economic Tea Leaves

As our stock market soars, there are skeptics looking behind the numbers. Some say there’s no place else to park investment capital. Interest rates are too low to generate income from debt instruments, and real estate is rather illiquid. Behind the scenes are little breezes of change, suggesting that the economy, while growing, may be ready to shift, and that those growth numbers are rather shallow and fragile. Bubble trouble or continued “growth”?
Although the Federal Reserve has not formally announced any increases in their interest rates, unless you have fairly direct access to money at Fed rates, the cost of corporate borrowings has inched up of late. And if interest rates ever reach genuine returns, you can pretty much figure on a massive move away from equities (as reflected in the stock market) into those debt instruments, bonds and corporate paper.
But most folks aren’t feeling the better numbers where they matter most – their wallets. Average workers have lost buying power over the last decade plus. While investment returns are high at this moment, those working for a living are still fidgety and unsure, willing to work longer hours in jobs with lower advancement opportunities and stagnant pay. The teas leaves that I would like to look at today reflect that relative job insecurity where workers are willing to tolerate “less” because they are still scared of the alternative. Indeed, for job-seekers, the best place to come from is already having a job. No job? A whole lot harder to find alternative work, or at least satisfying work.
The hidden numbers can be found in comparing statistics relating to job tenure in existing employment versus this notion of lots of job-hopping. In his February 23rd blog, Paul Patrone, Communications Director at VoiceGlance.com, addressed the myth that millennials are notorious job-hoppers, even in this economy. Starting with the above chart (which originally appeared in the Washington Post), he noted that if anything, this scary economy seems to be keeping those younger workers in place much longer than in the past, and the tenure lines are actually getting longer. Millennial-aged workers are staying in their current jobs longer than at any time since 1983 according to that chart.
People will gravitate towards opportunity when it is clear, and cling to security when it is not. Right now, the numbers tell us that clinginess is the predominant feeling in the job market, which in turn tells you that too many that even have jobs are exceptionally skeptical that the “recovery” in the news is either real or relevant to the average worker. When those tenure lines shorten and job-changing increases, we’ll have the tangible evidence that average workers actually believe in that elusive recovery. Meanwhile, policy-makers have to learn that people still do not believe that our economy has yet solidified, at least for “most of us,” and claims that we are in good shape just don’t resonate yet with enough voters.
There’s always going to be a part of it that stems from people changing their minds about their careers. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that human nature has stayed relatively stable over the past 10,000 years or so, so the percentage of chronic job hoppers in the world probably is the same as it always was.
“No, what really causes ‘job hopping’ is amount of job opportunity out there. After all, if there are a lot of new jobs being created with higher salaries and better chances for advancement, logic suggests more people will take those jobs, leaving their old ones behind… So what is causing the decline in job hopping? As the old presidential slogan goes, ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’” Patrone.
So what happens when interest rates climb and access to corporate growth capital becomes more expensive? Will the tenure lines extend, and that fragile recovery rock backwards to reflect that skepticism that most workers already feel? Or will we weather that storm and convince “the rest of us” (beyond that 5% of top earners) that we are in fact in better times for us all? Don’t hold your breath.
There is too much instability in the world – from Ukraine to ISIS, from the Greek battle with the EU to moderating growth rates in China, from lower oil prices to a Congress too mired in doctrinaire politics to get anything done – for anyone to be complacent or wildly optimistic. We’re not spending enough on education (still watching cutbacks here), government-sponsored research (a real job creator) or infrastructure (an economic efficiency booster) to build our own future. Looking beyond the political rhetoric, even if we are doing better than Europe, read the tea leaves of truth if you want real answers. And the readings are still not very pretty.
I’m Peter Dekom, and despite claims from left or right that they have restored America, the reality is that few of us actually believe that rhetoric where it matters most.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Taming Bureaucracy

The concepts of reining in rogue bureaucrats, cutting the cost of government, eliminating “red tape,” responding to scandals and punishing bureaucratic miscreants, eliminating redundancies and waste, spurning growth without undue regulatory hurdles and generally increasing governmental efficiency have been at the forefront of every election in recent memory. Yet, when Congress passes and the president signs a federal statute to “do something,” it is always a bureaucracy that is charged with “doing it.”
With partisanship threatening every federal job every time there is a new political reconfiguration, a system of “due process” and legal checks and balances – generally our Civil Service system – was designed to create a sense of stability and security for federal employees (remembering that some federal employees are appointed and not subject to civil service rights). There is an inherent tension between those civil service protections and Congressional aspirations to rein in that political beast.
There probably isn’t a politician in the mix who believes our federal bureaucracy is an exemplary model of governmental perfection. But the solutions are not so easy in the quagmire we call government. The Secret Service and the Veteran’s Administration are the most recent bad boyz of government, with failures and scandals representing a fundamental inability of those bureaucracies to fulfill their most basic federal mandate.
There’s been an effort on both sides of the aisle to get a handle on bureaucratic failures, scandals and waste. “President Obama’s repeated proposals for a Commission of Federal Public Service Reform have been ignored by Congress. He first made that call in 2011, then in each budget request since, although the White House has put no energy behind it.” Washington Post, February 24th. The GOP has preferred a more hands-on, meat-axe approach, with overall budget cuts (e.g., the “sequester”) and new proposed rules that would eviscerate a pile of civil service protections. Lots of voters appreciate that path. Others say it would render government impossible to implement.
Aside from budgeting cutting, what is the general notion of the new GOP-dominated Congress when it comes to pulling back civil service rules that protect bureaucrats under a notion of due process? While there hasn’t been a set of new legislative proposals that apply across the board, we certainly can look at proposed GOP statutes that are specifically directed at the failed Veteran’s Administration for guidance on their overall philosophy of holding bureaucrats more responsible to Congress.
“Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) doesn’t need a commission or another report. He chairs a congressional committee. He is using that powerful perch to remake the civil service at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) one step at a time. It is an effort that has implications, some better than others, for the federal workforce generally… Miller said he hopes his colleagues use his legislation ‘as a template to look into other agencies within the federal government.’…
“Last year, the House gave overwhelming bipartisan support to his legislation that would have stripped VA Senior Executive Service (SES) members of their due process rights to appeal disciplinary actions. The department’s secretary would have had the power to fire at will the high-ranking civil servants. This could have led to the creation of a political spoils system, with civil servants falling at the whim of whatever party was in control… That measure was modified before it became law, handing VA senior executives a truncated appeals system that still makes them due-process paupers.” Washington Post, February 24th.
So what do Miller’s statutory proposals suggest for the entire system, assuming the GOP could pass the legislation and get it passed the president? “Miller has proposed a series of VA bills that could provide a road map for a broader civil service reform effort. The measures include:
“● H.R. 280, which authorizes the VA secretary to recoup bonuses and awards paid to those Miller’s news release calls ‘failed employees.’ The secretary would issue regulations related to the repayments, and the employees could have a hearing before the secretary.
“● H.R. 473, which would allow the VA secretary to reduce pensions of SES employees convicted of crimes that influenced work performance. It also would limit SES paid administrative leave to 14 days unless extended by the secretary and would require SES members to rotate positions within the department every five years. Top performance ratings and bonuses would be limited to 30 percent of VA senior executives.
“● H.R. 571, known as the Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act of 2015, would create a system for reporting claims of retaliation against VA whistleblowers and would establish mandatory minimum penalties for employees who engage in retaliation.
“‘I know there is an appetite in Congress to fix the VA and to hold people accountable and not reward bad behavior,’ Miller said. ‘That’s what these bills are designed to do.’… One common factor in these bills is the sense that accountability means punishment for the bad, instead of resources for the good — a point not lost on federal employee leaders… Said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, ‘The continuing stream of punitive legislation directed at the VA SES ... will deter the recruitment and retention of well-qualified, dedicated executives.’” The Post. Is there a middle ground? Can there be a middle ground? Will there be a middle ground?  What are your thoughts?
I’m Peter Dekom, and while bureaucracy needs to be challenged, we also have to make sure that the medicine doesn’t kill the patient.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Texas sCrewed

Currencies of nations whose economies are strongly dependent on the price of oil have fallen… or if you are Russia… plummeted. Oil-powerhouse Venezuela’s battle between incumbent mega-socialists and more conservative politicos have turned violent-in-the-streets as store shelves are virtually empty and basics have soared in price despite a massive governmental effort to impose wage and price controls. American states and Canadian provinces that have drilled and fracked their way to petroleum overdrive have watched their local budgets strain from the extreme drop-off in tax revenues generated by oil, from royalties from the slippery substance itself and the income tax generated at both an individual and corporate level. Layoffs and cutbacks rule.
In a state with no personal income tax, fiercely proud of its independence and its self-reliance, that once rosy outlook has turned a bit gray. Texas. Oil is selling at way below the $114/barrel last year at this time. Less than half. “This is a global world we live in, and so a slowdown in Chinese demand, coupled with a Saudi stubbornness to keep production at the same levels, has led to thousands of Texan oil workers being laid off, and a vast numbers of wells being mothballed.” BBC.com, February 23rd.
While the drop in prices at the pump has had a whole pile of benefits for many others – more money in consumers’ pockets spurring retail sales, cheaper shipping costs and lower corporate operating costs – for many segments of the global economy, such a steep decline has been nothing short of a disaster. There is a touch of the “gloat” as many oil-despots, from Venezuela’s Nicol├ís Maduro Moros to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have some serious explaining to do to their constituents, and are scrambling to blame the global “American conspiracy” against them as the “real” explanation. Even ISIS with its captured oil fields is “suffering” from a decline in revenues. But there are plenty of Americans suffering from the plunge in the price of oil as well.
Meanwhile, back at the (Texas) ranch, the probability that oil isn’t likely to return to much more than $80/barrel anytime soon plays hob with the massive investments in systems and technologies to extract hard-to-get oil, costs that are only justified at the higher reaches of recent oil prices. Maybe the side benefit will be a lighter impact on the environment than the mini-quakes and polluted (or flammable with pockets of natural gas) groundwater that have been blamed on the pressurized chemicals used in the fracking process… coaxing oil out of the nooks and crannies missed in a bygone era when crude was easier to extract. Until an exhaustible supply of petroleum inevitably succumbs to the supply and demand curve and rises to new heights.
In a February 23rd report, the BBC.com (North American editor Jon Sopel visited a freezing Texas oil field) profiled this economic malaise from the perspective of one oil-worker, Storm McDonald (yup, that’s his name), well-known in the tough world of petroleum extraction. “He is a burly Texan and has worked in oil fields all his life. He's spent three years drilling in North Dakota on the Canadian border. He's worked on the biggest oilfields around the United States doing every dirty job imaginable. But though he lacks the white gloves and a baton, he is now the conductor of this orchestra - and he's still only 30. Outside in the icy cold, men are wearing hard hats, goggles and headsets awaiting his instructions. It is gone one o'clock in the morning when we strike up our conversation - and though presumably somewhere there is a warm bed waiting for him, he is in clover. He loves what he does. Adores it. The smell of oil, the gush of oil, the riches that oil can sometimes bring - but also the hard, physical labour [hey, it’s the BBC!] involved.
“He tells me about the boom times - when every bar is heaving and every supermarket shelf is empty, when you have to drive for hours just to buy clothes or food because all the towns nearest to the oil boom have sold out of everything.
“The company he's working has six sites - four have been closed, and when they complete the frack on this one the owner says the probability is that they won't pump the oil. They need the price to be at $80 a barrel to break even - and today the price is nowhere near that.
“But Storm is philosophical. He says that although this downturn was unexpected, it will pass. He says that in this industry when the times are good, you put money away for when the times are bad - in other words, says Storm, this storm will quickly pass.”
As much as most of us are enjoying a respite at the pump, there probably is a happier medium at a more sustainable cost of oil. On the other hand, most of us are acutely aware that Big Oil has really never done us a whole lot of favors. But trust me, those at the top of Big Oil are still doing fine… but I cannot say the same as we move down that corporate hierarchy and into the oil fields themselves.
I’m Peter Dekom, and there are always at least two sides to every story.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tweets His Own?

According to the U.S. Department of State, the Islamic State is releasing up to 90,000 Tweets per day. But that number apparently doesn’t account for the pro-ISIS Tweets that also emanate from other sources in the ether. “J.M. Berger is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives about terrorists’ use of social media. With funding from Google, Berger and his technologist colleague Jonathon Morgan set up a system to capture the scope of pro-ISIS messaging.

“They found that in the fall of 2014, there were at least 45,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS supporters. With that as a starting point, Berger told PunditFact that 90,000 messages a day is likely a conservative number… ‘My best estimate is something over 200,000 a day, including retweets, but that comes with a lot of caveats,’ Berger said… Berger said the figure includes supporters as well as actual members of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.” Polifact.com, February 19th.
Here are the basics of just one of many such ISIS Twitter-sources: “One of ISIS's more successful ventures is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn. The app, an official ISIS product promoted by its top users, is advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the jihadi group.
“Hundreds of users have signed up for the app on the web or on their Android phones through the Google Play store. When you download the app, ISIS asks for a fair amount of personal data… Once you sign up, the app will post tweets to your account—the content of which is decided by someone in ISIS’s social-media operation. The tweets include links, hashtags, and images, and the same content is also tweeted by the accounts of everyone else who has signed up for the app, spaced out to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms. Your Twitter account functions normally the rest of the time, allowing you to go about your business.” TheAtlantic.com, June 16th.
Indeed, as President Obama addresses this onslaught, there is a double-edge sword to curtailing this malignant verbiage. We really get a great deal of intelligence from these emissions, are able to identify elements in the ISIS power structure and understand strategies and targets better. On the other hand, IS’ use of social media has been one of the most productive recruiting tools, one that has generated one of the most effective fighting machines in the Middle East. Zealots with no rules against infidels, armed with astounding levels of captured weapons, and awash in cash.
Cash? From oil generated in captured territory. From banks in captured and looted cities and towns. From ransoms quietly paid for captured foreigners. And most recently revealed and despicably endured, from “harvested” organs removed (presumably before or immediately after execution of their captives) and sold into the illicit medical marketplace.
But ISIS’ recruitment of young bodies to fight, suicide-bomb and develop sleeper cells all over the world seems to outweigh the loss of potential intelligence. “The Obama administration has a plan to fight back against ISIS propaganda, and it involves what the New York Times calls a ‘tiny State Department agency.’ The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, created in 2011, has always been tasked with coordinating ‘countermessaging’ against extremists, but now it will be expanded, thanks to ISIS. ‘We're getting beaten on volume,’ a department official says. But ‘these guys aren't BuzzFeed; they're not invincible in social media.’” Newswer.com, February 17th.

Even as Turkey and the United States have agreed to a joint training program to prepare moderate Syrian rebels to join the fights (which Turkey would prefer be directed at the downfall of the Assad regime), countries all around the world are trying to stem the tide of ISIS to recruit their citizens into this malevolent battle. At a White House conference on extremism, “President Obama on [February 19th] described the fight against violent extremism as a ‘generational challenge’ that would require the cooperation of governments, religious leaders, educators and law enforcement. But even before he called on more than 60 nations to join the effort, the rise of the Islamic State and the attacks by homegrown terrorists in Paris, Ottawa, Copenhagen and Sydney, Australia, had jolted American Muslims into action.” New York Times, February 19th.
ISIS’ reach into nations around the world, even here in the United States, has shocked devoted Muslims to this vile infiltration of even their own local communities. The vast majority of ISIS victims are indeed other Muslims, and Islamic clerics have begun to attempt to defuse ISIS’ efforts to recruit and radicalize age-appropriate Muslims into this morbid fight.
In the United States, “Muslim leaders … have already started organizing or expanding prevention programs and discussions on countering violent extremism, often with assistance from law enforcement officials and trained counter-recruiters who emphasize that the Internet’s dangers for young Muslims now go far beyond pornography.
“With the Islamic State in particular deploying savvy online appeals to adolescents alongside videos of horrific executions, the sense of urgency has grown. Though some Muslim leaders still resist cooperating with the government, fearing that they would be contributing to religious profiling and anti-Muslim bigotry, many have been spurred to respond as they have come into contact with religiously ardent youths who feel alienated by life in the West and admit that they have been vulnerable to the Islamic State’s invitation to help build a puritanical utopia.

“‘The number is small, but one person who gets radicalized is one too many,’ said Rizwan Jaka, a father of six and the board chairman of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, where Imam Magid [a respected, Virginia-based, Islamic ‘scholar bursting with charm and authority’] is the spiritual leader. ‘It’s a balancing act: We have to make sure our youth are not stereotyped in any way, but we’re still dealing with the real issue of insulating them from any potential threat of radicalization.’” New York Times, February 16th.

While the numbers of actual recruits from the United States remains fairly small (estimated at 150 to date), the fact that it is happening at all is beyond disturbing. The risks of such pro-ISIS feelings also generate fears of sleeper cells growing here, waiting for the right moment to explode. And of course, there is always the risk of a “lone wolf” – inspired by ISIS but never formally joining the actual war in the Middle East – taking the mission of destruction as a personal obligation. France estimates that ISIS has generated 1,000 recruits from that nation, and the United Kingdom, 600.
I’ve blogged before that nothing short of a massive ground assault against ISIS is likely to extinguish this smoldering tumor, but we have yet to identify truly viable sources of such ground forces ready to fight anytime soon. Just shutting down Twitter sites and providing counter-information may be a reasonable governmental goal, but we need so much more in terms of upgrading the weapons available to the forces that really can counter ISIS – yet risking the chronic American disease of blowback – and perhaps even face the harsh reality of joining in a new multinational force (perhaps this is not an effort we should lead or organize) to destroy ISIS where it stands… on the ground.

I’m Peter Dekom, and while this cannot be a United States-led mission in yet another Middle Eastern war, what the world has done so far to counter ISIS has been entirely inadequate.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

No Vault Banking

The financial world often gets away with murder simply because it is so damned complex. We understand that Wall Streeters have gamed the system, drained more than a few taxpayers, misled both the public and a bumbling Congress and have managed to create a world where a couple of hundred families in this country own and control half the wealth. The dynamic need for cash of House representatives, running every two years, combined with the jacking-up of media costs because of new competition from bottomless-pit-SuperPacs, no longer restrained by spending limits, have turned elections into political prostitution.
If you ever want to see exactly how absurd it all is, trundle down to a local law library (law schools and many courts have them) and open up any provision of the Internal Revenue Code or any bank regulations. Yes, technically, it is English, but just barely. I can read the provisions, but it’s hardly linear reading. Every time there is a reference to another code section, you literally have to read the other section (which may have its own additional references), and the come back to your text. A careful lawyer will then have to research court and administrative interpretations of those provisions. Boy, does it take time just to cover a single paragraph.
But to enable more loopholes – usually drafted by the beneficiaries and their lobbyists – there occasionally needs to be a sacrificial lamb that makes it look as if the Congress is acting in a way to save taxpayers money and not cater to corporate interests. They cut direct farm subsidies, but if you look carefully at federally-funded crop insurance, you can see that for a small payment and a fake “planting of seeds even in land too arid to grow crops,” the resulting payouts remain huge.
And they often drill down on federal programs that look bad but really don’t generate that much in costs. Like the Export Import Bank. According to their website, “The Export-Import Bank of the United States is the official export credit agency of the United States. Our mission is to ensure that U.S. companies — large and small — have access to the financing they need to turn export opportunities into sales. Ex-Im Bank does not compete with private institutions. We fill gaps in the trade finance market by working with lenders and brokers to ensure that U.S. businesses get what they need to sell abroad and be competitive in international markets.” Effectively, it insures qualified U.S. exporters who are selling overseas can count on their buyer’s actually paying them. Credit insurance if you will.
Well, the Ex-Im Bank appears to be a sacrificial lamb that corporate America has told those in power in Congress, wink-wink, that they can live without. It accounts for such a small share of our exports and isn’t used much by the biggest of the big companies. So… “The Department of Homeland Security is not alone when it comes to being on shaky federal ground. The Export-Import Bank could go out of business at the end of June if Congress doesn’t act.
“The conservative advocacy group Heritage Action hopes that is exactly what happens… To that end, it is starting a campaign of automated phone calls to voters in the districts of 31 Republicans who have signed on to a measure renewing the bank’s charter.
“The calls label the bank, which is intended to spur American exports by providing aid to potential buyers, a ‘slush fund for corporate welfare.’ Voters are encouraged to ‘tell your congressman to stop giving taxpayer-backed loans to multinational corporations and hostile foreign governments.’” New York Times, February 18th.
But the real reform is not on the table. Taxing U.S. companies who use off-short financing that I have blogged about in the past to shelter hundreds of billions of dollars from U.S. taxes… even when the money was generated inside the United States. Or allowing fund managers to get taxed on much of their income as if they were long-term capital investors (who get really favorable tax rates) when they haven’t invested a dime. The list of mega-loopholes is long, and those running Congress pretend that to impose a fair and uniform tax system is just “class warfare.” Indeed, even assuming it is class warfare, trust me it wasn’t those in the middle and the bottom of the income ladder who declared war. Fairness in our tax code has left the building… a long, long time ago.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to stop playing distraction games and deal with the fundamental inequalities in our financial and tax codes that so completely and totally favor the mega-wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Incomplete Sentences

No matter how many times I repeat this statistic, it stuns me. We’re a nation that contains 5% of the earth’s population, but we house 25% of the world’s incarcerated inmates. Our sentences are long by almost any international standard, we most certainly do not rehabilitate, and other than taking criminals off the streets at an absurd cost to taxpayers, jails and prisons seem to accomplish little of what we are told they are supposed to do. Once an inmate is convicted, their employability quotient drops for life. They are pushed to the lowest occupational rungs of the economic ladder, and it they do secure employment, the work is usually the lowest paid with marginal benefits (if any) and virtually no chance for advancement.
The bitterness of being incarcerated in a gang-infested, ultra-violent world of bad food and worse conditions, amplifies over the years at the lack of any meaningful economic opportunity after the “debt to society” was paid. Not to worry, because most inmates have received all sorts of advanced training while they were doing time. They can choose from a litany of experts, ready to share their knowledge and skills. Armed robbery? Extortion and kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Hacking bank accounts? Making, smuggling, marketing and selling some hard narcotics? How to get just about any gun you could ever want? And so, so much more. Our prisons are some of the best “graduate schools of crime” imaginable. Strangely, jailing people tends to push crime rates up, so even deterrence is a questionable goal.
In an April 2014 report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics “tracked 404,638 state prisoners from 30 states who were released in 2005. It found that 67.8 percent of them were re-arrested within three years of their release and 76.6 percent were re-arrested within five years. Of the latter group, more than a third were re-arrested in the first six months after leaving prison, and more than half were arrested by the end of the first year, showing that the rate of recidivism was highest during the first year and declined every year after that.” TheDailyBeast.com, April 22, 2014. The average cost across the United States to house a single inmate is approximately $32,000. Wow!
We’ve gotten to the point where both sides of the aisle agree that the American prison system doesn’t work, we are actually creating and training criminals at a horrific cost to taxpayers and we really can no longer afford to keep building prisons and housing inmates for no particular offsetting benefit to society. We have better uses for our tax dollars. The Editorial Board of the New York Times (February 16th) explains why we cannot seem to make any headway to solve this problem, at least as to federal crimes, in Congress.
“In the last [Congressional] session, senators introduced three bipartisan bills. Two proposed ‘front end’ reforms, like reducing or eliminating ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The other focused on ‘back end’ fixes, like increasing opportunities for good-time credit to allow certain prisoners early release.
“None of the bills got anywhere, but it was encouraging to see all three reintroduced in the new Republican-led Senate. At least it was until they ran into a roadblock in the shape of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wields great power over any sentencing legislation… His predecessor, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, is a co-sponsor of the most far-reaching bill, which would allow judges to ignore mandatory minimum sentences in certain circumstances.
“But Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences. In a speech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills ‘lenient and, frankly, dangerous,’ and he raised the specter of high-level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.
“Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful. Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked. States from California to New York to Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.”
Congress serves the people, but clearly, even with parallel voices among Dems and the GOP, a single, misinformed octogenarian is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, increasing crime rates and providing more advanced criminal education to those we wish to have such skills the least. It’s time to find a solution or let the GOP know that their committee chairman reflects terribly on us all… a reminder best given during election years.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it really is time to stand on the solid ground of hard facts and do what is necessary… and painfully obvious.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

In a Race to the Bottom

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Last sentence of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

An awful lot of people immigrated to the New World to escape religious prosecution.  The notion of tolerance, free speech, association and religious freedom (sustained in the First Amendment, for example) and ethnic diversity are anchored in our Constitutional Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). While slavery was part of the original mix in our nascent form of government, we fought a very bloody Civil War to generate one more Constitutional provision, the Thirteenth Amendment, to abolish that abdominal practice.
Religious, ethnic, racial and, recently, sexual-orientation battles have been fought within this constitutional nexus. The constitutional imprimatur has been added to social groundswells – recently LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights – reflecting the necessary flexibility for a document hundreds of years to remain relevant. But constitutional amendments, supporting statutes, creating a new category of hate crimes based on laws against intolerance, cannot force personal emotional or deep-seated openness, tolerance and acceptance of such diversity.
There may be familial biases, inculcated into young minds by subtle or not-so-subtle messages. There can be intolerance based on powerful negative interpretations of religious doctrines. We often find messages of intolerance from peer pressure, from the workplace to gang-enforced segregation. Further, as history has shown us over the ages, harsh economic times yearn for scapegoats, targets for zealots and demonic firebrands whose very power derives from lambasting their perception of society’s “deviants.” The world, very much including the United States, remains mired in a seemingly never-ending economic malaise.
We often hide the existence of such fierce and less-than-fierce biases under the mantra of some colorable and rational justification, making us believe that we are tolerant and moral citizens, doing what is right. We see people battle to secure our southern border, for example, from (among other “risks”) penetration by terrorists and undocumented job stealers.
When you look at the kinds of jobs that “get stolen,” you find the lowest level of stoop farm labor, hard-knocks construction laborers, the bottom-end of kitchen help, folks willing to work in slaughterhouses… the kinds of jobs U.S.-born citizens will not perform at any price. And if you were a terrorist, why in the world would you attempt to cross at the heavily fortified “brown-skinned” border when you can easily cross a virtually unguarded “white-skinned” northern border? But standing up for strong border control – which almost always means only that border with Mexico – is considered patriotic and not racist. Really?
And when you look at the number of police incidents, stop and frisks gone awry, police stops over relatively minor alleged infractions that turn deadly, why is it that those dying from such moments are overwhelmingly black or brown and seldom white? There’s always an explanation as to “why,” one that justifies the death on a case-by-case basis, avoids the stamp of “racism,” allowing supporters to side with their police officers as duly-appointed representatives of our nation and our government just doing their jobs. The photograph above comes from Michael Brown’s Facebook page; Michael was shot to death by an officer from white-dominated police force in an African-American community, Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. We all “know” the story and its aftermath, and there are a lot of interpretations of “what really happened.”
But Michael Brown added another statistic of an over-reactive “cop killing” of a young black. How about the brown community? Same story. For example, on February 14th, “[a]bout 500 people gathered at a park to protest the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, who was killed [February 19th in Pasco, Washington] after three officers chased him through a busy intersection with their guns drawn. As he turned to face them, raising his arms, he was felled by their bullets.
“According to police reports, Mr. Zambrano-Montes had been throwing rocks at cars and officers… His death was caught on video by a bystander and the footage has been widely disseminated on social media, fueling anger among the mainly Hispanic population of this quiet agricultural hub in southern Washington State, and drawing comparisons to the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.” New York Times, February 14th.
As even our Supreme Court somehow could accept that the time of racially-biased voting rights discrimination is over, that we have an African-American president is touted by many, suggest that racial discrimination is no longer a particularly disturbing issue, too many smug Americans think that they live in an unbiased society.
The statistics tell us another story, one that has finally drawn America’s top cop, F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, into the fray. He looks like so many white detectives plying their government trade across the land, but his words are a bold, startling splash of cold water thrown in the face of those who have accepted those palpable explanations of disguised racism… a challenge to the entire American constituency.
In an address to students at Georgetown University, Mr. Comey said that some officers scrutinize African-Americans more closely using a mental shortcut that ‘becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights’ because black men are arrested at much higher rates than white men…
“F.B.I. directors had limited their public comments about race to civil rights investigations, like murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan and the bureau’s wiretapping of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Mr. Comey tried to dissect the issue layer by layer… He started by acknowledging that law enforcement had a troubled legacy when it came to race.
“‘All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,’ he said. ‘At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.’
“Mr. Comey said there was significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases. Law enforcement officers, he said, need ‘to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.’” New York Times, February 12th.
This was a seminal presentation, one that did not garner enough attention across the land. It expresses a definition of who we really are versus what we like to tell ourselves we are. It asks each of us to deal with our biases, to rise above such feelings and to implement the free and open society of “equals” we tell ourselves we are. There are no thinking human beings on earth without biases, preferences and level of tolerance. It is time to get real, face feelings versus fundamental values, and do what’s morally right… or give up the very notion of what it means to have an American democracy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we have to embrace intolerance, let it be intolerance of injustice.