Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 11:22 pm

Remember how the IRS was only targeting conservative groups?

Filed under: More fact-based arguing, please — Lex @ 11:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

Yeah, me neither.

Darrell Issa needs to be impeached, and every screaming RWNJ who was accusing the Obama administration of persecution and yadda yadda yadda needs to sit down and drink an icy cold, 1-liter mug of STFU. I have had it with you people.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 7:17 pm

Listening to the people who were right: Janet Napolitano

Outsourced, in the wake of the charging of Frazier Glenn Cross, the guy we North Carolinians knew as Glenn Miller, with three shooting deaths at Jewish centers in Kansas City,  to Charlie Pierce:

I think this is a particularly good day to look back to, say, April of 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano presiding, put out a nine-page report in which the DHS pointed out that veterans were being recruited by rightwing terrorist groups around the country. (This was about when people started noticing that the real crazy had come out of the jar when this particular president had been sworn in.) Oh, the fuss that this raised.

John Boehner said of Napolitano that he wanted an “explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

Professional rage puppet Michelle Malkin wrote: Moreover, the report relies on the work of the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center to stir anxiety over “disgruntled military veterans” – a citation which gives us valuable insight into how DHS will define “hate-oriented” groups. The SPLC, you see, has designated the venerable American Legion a “hate group” for its stance on immigration enforcement. The report offers zero data, but states with an almost resentful attitude toward protected free speech: “Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent.”

Well, if ol’ Frazier Glenn Miller had had his way, Malkin wouldn’t have had to worry about the left-leaning SPLC any more.

Brand new ABC employee Laura Ingraham was still lying about it three years later.

And the freaking out was general and vast.

The fauxtrage did succeed in making the DHS withdraw the report, forcing Napolitano to apologize, and get everyone else to stop paying attention to the genuine extremism that had filtered into the conservative base of one of our two major political parties. This is a very good week to remember it, however.

And so it is.

Between 1984 and the early 1990s, I covered a lot of cluckers and other white supremacists. Most of them, to be charitable, couldn’t find their own asses with both hands and a flashlight. The late Virgil Griffin, perhaps the most famous clucker of his day and certainly the most famous gas-station owner in Mount Holly, might have had the leather-lunged capability of shouting creepy racist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist stuff until his face was so red that he looked like he was going to stroke out, but he also always looked like one good shot to the head with a beer bottle would shut him up.

Glenn Miller, on the other hand, looked like one good shot to the head with a beer bottle would just piss him off.

He scared the bejesus out of me the one time I talked to him, and I was very glad that there were uniformed law enforcement personnel around. For those of you not from around here,  Miller took part in the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings here in Greensboro in which five Communist Workers Party members were killed but no one went to prison. I don’t recall now whether the evidence ever put his finger on a trigger, but that doesn’t matter, because when I met him I didn’t know that history. All I knew was that the guy in front of me was both capable of great aggression and batshit insane, that to him shooting me would be like stepping on an ant.

But the greater issue is that although he’s being charged with murder and hate crimes, both the media and law enforcement have stopped short of calling what he is charged with doing “terrorism.” There’s some history in that that predates even 9/11.

America’s long campaign of lynching African Americans, for any reason or no reason at all, as a de facto legal mechanism of social control, was terrorism, but show me five high schools in the U.S. today that teach it as such. And, of course, post-9/11, “terrorism” became “that which those brown Mooooslims do to hurt us.” No word about Timothy McVeigh. No word about Eric Rudolph. No word about Scott Roeder or James Kopp. And now we’re not using the “t-word” with respect to Glenn Miller. But the fact is that the only meaningful difference between those guys and Osama bin Laden was that bin Laden killed more people.

Law enforcement and the media need to start calling this what it is, and dealing with it accordingly.

And John Boehner, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham and their ilk need to sit their asses down and drink a liter mug of STFU, because Janet Napolitano was right and you bitches were wrong. And all this whining in the media about the “deadliest assembly of al-Qaeda in the history of, like, ever” needs to stop ignoring the terrorists already in the open in our midst, some of them holding responsible positions in one of our nation’s two major parties.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 9:30 pm

Who really won the Pulitzer Prize for public-service journalism?

It’s a more complicated question than it appears, and who better than Jay Rosen to make complicated questions of journalism easier to understand?

Officially, the prize went to The Washington Post and to the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. for reporting on the National Security Agency’s lawbreaking and overreaching, based on documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.

Officially.

But this case illustrates how the process of news gathering, editing, and publishing/distribution has changed in the Internet age. The bad news, if you want to call it that, is that the Pulitzer committee hasn’t caught up yet. The good news, and we definitely want to call it that, is that those agencies that want to suppress the publication of material whose publication is in the public interest, such as the British agents who smashed the Guardian’s MacBook Pros despite knowing that Snowden’s cache of records was alive and well elsewhere on the planet and in cyberspace, haven’t caught up yet, either.

As Rosen puts it, a writer or a paper/news outlet doesn’t publish a story anymore; a system does. And if the Pulitzer committee has trouble wrapping its head around that, that’s OK. I and many other former and current journalists I know would trade a Pulitzer in a heartbeat for the chance to be able to continue performing public-service journalism at least one step ahead of those entities who would unconstitutionally and illegally suppress it.

UPDATE, 4/16: Who really won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism? It damn sure wasn’t ABC News.

Monday, April 14, 2014 12:09 am

Is we is or is we ain’t a nation under the rule of law?

I think we ain’t, but it looks like we’ll know soon enough, because the leak even I could see coming is here:

A still-secret Senate Intelligence Committee report calls into question the legal foundation of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, a finding that challenges the key defense on which the agency and the Bush administration relied in arguing that the methods didn’t constitute torture.

The report also found that the spy agency failed to keep an accurate account of the number of individuals it held, and that it issued erroneous claims about how many it detained and subjected to the controversial interrogation methods. The CIA has said that about 30 detainees underwent the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

The CIA’s claim “is BS,” said a former U.S. official familiar with evidence underpinning the report, who asked not to be identified because the matter is still classified. “They are trying to minimize the damage. They are trying to say it was a very targeted program, but that’s not the case.”

The findings are among the report’s 20 main conclusions. Taken together, they paint a picture of an intelligence agency that seemed intent on evading or misleading nearly all of its oversight mechanisms throughout the program, which was launched under the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ran until 2006.

Some of the report’s other conclusions, which were obtained by McClatchy, include:

_ The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.

_ The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program.

_ The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program.

_ The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General’s Office.

So, in plain English:

  • The CIA tortured people — some of whom died of it, remember — in violation not only of international and U.S. law but also in violation of the flimsy, themselves-illegal guidelines set up by the Justice Department.
  • The CIA lied to the White House and Congress, obstructing their oversight, which is duly required by Constitution and statute.
  • The CIA lied to its own inspector general.

So CIA personnel ordered and committed hanging offenses and lied to everybody about it. That’s the bottom line, folks. All the rest is sound and fury signifying nothing.

Let’s be very clear about what needs to happen here:

  • The people who actually carried out the crimes must be charged and tried, but so must the people who ordered them and the people who lied about them.
  • If anyone carried out or ordered torture that resulted in death, that individual is subject to the death penalty. As a tough-on-crime conservative, I can sleep soundly knowing that.
  • If anyone used the classification process to try to hide evidence of a crime, he should be criminally prosecuted for that offense.
  • If anyone then or now in a Senate-confirmable position carried out or ordered a crime, he should be impeached and convicted, thereby to revoke his pension and any other benefits of having served in the federal government.

If these things do not happen, then we are not a nation under the rule of law, plain and simple. I wish I could say that we are, but experience suggests that nothing will happen.

So let’s do ourselves a favor. Let’s put paid, once and for all, to this notion of American exceptionalism. We are not special. We are not a shining city on a hill. We are not a Christian nation in any way that Christ Himself would recognize. We are not even, to judge by both legal standards and OECD measures for quality of life, a particularly good example.

It is tempting to say that we are governed by a parliament of whores, but to do so would insult whores, who generally are not nearly as hypocritical about what they do as our leaders are. We are a plutocracy, an oligarchy, an outlaw nation, and the only differences between our genocide and that of the Nazis is that ours was less recent and less efficient. Indeed, it was ironic for me to read tonight on Facebook about my friend Rabbi Fred Guttman honoring the congressional service of my friend Howard Coble, when Coble, a former federal prosecutor, did nothing to stop precisely the kind of behavior on the part of Americans that got Nazis hanged at Nuremberg.

I’d love to be proved wrong on this. I really, really would. But if it hasn’t happened by now, it ain’t gonna. And Americans need to understand that and to plan their futures accordingly.

Sunday, April 13, 2014 10:54 am

Pulling the plug

Filed under: Geek-related issues,Housekeeping — Lex @ 10:54 am
Tags: , , , ,

A little more than 10 years ago, I got a Sony VGC-RA716GY desktop for Christmas. I called it a scream machine, a term used for the world’s fastest roller coasters. Turbocharged dual processor, a practically unheard-of gigabyte of RAM, top-of-the-line video card, hundreds of gigs of hard drive, 23-inch LCD monitor, plus speakers and a subwoofer loud enough to, literally, bother the neighbors. It ran on Windows XP Media Center Edition, meaning that I could, among other things, hook it up to a standard cable wire (as well as cable Internet) and use it as a TV — it even came with a remote for that.

It also came equipped with Adobe Premiere Elements for video editing, Photoshop Elements for image editing, SonicStage for audio editing/ mastering, Click 2 DVD for burning video into a standard-format DVD, slots for every variety of video card that exists, and audio-video input jacks and cables so that I could digitize my LP and VCR collections.

In the past decade I have used the machine for work and personal projects, business, education, and pleasure, from paying bills and doing taxes to watching digitized video of my then-3-year-old daughter’s first ballet recital. (That is, she was 3 when the video was shot; I watched on the computer after I got it a couple of years later.) Because I’m occasionally stupid but not that stupid, I backed up my stuff regularly, and when the original hard drive died five years ago, the reinstallation process for the OS, though lengthy, went without a hitch, and the restoration of settings and data from backup, though also lengthy, went likewise.

Nearly as I can tell, to date the machine has cost me a little more than 50 cents a day to own, and it has been worth every penny.  It could use more memory and a faster video card to keep up with some of the newer apps; with them, it would be as useful as the day I got it. But I don’t do a lot of gaming, and the motherboard won’t support them.

But it has one other problem I can’t fix: On Tuesday, Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP — worldwide. No more updates, not even for security. And because of the security required for some of my data — both personal and for freelance projects — not to mention fending off the day-to-day viruses and other malware floating around, that meant that the machine had to be disconnected from the Internet. So, after migrating secure data to a different machine, I pulled the wireless card and unplugged the network cord.

So is the Sony now a $2,000 paperweight? No, it’s now a $2,000 Minesweeper game.

Kidding. For one thing, it still holds about 20 gigs’ worth of digital photos that I need migrate to another machine and close to 50 gigs’ worth of music, from EMDR recordings for my mental health to Coltrane to the Sex Pistols to the Gap Band to Bach, enough to provide uninterrupted, unrepeated music for weeks. And it doesn’t need Internet to rock the neighbors’ worlds.

And with teenagers in the house, I’m not getting rid of any otherwise functional computer just because they might have to get their school assignments onto and off it with a thumb drive. When I was their age, we didn’t even HAVE thumb drives. And I have games I can install for them that don’t require Internet, like Diner Dash. So the Sony will live on, although I’ll probably be in the market for a new desktop later this year. (And when I am, I’ll definitely be buying a machine with Windows 7 Professional*, NOT Windows 8, although that’s a story for another time.)

I will say this: It bugs the hell out of me that Microsoft is ending even security upgrades for XP. And it’s not just personal. I had no experience with XP Personal (no pun intended), but XP Professional (of which Media Center Edition is a subset) was the most rock-solid OS Microsoft had ever produced to that point. It. Just. Worked. It almost never crashed, which was a huge step up from any previous Microsoft OS; only Win2K had come close to XP’s stability. Particularly after what happened with Vista, a lot of people, including myself, vowed never to change from XP.

But more importantly, a lot of people, and institutions, can’t upgrade (and I use that term loosely) from XP, or at least couldn’t by April 8 of this year. The British and Dutch governments are paying Microsoft a lot of money to continue XP support just for them. And the lack of security upgrades has important implications here at home. Many, many medical facilities continue to use XP machines because the applications they use have not had Win7- or Win8-compatible upgrades approved yet by the FDA. On Tuesday, all those XP machines still in service became noncompliant with the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, although, as the linked article shows, CIOs have a number of (not-inexpensive) options for dealing with it.

Oh, and this’ll make you feel good: 95% of ATMs currently in service use XP.

But enough about Microsoft and XP (if you have an XP machine and didn’t know about this, you definitely should Google the subject, though) and back to me.

I don’t normally get sentimental over things, particularly things that are of more practical than personal value. The only thing I’ve ever owned that comes close was my 1987 Volkswagen Golf. But I’ve loved this computer. I don’t love it so much that I would continue to use it without protection, obviously. But it has been inextricably combined with my work, graduate education and life, and the lives, schoolwork, Scouting work, and recreation of my children,  in the Web 2.0 era.

Someday, perhaps soon, something will happen to it that won’t be cost-effective to fix, and that’ll be that. When that day comes, the good people at HandyCapable Network will be getting a donation that will enrich the lives of the people they work with and serve. Until then, the Sony will still be doing plenty of useful things here in our house. It just won’t be doing them anywhere else.

*Suggestions welcome, but so far it looks as if I’ll have to be custom-ordering from Dell. Oh, well.

Friday, April 11, 2014 8:43 pm

Duke Power, trees, and simple questions

We here in the ‘boro have a chronic problem: We live in the ice belt — Virginia reliably gets snow in the winter, South Carolina reliably gets rain, but we’re as likely to get freezing rain and sleet as anything else. And with ice comes falling tree limbs and entire trees. And with those come downed power lines. In our most recent ice storm, a lot of people were dark for close to a week.

Duke Energy wanted to minimize this problem by trimming back trees that are near power lines. Residents (including me, in my ignorance) protested.

Now Duke proposes to reduce the problem by injecting a chemical called Cambistat into the ground near trees adjacent to power lines. The good news is, Cambistat will make blossoming trees blossom even more aggressively while slowing the rate of limb growth. This, in turn, will reduce the frequency with which trees near power lines have to be trimmed back.

(I and others have argued that, over time, burying power lines would save Duke Energy, and therefore ratepayers, money by reducing costs associated with repairing downed lines, utility poles, transformers, etc. I still believe that to be true, but not only would the trenching required to bury lines kill a lot of trees all by itself by damaging their roots, it’s also beside the point of this discussion.)

The bad news about Cambistat? Its active ingredient, paclobutrazole, is a chemical about which almost nothing is known but which might be toxic. Relatedly, not a few local residents grow ornamentals, and even herbs, fruit or vegetables, near trees that would be so treated. And pines and cedars, the trees most vulnerable to ice breakage, wouldn’t even be treated.

But remember: We simply don’t know what the effects of exposure to the chemical would be, whether pure or in the diluted form of an herbicide, whether short-term or long-term. On the other hand, with chemical toxicity, unlike in criminal trials, lack of evidence does not automatically equate to a not-guilty verdict.

So friend and local blogger Billy Jones asked a simple question of a tree service that had responded to a Facebook post of his:  “How will Cambistat affect my nearby herb and vegetable gardens?”

From a pure PR standpoint, the response he got made the mendacity of the tobacco companies back in the day look urbane and collegial. That made Billy both angry and even more curious. Me, too, and I don’t even grow stuff.

 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 5:45 am

Quote of the Day, torture edition

Filed under: Evil,Hold! Them! Accountable!,I want my country back. — Lex @ 5:45 am

Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post:

Torture is a stain on this nation’s honor that can be bleached away only by full exposure.

To that I would add this: “Full exposure” means not only making the CIA report public in its entirety; that’s a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.

It also means holding accountable those who were responsible, and I don’t mean some poor E-2 working third-shift guard duty. I mean the people who planned and carried out the torture program: President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the functionaries like Jim Haynes and John Yoo who fabricated the “legal” justification for that for which there is no justification, moral or legal.

And if that means some of them hang, well, I’ve always been tough on crime, so I’ll sleep fine.

In fact, I’ll sleep better.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 7:09 pm

If you’re having trouble understanding why Citizens United and McCutcheon were such bad decisions, it’s because Nixon would have loved them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, author of the majority opinion in McCutcheon, and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in McCutcheon, live in a fantasy world, Ian Millhiser explains:

In 1974, a Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) revealed activities that nearly anyone other than the five justices who signed on to Roberts’ decision in McCutcheon v. FEC would unreservedly describe as corruption. In the early 1970s, for example, the dairy industry desired increased price supports from the federal government, but Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin has decided not to give these price supports to the milk producers. In response, various dairy industry organizations pledged $2 million to Nixon’s reelection campaign — and then developed a complicated scheme to launder the money through various small donations to “hundreds of committees in various states which could then hold the money for the President’s reelection campaign, so as to permit the producers to meet independent reporting requirements without disclosure.”

President Nixon later agreed to a meeting with industry representatives, and he decided to overrule his Agriculture Secretary. The milk producers got their price supports.

The Ervin report “identified over $1.8 million in Presidential campaign contributions as ascribable, in whole or in part, to 31 persons holding ambassadorial appointments from President Nixon, and stated that six other large contributors, accounting for $3 million, appear to have been actively seeking such appointment at the time of their contributions.” Outside of the White House, the report uncovered “lavish contributions” to members of Congress from both political parties. The chairman of one oil company testified that executives perceived campaign donations as a “calling card” that would “get us in the door and make our point of view heard.” American Airlines’ former chair testified that many companies funneled money to politicians “in response to pressure for fear of a competitive disadvantage that might result” if they did not buy off lawmakers. In essence, businesses feared that if they did not give money to elected officials, but their competitors did, then their competition could use their enhanced access to politicians in order to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

And yet, according to Chief Justice Roberts and his fellow conservative justices, hardly any of this activity amounts to “corruption.”

Even the Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which famously created the law that money = speech (but also largely upheld post-Watergate campaign-finance reforms), conceded that Congress could regulate campaign contributions to prevent corruption or its appearance. But Kennedy and Roberts have gone much, much farther than that:*

Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon, however, defines the word “corruption” so narrowly that it is practically meaningless. In order to survive constitutional review, Roberts writes, a campaign finance regulation must “target what we have called “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Thus, unless a donor offers “dollars for political favors,” no corruption exists.

Lest there be any doubt, this narrow understanding of the word “corruption” does not capture cases where a donor pays off a politician in order to buy access. To the contrary, as the conservative justices held in Citizens United v. FEC, “[t]he fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt” (The word “speakers,” in this context, is used to refer to what most people describe as “donors”). Indeed, Citizens United goes much further than simply claiming that dollars-for-access arrangements must be tolerated. At one point, it seems to view them as an objective good:

Favoritism and influence are not . . . avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies. It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.

Democracy certainly is premised on responsiveness. Though it is a strange definition of democracy that offers enhanced responsiveness to those who can afford to pay for it.

Under Roberts’ definition of “corruption” most of the corrupt activities of the Nixon era would be viewed as completely benign. Though an isolated incident, where a Nixon fundraiser promised that the president would make a donor Ambassador to Trinidad in return for $100,000, would qualify as an explicit “dollars for political favors,” arrangement, politicians who give greater access to their donors are not “corrupt” under McCutcheon and Citizens United unless they offer to exchange votes or similar favors in return for campaign donations. Indeed, even the dairy industry’s $2 million bid for a meeting with President Nixon may not qualify as “corruption,” as Roberts understands the word, because there is some uncertainty as to whether the $2 million donation was “conditioned upon or ‘linked’ to” the President agreeing to make specific changes to the administration’s policies. According to Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon,

Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. And because the Government’s interest in preventing the appearance of corruption is equally confined to the appearance of of quid pro quo corruption, the Government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access.

So what Nixon likely would have gone to prison for in the 1970s had he attempted to stay in office is now the law of the land, per five Republican justices who no doubt also believe they are Tsars of All the Russias, to borrow a phrase from Charlie Pierce.

And the American people know it, Millhiser concludes:

Very few Americans agree with Roberts’ view of what constitutes corruption. Indeed, a 2012 poll determined that 69 percent of Americans believed that the rule emerging from cases likeCitizens United allowing “corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.” Just 15 percent disagreed.

To put that number in perspective, another poll found that fully 19 percent of Americans believe in “spells or witchcraft” — a full four percentage points more …

Myself, I’m wondering, given how many presumably sensible Americans have, since 2000, been willing to give away so many of their own rights and to refuse to hold accountable a generation of the most corrupt and wicked pols and business leaders since the Harding administration, whether more Americans ought to believe in witchcraft.

*I’m “conservatives oppose judicial activism” years old.

 

Monday, April 7, 2014 6:59 pm

Do peons dream of loyalty?

I spent my 16th, 17th, and 18th summers working in food service at the Carowinds amusement park on the N.C./S.C. line near Charlotte. It was hard, hot, sticky, messy, occasionally dangerous work — hot frying fat is nothing to mess with, which doesn’t keep teens from messing with it, and I once got knocked back 10 feet into a stream cabinet when I accidentally touched a bare wire on a 440-volt grill I was trying to unplug. (Had I not been wearing rubber-soled shoes, an electrician told me, I might’ve been killed.) When I finished my first full day of work — 9 hours in a steamy kitchen on a humid April Saturday — I was in outstanding physical shape and still as physically tired as I would ever be in my life until I got E. coli food poisoning two decades later.

We had all kinds of rules about customer relations, grooming (sideburns no lower than the earlobe), our itchy-ass polyester uniforms, not sitting while on duty, and so on.

So when I read this post on working in retail by ex-journalist Joseph Williams, I didn’t find a whole lot that was new to me, other than the vastly increased amount of theft-prevention activity. But a lot of it was new to him, or forgotten since his last stint in retail 30  or so years ago. And there’s a small part of me that wants to criticize his ignorance, because retail and restaurant work is one of the fastest-growing segments of the labor force in an economy that is not, generally, creating enough new jobs even to match growth in the working-age population, let alone bring down the un- and under-employment rates. If journalists know nothing else about the economy, they need to know that, and what the ramifications are for the growing numbers of Americans for whom this is real life.

Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.

That put me at a distinct disadvantage.

In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.

Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.

Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.

“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”

I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.

He also discusses how “wage theft” — essentially, employers ripping free labor from employees, works, and this, too, I remember from Carowinds:

Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.

In at least one respect, I had it better than this guy: Once in a while, I actually did get overtime pay. Not always. Not often. But once in a while.

This guy was paid $10 an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25. He has an interesting take on whether the minimum wage should be raised, and once again, it involves wage theft (highlighted text below):

Proponents [of a minimum-wage increase] argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.

As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.

Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.

A modest studio apartment in a safe neighborhood would easily consume an entire month’s pay. Meanwhile, depending on circumstance, an annual salary of roughly $20,000 might not automatically qualify a retail worker for government assistance. One of my co-workers, a young single mother I called Flygirl, lived with her mom and commuted 40 minutes, one-way, from a far-flung suburb to make ends meet. Most of my co-workers, in their early 20s or 30s, had roommates, spouses, or second jobs. None of them seemed to be making it on their retail salaries alone.

Even though I was living rent-free in a guest bedroom, my every-other-Thursday paycheck couldn’t help me climb out of my hole, particularly after the state took half my pre-tax, $300 weekly salary for child support payments. Grateful just to have a job, I didn’t think twice when I noticed Stretch sometimes cut me from the daily crew and kept my hours under 30 per week—until Mike, a longtime friend and a former union shop steward, explained.

“You’re part-time,” he told me. “If you work 40 hours or more, they’ll have to give you benefits.”

Because I live across town, meanwhile, I had an hour-long commute that cost as much as $10 a day round-trip on public transportation.

“Dude,” my best friend Jamie said. “After taxes, you’re making just enough to get to and from work each day.”

And when the writer finally finds a new job, one that pays a living wage, he tells his boss, who promptly criticizes his work ethic and  loyalty.

We seldom get to pick either the messages we receive or the messengers from whom we receive them. And it would have been nice if this guy hadn’t landed in poverty through his own doing, at least in part. But his story matters no matter his personal failings, because his story is pretty much the story of everybody who works in retail.

As was discussed in the Ideas section of Sunday’s News & Record, North Carolina still has about three unemployed people for every available job opening, and that doesn’t even count the so-called “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking for work and therefore are not counted as unemployed. Nor does it count the people who, though qualified for better jobs, are working part-time or minimum-wage jobs because that’s all they can find.

Their experiences are not hugely different from this guy’s. If you’re not one of them, you probably know many people who are. The American economy is screwing them to the wall, and it’s happening because of conscious and intentional decisions made by lawmakers in thrall to large corporations. It’s 21st-century peonage. And it needs to stop.

There is dignity and morality in honest work, even in retail, as long as workers are paid and treated fairly. But there is no dignity for the worker, and no morality for the employer, in taking from the worker what is rightfully his and debasing and degrading him while doing so.

 

Sunday, April 6, 2014 4:50 pm

Friday Random 10, Sunday online banking edition

AC/DC — Some Sin for Nothin’
Dictators — Search and Destroy
Chubby Checker — The Hucklebuck
Cinderella — Sick for the Cure
Pressure Boys — Fakin’ Dub
INXS — Three Sisters
Rolling Stones — Black Limousine
Joe Jackson — Look Sharp
Cream — Crossroads
Ted Leo & the Pharmacists — Parallel or Together

lagniappe: Warren Zevon — Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me

Rare work-related blog post, baseball triple-play edition

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 3:28 pm
Tags: , , ,

As if Greensboro College weren’t already having a fine weekend yesterday, what with Alumni Weekend activities and the celebration of the college’s 175th anniversary, the baseball team turned three against Maryville — a 9-3-2 triple play, at that. The play wound up on top of ESPN’s Top 10 plays last night. Here’s video, shot by my friend and colleague, sports information director Wes Gullett:

CORRECTION, 4/7/2014: Wes Gullett uploaded the video to YouTube, but the video actually was shot by a student assistant, Craig Gage. Nice work, Craig!

Friday, April 4, 2014 6:12 am

It was 40 years ago today/That I got injured and I couldn’t play

Filed under: Ew.,Housekeeping,That's gonna leave a mark — Lex @ 6:12 am
Tags:

April 4, 1974, started off as a nice, ordinary early-spring day in Charlotte.

Actually, that’s not true at all. At Carmel Junior High School, where I was in eighth grade, that day was ’50s Day. Not only had we all been encouraged to come to school dressed in ’50s garb, there would be an actual sock hop after school.

Well, I was in homeroom before the day really began, and everyone was admiring everyone else’s getup. I never could get pegged jeans or boots. But I did score some honest-to-God butch wax with which to give myself a real DA hairstyle — and since my hair was almost to my shoulders at that point, my pompadour and DA were very well fleshed out. And, coolest of all, I’d scored a gen-u-wine leather biker jacket from a guy my mother was tutoring. (He went on to play football at Alabama.)

So I wasn’t the most perfectly styled ’50s icon that morning, but I was definitely in the top quartile. I was looking pretty good and feeling pretty good about looking good. Trust me, as unusual as that feeling is for me today, it was way more unusual when I was 14. And I was reveling in it.

That’s when I heard an unfamiliar noise — loud, roaring. It was a motorcycle. More to the point, it was a motorcycle being ridden by the teacher in the next room. Our rooms were on ground level, and he, also in full ’50s regalia, had driven his bike right up to the window of his classroom before killing the engine and lowering the kickstand. Because each room had a window at each end of that wall that could be opened, the students in his homeroom opened the window and he hopped in to take over the classroom.

I was watching all this while leaning into the doorway of his classroom, which I was accomplishing by holding onto the door frame of my homeroom. Unfortunately, I later learned, someone in my homeroom had complained about the bike noise, and someone else — who remains a Facebook friend today, although I won’t name her because I know this was an accident — shut the door without checking to see whether the door frame was clear of all vulnerable objects like, you know, the first three fingers of my left hand.

The door was solid oak. The door frame was solid steel. They fit so closely I don’t know if you could have slipped a credit card between them.

And the ends of my fingers were in there.

And I couldn’t get them out.

So I did what anyone else in that situation would do: I screamed like a baby. I do not recall whether I screamed actual words, like, “Open the door!,” or issued a long string of cuss words, or whether I just ululated incoherently until somebody outside in the hall with me figured out what was going on and started pounding on the door, which was locked, to get someone to open it.

I don’t know how long it took to get the door open, and I don’t recall how long it seemed like it took. I don’t even recall the pain being that great. (That would come later.) But when the door opened, I saw two things: a godawful amount of blood running down the door frame to puddle on the floor, and a single, entire white fingernail sticking to some of the blood.

I don’t remember who took me upstairs to the office. I don’t remember who called my mom. But she took me to the ER, and eventually, a surgeon arrived. He put tight rubber bands around the bases of all three fingers, then injected them all with anesthetic (Novocaine, I think). And then, once the fingers were good and insensate,  he threaded a needle with black silk and set about stitching together the bleeding ends of the first three fingers on my left hand. Somewhere in all this, I remember a nurse remarking to a colleague on my getup, but I don’t recall now what she said.

Because the hand wasn’t hurting at all at that point (thanks, Novocaine!), I looked at him and observed three things. He appeared to be in his early 50s. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. And he  had what appeared to be dried blood on his scrubs.

“Long day?” I asked.

“Well, before you, I had to take out a man’s stomach,” he said.

That was kind of a conversation-killer.

When the stitching was done, he dressed each finger, then wrapped the three of them together with gauze, then wrapped the gauze around my hand and wrist, thus instantly rendering me capable of flipping the world’s biggest bird. Then he x-rayed me. Sure enough, all three fingers were broken, but there was nothing more that he could do for them, so that was that. He gave me (well, Mom) a prescription for painkillers, told me to keep it the hand dry, scheduled a time for me to come to his office for a checkup and rebandaging, and sent us on our way.

Lex19740404-cropped

Despite all that had happened, there were still a couple of hours before the sock hop started. I told Mom I wanted to go. She was dubious but said I could. And I did, and in my ninth-grade yearbook (the incident happened too late to make deadline for the eight-grade yearbook) there’s a picture of me at the sock hop with the bandaging on my left hand and my DA and my badass leather jacket. (I’m on the right. My friend Mark Asperheim is next to me.)

Toward the end of the sock hop, I didn’t feel so great. Later that night I was, to put it charitably, in a great deal of pain.

Recovery took weeks. And as bad as the pain from the injury was, it was nothing compared to the bandage change. They took the original dressings off my stitched, swollen, sensitive, nail-less fingers. The dressings, of course, were stuck on to the exposed nail beds with dried blood, and bathe those things in hydrogen peroxide as the doctor might, he could not get them off easily, gently, or painlessly.

I wasn’t just crying. I wasn’t just screaming. It hurt so badly that I literally wanted to die. If you had offered to shoot me at that moment, I would have taken you up on it without a moment’s hesitation if not snatched the weapon from your hand and pulled the trigger myself. Of that I had no doubt then and have no doubt now. And I also have no doubt that neither before nor since, in spite of numerous illnesses and injuries, have I ever wanted to die simply because of the pain the way I wanted to die in those few minutes in the doctor’s office. I’ve been sick a couple of times where I thought I was going to die, sure. But this was on a whole ‘nother level. If I hadn’t hit the bathroom just before coming into the doctor’s office, I’m sure I’d’ve soiled myself. Memo: It’s bad form to die with full pants.

At the time, I was teaching myself guitar. I wasn’t going to be quitting my day job anytime soon, but I actually was getting sorta kinda good. Even after I recovered fully from the injury and my nails grew back (two out of three look normal; my ring-finger nail has a squared-off shape to it), my fingers didn’t have the flexibility they had had before. And they never would again. I was gonna be a power-chorder from there on out.

And so it came to pass, until I gave up the guitar for good around age 27 or so. I played at my next-door neighbor’s turkey fry last Thanksgiving Eve, and I sounded awful, but everyone else was drunk and/or tolerant, so no one said anything unkind.

So what’s the larger lesson here? I honestly don’t know. But I have thought about this event every year since it happened. I don’t have nightmares about it, let alone anything like PTSD, but I remember. That said, I’m under no illusion that the accident ended a budding music career.

But I did learn that there are things worse than death, or things that at least seem so.

And I have learned not to grip doorframes for support when leaning.

And I have learned that I don’t look bad in a leather jacket.

Thursday, April 3, 2014 7:21 pm

The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon ruling: Of the money, by the money, for the money.

In a sane country, the Supreme Court would recognize that the right of the people to a government free of undue influence by a tiny minority of the wealthy elite dramatically outweighs the right of one person to spend as much as he damn well pleases supporting political candidates, particularly when the spending creates at least the appearance, and almost definitely the certainty, of corruption: corruption in which the donor’s interest outweighs the public’s and the candidate, once elected, votes accordingly.

But we do not live in a sane country.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the Citizens United ruling, 2010: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” 

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the McCutcheon ruling, just this week: “The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.

To both gentlemen: Are you farking blind?

Of course independent expenditures give rise to the appearance of corruption — and to the real thing. Of course aggregate limits would make it harder for apparent or actual corruption to occur. If it ain’t the money that’s causing it, gentlemen, then, pray tell, what is?

You morons have just declared as a matter of both fact and law that water is dry, that the sky is chartreuse with emerald-polka dots, and that the country and the public interest are but offal to be fed to the nation’s honeybadgers. Because honeybadgers don’t … well, you know:

UPDATE: Actually, this metaphor might do a disservice to honeybadgers, which at least do useful things like killing and eating cobras. I thought about substituting jackals, but then, generally, they only eat the dead, while our nation’s sociopath elite are at least metaphorically feasting upon the living as we speak. I don’t know what the appropriate animal would be for this metaphor, but I know what it does: It feeds on the living, particularly the poor, brown, female, and otherwise vulnerable, and it pees fracking chemicals and defecates coal ash.

Life and death, post-9/11, and why it matters if you live in North Carolina

In March, for the first time in 11 years, no U.S. service members died in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

That’s good. Hell, that’s GREAT.

But it doesn’t mean our problems are over:

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

To commemorate them and raise awareness, 32 veterans from the group flew to Washington, D.C., to plant 1,892 flags on the National Mall today, one for each of the veterans that the group says took his or her own life in 2014. IAVA extrapolated that number from a 2012 Veterans Administration report finding that 22 veterans took their lives each day in 2009 and 2010, only a slight increase from years past, and a number that includes all veterans, not just those who served in America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The event was part of IAVA’s 2014 Storm the Hill campaign, an annual week of action in which organization vets meet with lawmakers to push a veterans’ agenda picked for that year. In 2013, it was the Veterans Affairs benefits-claim backlog; this year, it’s veteran suicides.

“I know several individuals that have died by suicide,” Sara Poquette of Dallas, a video journalist who served in Iraq, said, adding that she herself considered suicide while experiencing the hardships of reintegrating into civilian life. “For me personally, it was more just getting through until I was really ready to get help, just realizing that my life was going down a path that I never really wanted it to go down.”

In Joining IAVA, Poquette said, she found a “new unit.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing a bill, the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., plans to introduce. Walsh commanded a Montana National Guard battalion in Iraq.

“When we returned home, one of my young sergeants died by suicide, so this is very personal to me,” Walsh told reporters on the Mall today, calling veteran suicides “an epidemic we cannot allow to continue.”

The bill would extend eligibility for Veterans Administration health care, create a pilot program for student-loan repayment if health care professionals work for the VA, instigate a review of certain behavioral discharges, and mandate a review of mental health care programs at the VA, IAVA said.

The group is calling on Congress to pass the bill by Memorial Day.

OK, so the numbers are extrapolations, not exact counts. But even if they’re off a good bit, they’re still intolerably high. God bless Sen. John Walsh for planning to introduce this bill.

But you know who else could do something about veterans’ suicides and other problems, particularly with disability payments, that veterans are experiencing and have been for years?

That would be the ranking minority member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

That would be the guy from Winston-Salem, home of the VA regional office with one of the nation’s worst backlog of disability claims cases and a record of illegally destroying claim files.

That would be my senior senator, Richard Burr.

How ’bout it, Senator? Time to saddle up, ya think?

Phil Berger and Thom Tillis think they’ve found themselves some voter fraud. Fine. Let’s see if they’re right.

Fred sent me this link (thank you, sir), which purports to claim “widespread” voter fraud in North Carolina during the 2012 general election. That link in turn links to a news release issued jointly on Wednesday by Phil Berger, the state Senate GOP leader and father of one of the Republicans trying to succeed Howard Coble in the 6th Congressional District race, and Thom Tillis, the state House speaker and one of the Republicans seeking Kay Hagan’s U.S. Senate seat this year. They write:

[We have learned of] more alarming evidence of voter error and fraud discovered by the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Initial findings from the Board presented to the Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee today show:

  • 765 voters with an exact match of first and last name, DOB and last four digits of SSN were registered in N.C. and another state and voted in N.C. and the other state in the 2012 general election.
  • 35,750 voters with the same first and last name and DOB were registered in N.C. and another state and voted in both states in the 2012 general election.
  • 155,692 voters with the same first and last name, DOB and last four digits of SSN were registered in N.C. and another state – and the latest date of registration or voter activity did not take place within N.C.

These findings only take into account data from the 28 states who participated in the 2014 Interstate Crosscheck, leaving out potential voter error and fraud in the 22 states that do not participate in the consortium.

My first reaction, which I admit is kind of geeky and inside-baseballish, is: Show your work, guys. Post the board’s findings online even if it’s in hard-to-search .pdf format. (As of now, the State Board of Elections itself hasn’t done it.) Otherwise, you’re asking me to trust a couple of demonstrably untrustworthy pols, although I’m gonna  set that point aside and examine this argument as if it were being made by someone with no obvious political interest one way or the other.

That said, the massive gap between the number reported in point 1 (with SocSec numbers) and the number reported in point 2 (no SSNs) leaves an awful lot of room for speculation and even more for  mismatched records. Cops have access to info that I didn’t have as a reporter, but when I was doing investigative stuff, particularly on people with very common names, I always tried to get an SSN. That’s the gold standard of unique identifiers.

All point 3 says — allowing for the elision between being registered and casting a ballot, which is actually enormous; I wonder why? — is, “and the latest date of registration or voter activity did not take place within N.C.” That’s a big-ass loophole, considering that “voter activity” can be as simple as changing a phone number and that N.C. counties, last I checked (which I admit was years ago),  purge their voters rolls typically only once every four years — immediately after a presidential election.

But, OK, let’s put this in the light most favorable to the authors: Even with all my caveats, no fewer than 765 voters appear to have voted in both N.C. and another state in the 2012 general election, per elections data. Voter fraud is a felony, and if that report is true, all 765 should go to prison. I’d be happy to be the person to slam the door on ‘em.

Problem is, it won’t be true, because — and this is a national shame and embarrassment, but a topic for another time — voter-registration data is some of the dirtiest mass public info out there. (The reason is that it attempts to gather a large amount of basic information about a lot of people, and in a society as dynamic and mobile as ours, that pool of data is changing in small but measurable ways thousands of times a day, on average.) Now, our friends Berger and Tillis claim to have attempted to “clean up” voter rolls, but they have done so in ways that give advantages to likely Republican voters while creating barriers for the young, the very old, racial and ethnic minorities, women, convicted felons and other likely Democratic voters. But that’s also an issue for another day, as is the Republicans’ reluctance to look into voter fraud in absentee balloting, where most of the real voter fraud takes place, because absentee voters are more likely to vote Republican.)

But don’t take my word for it that the 765 alleged cases aren’t real. Examining 765 records, one at a time, to determine whether or not the registrant committed a crime would take a while, but not that long. So I encourage — nay, challenge — the State Board of Elections to refer the case to the SBI and get it done. And assuming that happens, I think you’re going to find that many, and probably most, of those 765 are paperwork errors of some kind. A person was recorded as having voted in one state or the other — or at all — when he/she in fact did not vote. Whatever. Because that’s what almost always happens. Because the data is always that dirty.

That’s what I think will happen. I might be wrong, but I doubt it.

Pro-voter ID types hop on preliminary numbers like this because they look like proof of serious undermining of the very bedrock of democracy, the vote. Unfortunately, when it gets down to proving actual voter fraud, those numbers fold like a cheap card table into something a lot less impressive, interesting or dangerous, thereby undermining their rationale for voter ID as well as their rationale for other limits on voting rights alluded to above.

The bottom line here is that 765 cases is a manageable number to check into. So let’s check. Let’s have the State Board of Elections turn these cases over to the SBI for investigation. Let’s see what we learn. I’m eager to find out.

Heck, I might even be more eager than Phil Berger and Thom Tillis.

UPDATE, 4/3: Commenter George Barnett below wisely adds, “Keep in mind too that even if this does turn out to be true voter IDs would not have prevented it.” No, they wouldn’t have.

Sunday, March 30, 2014 9:59 pm

Lighten up

The recently returned Ed Cone on transparency in the city of Greensboro’s dealings with nonprofits it funds:

I don’t understand the arguments against [City Council member] Tony Wilkins’ request for more transparency into executive compensation at non-profits that receive money from the City. I know the City already gets reports on total salaries for these organizations, and that it’s easy enough to access individual salary info that’s already public via IRS form 990. I just don’t see how those facts make the request for further data unreasonable.

Other than “because they can,” I’ve never understood why government agencies and tax-exempt organizations don’t behave completely transparently rather than just, at best, complying with the letter of the law.

Pro tip, guys: You’re in positions of public trust, which you get to receive only as long as you earn it. And you earn it through transparency, full stop. Some people seeking that transparency might be obnoxious, but that doesn’t make this point a whit less valid.

Saturday, March 29, 2014 7:25 pm

Something that should bother us all

Filed under: Sad — Lex @ 7:25 pm
Tags: , ,

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s quite possible that the Boston Marathon bombing wouldn’t have happened if local police there had investigated a previous triple homicide a little more diligently.

Friday, March 28, 2014 8:57 pm

If only there were a solution; or, Why Pat McCrory and Art Pope need to be horsewhipped

From today’s News & Record print and e-edition (but apparently not from the website, so probably paywalled):

Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday asked for more belt-tightening within state government as a pre-emptive move to protect the state from a Medicaid shortfall and a fuzzy revenue picture.

In a memorandum to state agencies and their leaders, McCrory said that while the state’s fiscal picture is much improved compared with “a year ago, “the state still needs to exercise restraint for the remainder of the fiscal year,” ending June 30. He wrote a similar directive in March 2013.

McCrory’s state budget office projected this week that Medicaid expenditures could be up to $140 million above the amount the General Assembly authorized.

First of all, “McCrory’s state budget office” is budget director Art Pope, the real governor. McCrory’s just the cabin boy.

Second, so the state might need to spend $140 million above what’s been authorized. Gee. Whocouldaknowed? And if only there some way the state could do something about that without eliminating raises for hard-working state employees, who have seen damn little in the way of raises since the Crash of ’08. There ought to be something we could do, y’know. Hmm. What could it be? And why didn’t the AP and/or the News & Record point that out?

But we continue:

While revenue projections are largely on track to cover this year’s budget, “there is revenue uncertainty for the remainder” of the year, McCrory wrote.

Stop right there, bubba. Both of those things cannot be true simultaneously. McCrory, by whom I mean Pope, is just flat-out lying here and hoping no one will notice. Certainly the AP and the News & Record didn’t.

He also ordered his Cabinet-level agencies to discontinue most salary increases, limit purchases, reduce travel expenditures and reconsider contract work.

Translation: Basically, we’re not just going to screw up Medicaid, we’re going to screw up every other agency, too.

Jesus wept. What they’re doing (and refusing to do that could help) is bad enough. And the news media are giving them a free pass on top of that.

Dear Merciful God, I’ve had a pretty good life, all in all, and so I haven’t asked you for much. And much of what I have asked for, you’ve delivered. But even though you did my family and me quite a solid just today, I’m asking this: Please let Roy Cooper, or some other competent Democrat, run against McCrory in 2016 and whip him like a rented mule. I mean, whip him so badly he needs skin grafts to close all the bloody welts on his ass.

Now, Lord, I grant that’s pretty harsh. But your own son took a brutal flogging en route to saving humankind. Meanwhile, thousands of North Carolinians are doing without health insurance, and thus health care, who wouldn’t have to except that Pat McCrory and Art Pople hate the non-white guy in the White House. And a nontrivial number of those North Carolinians, research shows, are likely to die prematurely because McCrory and Pope are petty, racist sociopaths. So I figured that taking a beating like that wouldn’t fix the damage McCrory will do between now and January 2017. But it might make a lot of suffering people feel a little better and prevent a boatload more suffering in the future.

So if it wouldn’t be too much trouble …

Amen.

Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:53 pm

Thought for the day, rugged-individualism edition …

… from Helaine Olen at Reuters:

To presume home-buyers put into predatory loans by mortgage brokers working for outfits like Countrywide Financial could have stopped the housing market implosion if they knew a bit more about balancing their checkbook is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking a high school class in money management could help someone two decades later decipher a 100-page, single-spaced mortgage origination document loaded with “gotcha” clauses.

But our self-help culture doesn’t allow us to admit we might not be able to overcome greater economic woes on our own. In fact, it often makes our individual situations worse when things don’t work out.

Thomas Scheff, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently published a paper in the journalCultural Sociology claiming that in highly individualistic cultures like the United States, where people are encouraged to “go it alone,” shame is the price we pay for not achieving success.

Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.

This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.

According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.

True, self-help advice is not always fully useless. Saving money, for starters, is certainly more likely to lead to a prosperous life than not putting anything aside at all. Yet all too often, knowledge and individual action are not enough.

Self-help causes us to take the political and economic problem of increasing income inequality and make it personal. That’s both morally wrong and financially ineffective.

That we fall for it only makes it worse.

I would add that the fact that we fall for it is no surprise when you watch how much and how deeply American media of all political stripes (or none at all — movies produced purely for entertainment, for example, often include this theme) drill this message home. As we are bombarded by and marinated in those messages, the notion that many if not most great things we’ve accomplished could only have been accomplished by teams, groups, companies, communities, or the states or the federal government becomes the dog that didn’t bark: We’re so used to, and have so absorbed, this self-reliance tenet that we fail to note its all-too-frequent systemic failures.

We’re all in this together, folks. And before we can act like it, we — or most of us, anyway — have to think like it.

(h/t: Fec)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 8:17 pm

There is a club. You and I are not in it.

Filed under: Evil,Hold! Them! Accountable!,I want my money back. — Lex @ 8:17 pm

So, Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon has been arrested and indicted on corruption charges, including theft and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, honest services wire fraud and extortion under color of official right. For selling his office — before becoming mayor, Cannon had been mayor pro tem and a City Council member — received a total of $68,000 in cash, plus airline tickets, a hotel room, and use of a luxury apartment.

The three charges, which came after a 3 1/2-year undercover sting operation in which FBI agents posed as real-estate developers and allegedly bribed Cannon to use his office to do them favors, carry a combined maximum of 50 years in prison. Assuming Cannon is guilty on all counts, he still won’t do anything like 50, but he’ll do quite a number of years. And it won’t be in Alcatraz, but it won’t be in Club Fed, either. He also could be fined up to $1.5 million, which, for him, is years’ and years’ worth of income.

Meanwhile, retired Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and the bank itself settled a civil lawsuit today with the New York attorney general’s office that had alleged securities fraud. Specifically, Lewis and the bank were accused of deceiving BoA stockholders about what crappy shape Merrill Lynch was in when the bank asked stockholders to approve a takeover of Merrill in December 2008. This transaction played a nontrivial role in blowing up the economy, although that demolition was well under way when the sale closed on Jan. 1, 2009.

Neither Lewis nor the bank is required by the settlement to admit any wrongdoing. The bank will have to pay $15 million. Lewis himself will have to pay $10 million, although that’s the equivalent of zero days’ worth of income for him because the bank will pay it for him. Given the bank’s net earnings of $4.2 billion in 2012 (the 2013 annual report is due out any day), those fines amount to about two days’ profits, give or take. That’ll certainly warn all the other banks not to screw their shareholders, I think.

Oh, and Lewis is personally barred for three years from serving as an officer or director for any publicly traded company. Which is really going to cramp his style because he’s, you know, retired.

So:

  • Criminal charges vs. civil.
  • Prison and a significant fine vs. no prison and a trivial fine.
  • A guilty verdict or guilty plea vs. no admission of guilt.
  • Prison (again) vs. an order not to do something he probably wasn’t going to do anyway.

What have we learned from this experience?

We’ve got one set of rules for banksters, and another set for everybody else, including mayors of major cities, you, and me.

There is a club. You and I are not in it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014 9:09 pm

America, land of free markets. … Oh. Wait.

It would appear that up to several dozen tech companies have been conspiring to artificially suppress wages for their employees. In other words, they’ve been stealing from their employees, although because they used email instead of a knife or gun no one will go to prison. At first it was just Apple, Google and Intel that we knew of; now, well …:

Confidential internal Google and Apple memos, buried within piles of court dockets and reviewed by PandoDaily, clearly show that what began as a secret cartel agreement between Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt to illegally fix the labor market for hi-tech workers, expanded within a few years to include companies ranging from Dell, IBM, eBay and Microsoft, to Comcast, Clear Channel, Dreamworks, and London-based public relations behemoth WPP. All told, the combined workforces of the companies involved totals well over a million employees.

At the link you can also find embedded court documents bearing out the claims.

This is money that went to a very few officers and directors at these companies. It is money that was taken from hard-working employees and will never be returned. And do not kid yourself that tech is the only sector in which this is happening. One reason the government has been so easygoing on monopolies and near-monopolies the past 30 years is that they make this kind of thing easier. In other words, if you’re a CEO, this is a delightfully profitable feature, not a bug.

Worse, this conspiracy to suppress wages likely is going on in every major sector of American private industry. I can’t prove it, but I’m certain of it right now, because if there’s one thing I learned from investigative reporting, it’s that corrupt organizations are almost never just a little bit corrupt. Indeed, I would not be surprised to find that this phenomenon, along with daisy chains of CEOs sitting on each other’s board compensation committees, is a significant driver behind the fact that the overwhelming majority of profits from productivity gains are going to the top 1 or 2 percent of earners in the work force.

The CEOs involved knew that what they were doing was wrong, that it involved the permanent, unlawful taking of the property of others. They should be doing at least as much time as your run-of-the-mill bank robber, in facilities no more luxurious. But they won’t. And that’s why we can’t have nice things.

Friday, March 21, 2014 11:16 pm

An educator unworthy of the name

Long story short, a high-school publication in Fond du Lac, Wisc., is, in the words of regular contributor Doc at First-Draft.com, “being punished for pointing out that RAPE IS REAL and it SUCKS WHEN IT HAPPENS TO HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.” And, more specifically, that at Fond du Lac High School, lots of people make jokes about rape, which REALLY sucks for those students who have been, you know, raped.

The school system is imposing a sweeping prior restraint on student publications because a student magazine dared to make an issue of this. Here’s the issue in question; the story at issue begins on page 11. Read the article — indeed, read the whole issue, or at least skim it to get a feel for the kind of publication it is trying to be — and then judge for yourself who’s being responsible here and who is not.

Doc, who works with student journalists in some capacity elsewhere in that region, and his First Draft companions who are scattered around the country, are keeping the heat on, with subsequent posts here, here, and here.

I weighed in with my own missive to the school system’s superintendent, Dr. James Sebert:

Dear Dr. Sebert:

I write as a lifelong red-state Republican, the father of a high-school daughter about to turn 16 — and a former journalist who won a lot of awards for publishing unpleasant truths. And I have one very simple question for you:

What in the pluperfect hell do you think you’re doing?

It is not your job to ensure an environment full of nothing but rainbow-colored unicorns. It is not your job to try to shield students from life’s unpleasant realities because they might somehow interfere with the educational process.

In fact, the very idea that you could is laughable. By the time they cross Fond du Lac’s thresholds for the first time, nontrivial numbers of students at the high school will already have endured more unpleasantness than most U.S. adults could possibly imagine, including but not limited to starvation, bullying and other physical abuse (including from family members), sexual abuse and incest, date rape, stranger rape, psychological abuse, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and pretty much anything short of a mass murder. Are you seriously arguing that those aren’t already interfering with the educational process? And if not, then why don’t you want to talk about them? Certainly we won’t stop them from interfering with the educational process until we do talk about them.

Are you seriously arguing that students shouldn’t talk about these issues, issues that are a real, and damaging, part of their lives, issues that are harming and will continue to harm their educational processes whether Cardinal Columns discusses them or not? Because if you are, you forfeit all moral claim to the title of “educator.”

It’s that simple. Sure, a misbegotten Supreme Court ruling might give you the right to censor student publications. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, this is basically the same Supreme Court that more recently has stated as a fact that campaign finance does not cause corruption, which is on an intellectual par with the high court’s declaring that the sky is chartreuse with purple polka-dots. Second, having the right to do something is not the same thing as saying you must, you should, or that it might not be a bad idea.

Anyone who seriously considers himself an educator and engages in prepublication review ought to presume news items publishable unless they are proven otherwise, and ought to require no more than the minimum change necessary to make unpublishable items publishable. Topics in general shouldn’t be reviewed at all because high-schoolers are high-schoolers: They’re going to write about what’s important to them, whether or not you like it and maybe even because you don’t. What should you do about that? Nothing. Let. It. Go.

I reviewed the article in question and found it not perfect, but excellent for high school journalism, with due consideration obviously given to the journalistic imperatives to report the truth while minimizing harm. And if you want to argue that the article was not necessary, you need only consider the results of the accompanying poll, which is about as rigorous as polls of students at a single high school can get. Rape jokes are everywhere at Fond du Lac High — and so are the rape victims who have to listen to them and are degraded by them. As an educator, you ought to find THAT intolerable, not a piece of journalism about it.

You’ve still got a chance to make this a teachable moment — for yourself, the school system, the high-school faculty and administrators, and the students. If you’re truly an educator, then that’s what you’ll do. If you need to consult outside experts — rape-crisis experts, clinical mental-health counselors, whatever — for context and advice, swallow your pride and do it.

The kids at Fond du Lac High deserve better. So do their parents. So does their community, whose taxes pay your salary. How you handle this situation going forward can make a nontrivial number of students’ lives easier than they are now — and, oh, by the way, improve the educational process. So get going.

Sincerely,

Lex

Obviously, I don’t expect either a response or a change of heart. But this sorry excuse for an educator is now all over the Internetz as a stick-up-his-butt censor, which may well give pause one day to any larger school system that might consider hiring him. And I think it’s important for reporter/editor Tanvi Kumar and her fellow student journalists, who performed admirably not only in their original journalism but also in how they have handled themselves so far in the resulting dispute, to know that there are people out here watching them with pride and admiration.

I’m sharing the story of these kids with my own high-school-age daughter. I want her to know that the adults in her life (other than me, of course) are fallible, and that this is what one very important kind of fallibility looks like. But I also want her to understand the merits of what these student journalists were trying to do, and why, and how well they went about it, and to learn from them as well — things like responsibility and curiosity and courage and judgment that to date have been utterly absent from the people running that high school and that school system.

I want her, in short, to learn very quickly at least as much as these Fond du Lac student journalists already know about how, when, and why you speak truth to power. Because everything I see in our society suggests to me that we need more of that, not less, and will need more for many years to come. I want her and her generation prepared, for one small and simple reason: The future of the country and the well-being of their fellow citizens depends on it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 8:35 pm

Today’s prayer of gratitude …

… courtesy of Esquire’s Charlie Pierce:

… thank you again, Anthony Kennedy, for telling us that “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption,” a statement that should rank with Roger Taney’s disquistion on the rights of black folk as the leading examples of what abject meatheads Supreme Court justices can be.

This is just one example of how, in Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United, the Supremes’ insistence that black is white and up is down keeps bumping up against inconvenient truths. Our government is thoroughly corrupted at the federal and state levels by corporate campaign contributions, a fact that might send Mr. Justice Kennedy to his fainting couch but is fact nonetheless. (And if you liked how that worked out, you’ll no doubt love how it works out at the county and municipal levels, too.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 8:27 pm

Was EVERYBODY to blame for the 2008 crash? Not just no, but, hell, no.

Dean Starkman at The New Republic, writing long and worth every word and minute:

With Wall Street’s demand for mortgages unending and some loan producers managing to book up to 70 loans per day, the system didn’t just crash. It was brought down.

But we’ve also been made to understand that subprime lenders and their Wall Street funders didn’t act alone. Instead, they were aided by the avarice of the American people, who were not victims of the crash so much as accomplices in it. Respondents to aRasmussen poll done during the throes of the crisis overwhelmingly blamed “individuals who borrowed more than they could afford” (54 percent) over Wall Street (25 percent). To this day, the view is widespread and bipartisan: Main Street was an essential cause of the meltdown. The enemy was us.

“It all goes back to the increase in the tolerance for debt,” David Brooks wrote a couple of years ago. …

One of so many instances in which Brooks has been flat wrong on the facts without professional consequence. But I digress.

Is that not the truth?

Actually: No, it’s not. The notion that American consumers share the blame for the mortgage crisis is a lie. And it is one of the most pernicious out there.

Everyone-Is-To-Blame (or EITB, for brevity’s sake) has done much to mute the public outcry essential for sweeping efforts to respond to the financial catastrophe. To the extent that Dodd-Frank fell short of the root-and-branch reform that followed the last great crash in 1929, EITB is to blame. The fact that banks too big to fail before the crisis have been allowed to grow to twice their pre-bubble sizes can be traced to a nagging sense that they didn’t act alone. And if you wonder why, six years after the fact, no significant Wall Street figure has been criminally prosecuted, I would suggest that EITB has muddied perceptions just enough to allow the administration to sidestep the necessary legal mobilization. If everyone is to blame, then criminal indictments of individual executives can be framed as exercises in scapegoating.

Everyone-is-to-blame did its worst damage to the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, an effort rolled out in the immediate aftermath of the crisis to reduce borrowers’ monthly payments through refinancing or principal write-downs. It was the mere idea of HAMP that set off Rick Santelli on his 2009 rant about “losers’ mortgages” and their “extra bathroom,” sparking the Tea Party revolt. The prospect of helping delinquent borrowers, while others paid theirs on time, unleashed a flood ofressentiment that filled the Congressional Record with denunciations of “irresponsible” actors who “lied” only to wind up in line for “gift equity,” and “tax-payer subsidized windfall.” Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the concept of “happy-go-lucky borrowers” and “cagey borrowers.” Jim Bunning, then Kentucky’s junior senator, felt compelled to warn against helping homeowners “who made bad decisions.” The outpouring tapped into a sentiment powerful enough to silence even some liberals and turned hamp into a political disaster for the Obama administration. Left adrift, the program went from a potential lifeline for borrowers to a fee-machine for servicers and a Kafkaesque nightmare for those it was supposed to help.

As an agent of obfuscation, EITB is a gift that keeps on giving. In October, The Washington Post’s editorial board objected to a $13 billion mortgage-era civil settlement with J.P. Morgan largely because it unfairly singled out the bank, when, in fact, “everyone, from Wall Street to Main Street to Washington, acted on widely held economic beliefs that turned out not to be true.” A forthcoming book by Bob Ivry, a Polk Award–winning investigative reporter for Bloomberg News (and, full disclosure, a friend), eloquently inveighs against big banks and their Washington lackeys, but also includes this assertion: “In the years leading up to the Great Bubble-Burst of 2008, everybody got a chance to cash in. … If you wanted to buy a place to live, you could get more house than you ever dreamed. You could use your rising home equity for the Disney vacation, the power boat, the fourth bedroom or the college education.” …

True. But that’s not the same thing as mortgage fraud, which, though not trivial, was an incredibly small part of the total problem:

In 2010, an FBI report drawing on figures from the consultancy Corelogic put total fraudulent mortgages during the peak boom year of 2006 at more than $25 billion. Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously not nothing. But here again, teasing those mortgages out of that year’s crisis-related write-downs of $2.7 trillion from U.S.-originated assets leaves our infamous “cagey” borrowers to blame for only a tiny share of the damage, especially since not all of the fraudulent mortgages were their fault. The ratio looks roughly something like this:

Yes, some of our cab drivers, shoeshine boys, and other fellow citizens tricked a lender into helping them take a flyer on the housing market. But the combined share of the blame for bad mortgages that can be placed on the public sits—and I’m really rounding up here—in the high single digits, and not the much larger, fuzzier numbers in our heads.

The fact is that defrauding a bank that actually cares about the quality of a loan is actually rather difficult, no matter how aggressive or deceitful the borrower. Lenders, on the other hand, can lie with relative ease about all sorts of things, and mountains of evidence show they did so on a widespread basis. For starters, it’s lenders who establish the loan-to-value ratio for a property: how much money the buyer is borrowing versus the house’s estimated worth. Banks didn’t used to let you take out a mortgage too close to the home’s total cost. But play with those numbers and, voilà, a rejected loan application turns into an accepted one. Leading up to the crash, some banks’ representations about loan-to-value ratios were off by as much as 40 percentage points.

Then there was the apparent rampant corruption of appraisals, which also have nothing whatsoever to do with borrowers. Before the bubble popped, appraisers’ groups collected 11,000 signatures on a petition decrying pressure by banks to arrive at “dishonest” or inflated valuations.

And that’s to say nothing of lenders misleading borrowers directly—a practice that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the Levin-Coburn report, and lawsuits by attorneys general around the country have all found was very much systemic. Mortgage brokers forged borrowers’ signatures and altered documents; Ameriquest (those guys again!) had its own “art department,” as it was known internally, for precisely that function. Oh, and remember those 137,000 instances of “suspicious activity” about possible borrower misdeeds? For the sake of perspective, Citigroup settled a Federal Trade Commission case alleging sales deception that involved two million clients in a single year. That’s what we call wholesale, and it was happening before the mortgage era even really got started.

Today, there’s a big and growing body of documentation about what happened as the financial system became incentivized to sell as many loans as possible on the most burdensome possible terms: Millions—and millions—of borrowers were sold subprime despite qualifying for better.

Perhaps the most astonishing and unappreciated finding comes from The Wall Street Journal, which back in December 2007 published a study of more than $2.5 trillion in subprime loans dating to 2000 (that is to say, most of the subprime loans of the era). The story, by my former colleagues Rick Brooks* and Ruth Simon, painted the picture of a world gone upside-down: During the worst years of the frenzy, more than half the subprime loans issued went to borrowers who had credit scores “high enough to often qualify for conventional loans with far better terms.” In 2006, the figure hit 61 percent. Along with its article, the Journal illustrated the alarming trend line with a version of the following graphic:

It goes without saying that no one would voluntarily eschew a prime loan for subprime—subprime is called that for a reason, carrying higher, often escalating rates; pre-payment penalties that “shut the backdoor” by precluding refinancing; and other burdens tacked on for good measure. The Journal concluded that its analysis “raises pointed questions about the practices of major mortgage lenders.” That’s putting it mildly!

He goes on to suggest some reasons why Everybody Is To Blame is such a popular world view. But what he keeps coming back to, what we must keep coming back to, is that it is wrong. If you actually look at the numbers — you know, like bankers are supposed to do — you consistently find that the overwhelming majority of the financial damage was caused by the banks, often through unethical and sometimes even illegal means.

Even so, today, we refuse to punish those responsible. If there’s Blame to be laid at the feet of Everybody, this is it. Charlie Pierce is fond of saying that for all Occupy Wall Street’s many foibles, gaffes and mistakes, it at least got people shouting at the right buildings — i.e., corporations rather than government, and the big banks in particular. Unfortunately, some of the country’s top journalists and pundits still get it wrong, and they and the lawmakers on the take form a daisy chain that keeps anything substantive from happening, not only to punish those who were responsible last time but also to do what it takes keep something like this from happening again.

It’s not Everybody’s fault. Everybody is NOT to Blame. The banks and their executives and boards are to blame. And part of citizenship in a constitutional republic is to hold them to account.

*Disclosure: Rick Brooks worked with me at the N&R in the early 1990s.

Monday, March 10, 2014 9:34 pm

Hey, conservatives: Here’s where personal responsibility meets gun ownership

Richard Mayhew, Balloon Juice’s resident health-insurance guru, on firearm safety:

When I learned how to shoot, I was taught the following three things:

  • Only point a weapon at something or someone that you intend to kill
  • Always assume a weapon is loaded, and the safety is off.
  • You are always responsible for your weapon until the weapon is in the armory’s gun safe.

Can we incorporate these basic assumptions into civil law where the assumption is that any discharge (intentional or accidental) is the responsibility of the owner of the weapon and therefore the owner is liable for whatever damage a bullet fired from his weapon causes.  Liability would follow even stolen weapons if reasonable efforts to secure the weapon were not made. …

There have been attempts to regulate firearms as a consumer protection issue, but the NRA is too strong.  This proposal moves responsibility down the chain to the individual owner instead of the manufacturer.

Which is exactly where it should be. Hello, personal responsibility.

The rational response of creating the assumption that the weapon owner is liable absent extraordinary circumstances instead of the current assumption that [expletive] happens is for responsible owners to buy insurance to cover their liability.  Speaking as an insurance company bureaucrat, I would assume insurance companies would offer good rates to individuals who own longarms instead of handguns, who have a gun safe, who have trigger locks, who have gone to safety classes and who have otherwise demonstrated that they actually are reasonably likely to be safe.

Individuals who think “tactical” masturbatory fantasies are reality and believe that everyone should have a loaded pistol in their unlocked night stand even if they have two pre-kindergarteners in the house would probably be rated as high risk for negligent discharge.  Individuals who have more weapons than fingers would probably be rated as risky.  Individuals who have a history of accidental discharge would be rated as risky.

I’m not a fan of using liberterianish policy making as a first best choice, but my political judgement is that this type of regulation is the only viable away forward right now.  And going back to my health policy wonkery, reducing gun woundings means lower trauma costs, and lower recovery costs to cover.

I’m sure the NRA as an organization would fight this tooth and nail, of course. But I think it would be instructive to see the number of “personal responsibility” conservatives and libertarians and the number of so-called responsible gun owners who would fight it as well. I’d be delighted to be proved badly wrong on this, but I suspect that well more than half of American gun owners, if polled, would oppose this measure even if the reasons and benefits were explained carefully to them.

Because for way too many American gun owners, it’s not about rights and responsibilities, it’s about I want what I want and [expletive] you. I saw that attitude over and over and over again while covering cops (not from cops, but from many of the people with whom they interacted), and that’s why I say this: Whatever else it is, the American gun-owning public is in no way, shape or form a well-regulated militia.

Saturday, March 8, 2014 8:00 am

International Women’s Day: Our Mother’s Voice

My Aunt Carol, married to my mother’s older brother Pete, is a remarkable woman who had led a singular and sometimes even dangerous life. Now, she suffers from dementia. My cousin Kathy has written a piece that is a tribute to her mom, a retelling of the story of how her mom inspired the formation of the nonprofit Our Mother’s Voice, and a call to carry on the work that Aunt Carol, Kathy, and many other inspiring women have carried out in lives of service to an often deeply ungrateful society. Today, International Women’s Day, the least I can do is recommend that you read Kathy’s story of Aunt Carol. Hie thee hence.

Thursday, March 6, 2014 7:57 pm

The effort to help the poor that even the GOP could love, once, is now in their sights

Tim Noah:

President Obama’s new budget increases spending on and expands eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the largest and most successful government assistance program for the working poor.

The much-praised House GOP tax reform introduced last week would cut the EITC, even though a House GOP report excoriating most federal assistance to the poor singled out the program for applause.

This new partisan difference over the EITC – a program that in the past has been a rare source of bipartisan agreement – speaks volumes about Republicans’ newfound ambivalence toward the working poor.

The EITC was created back in 1975 by Sen. Russell Long, who–despite being the son of populist Louisiana Gov. Huey “Every Man A King” Long – was fairly conservative. The idea was to use government assistance to reward work rather than indolence among the poor; you only got the money if you could show that you had worked.

This conceit had obvious appeal to President Ronald Reagan, who expanded the program, and later to President Bill Clinton, who expanded it much further even as he eliminated “welfare as we know it,” i.e., long-term, no-strings cash assistance to the poor. (The EITC was further expanded under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)

Welfare reform should have ended the partisan scrimmage over welfare dependency. Instead, it merely shifted the goalposts. Previously, the GOP had praised the “deserving” (i.e., working) poor even as it derided the “dependent” (i.e., welfare-collecting) poor. But with Clinton’s abolition of long-term assistance and imposition of work requirements, it became more difficult to isolate a class of nonworking, government-dependent poor that Republicans could reliably scapegoat. So they gradually came to rebrand as “dependent” any low-income person who collected government assistance, even if that person also had a job. In effect, conservatives broadened their definition of “welfare” to the breaking point, including food stamps (most of which go to people with jobs), Medicaid (a benefit you collect only if you get sick), and even Pell Grants.

I don’t think the Republicans are “ambivalent” toward the working poor. I think they actively want to kick them harder. They may say otherwise, but by their works ye may know them. North Carolina already has killed its own version of the EITC because our legislature is controlled by sociopaths.

UPDATE, 9:37 p.m.: Forgot the link. It’s there now.

How many bullets would it take to plunge America into the dark?

Not all that many, unfortunately:

It turns out the United States—which has the largest and most complex electric power network in the world, and which is completely and utterly dependent upon electricity for its daily survival—does not have the capability of manufacturing the single most crucial component of its electrical grid: the TRANSFORMER. To be exact, we can make little transformers, but the really big ones that are necessary to push electric current across long distances (which our electric grid is totally dependent on) are somehow beyond our ken. Or, to be more accurate, the 1% have no interest in building the plants and hiring and training the workers to manufacture the very large-size transformers.

They (the 1%) apparently reason that they don’t need to go to that trouble because in our globalized economy there’s somebody else who can build the really big transformers. It turns out that somebody is South Korea. So when, recently, Pennsylvania badly needed a new very-large transformer they placed an order with the Koreans, who promptly began building it. Two years later, the 400,000 pound item was put on a ship and transported for 26 days at sea to the port of Newark, New Jersey, where it was loaded by crane onto a railcar bound for Pennsylvania. (“Heart of U.S. Grid Difficult to Replace”, W.S.J. March 4, 2014.)

This little tale is made even more interesting by the fact that these very-large transformers—usually situated inside a compound protected by chain-link fencing—are easily destroyed with a few rounds of fire from a semi-automatic assault rifle. Thankfully, semi-automatic assault rifles are difficult to come by in the U.S., otherwise there might be cause for concern. The seventeen transformers recently shot to death in California (we can’t explain how this actually happened, since the NRA is only marginally active on the West Coast) are a cautionary tale: If this were repeated on just a little bit larger scale, the Department of Homeland Security has determined, our entire electric grid could be down for months—or even longer. (Come on South Korea, hurry it up…. We’re waiting!)

This point is just an example from a larger article whose main point has less to do with electricity, per se, than with things that the government could do for the common good with or without the approval of the 1%.

But it caught my attention. Maybe because so much of Greensboro’s electrical infrastructure is above ground and vulnerable to the elements, as I’ve been reminded over and over again, in sticky heat, balmy autumn, and single-digit winter, during my 27 years here. Maybe because while Virginia tends to get snow in the winter and South Carolina gets rain, North Carolina frequently gets ice, which is most likely to bring down power lines. Maybe because I spent 22 of those years in a job in which staying home, or even working from home, during an ice storm simply wasn’t an option.

Or because, like almost every other American, I need reliable electrical service to live safely and work productively.

Risk Assessment 101 requires that you multiply two things: the likelihood that a particular bad thing could happen and the amount of damage/destruction that particular thing would cause if it did happen. For example, it’s almost certain that my cat will want to go outside tonight, even for just a little while, but unless maybe you’re a vole, the damage will be nil. High likelihood, extremely low risk.

On the flip side, based on a couple of centuries of weather observation and zilliabytes* of data, we know that the likelihood that a very-slow-moving Category 5 hurricane will rake North Carolina’s coast from South Carolina to Virginia is vanishingly small. But if it did happen, even with the early warnings we get today, dozens or hundreds of people would die and many more would be injured, thousands upon thousands of homes and businesses would be destroyed, countless numbers of livestock and family pets, as well as wildlife, would perish, and the coast, with its fisheries and tourist spots, often with manufacturing just inland, would be devastated for years. The impact on the federal budget would be non-negligible, and the impact on property insurers might well be unsurvivable for many.

Now, how likely is it that, say, 19 terrorists could arrange to use legally acquired semiautomatic weapons to shoot and disable a like number of very-large transformers in the U.S. simultaneously? Substantially more likely, I’d say, than the possibility that 19 terrorists could hijack four passenger jets and try to crash them into public buildings.

And what would the damage be like? Well, you don’t have to have read Stephen King to take a guess. Not only would most of our electrical infrastructure be offline, so would most of our communications infrastructure, which relies on electricity. Whole regions would go dark, right down to the switching systems that control the pipelines that deliver the natural gas that fires the generators that keep heart-lung machines and incubators working at individual hospitals. We’d have no immediate way of coordinating any sort of systematic response. And right now, fixing that would take months or years, during which time a lot of Americans would die, a lot of businesses would go bankrupt, the financial markets would be disrupted worldwide, and the transportation of essential goods by road or rail would dry up quickly as refined product couldn’t be pumped out of a gas pump, or from a refinery to a pipeline, or loaded from a terminal to a tanker truck, and so on. Shipments of perishable and nonperishable food, essential drugs and medicines, and many other needs would cease. Depending on the time of year, a large proportion of the U.S. population might face the very real threat of death from exposure/hypothermia.

As I write, it’s raining here, with the odd ice pellet thrown in. And the rain is beginning to freeze.

*made-up word

(h/t: Fec

Do you want N.C.’s economic recruiters spending your tax money at Yankee Stadium?

Because if the state GOP’s plans to make the state’s economic-development efforts a public-private “partnership,” we may well have that and other shenanigans to look forward to. It certainly didn’t work out well for the taxpayer in Florida:

CBS 12 News spent hours reviewing 20 months worth of spending at Enterprise Florida and uncovered thousands of dollars spent on sky boxes, steakhouses and at fancy hotels.

Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on credit cards. We weren’t provided the detail on what was purchased.

Our investigation found leaders at Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development machine, spent more than $21,000 at Yankee Stadium in New York.

They also paid a visit to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX where they dropped more than $7,100. The stadium tour also stopped off in Atlanta, GA for a cost of $4,400. …

Enterprise Florida is tasked with handing out tax dollars to recruit multi-national and global corporations to our area.

A CBS 12 News investigation last November found hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Enterprise Florida since its inception created less than half of the 200,000 jobs initially promised.

State data we reviewed also found millions of dollars in incentives handed over to companies who have employees that sit on the board of directors.

And it turns out, this public private partnership is more of a publicly funded partnership. …

Our review of the records found more than half-a-million dollars charged on American Express and thousands of dollars spent at steak houses, seafood restaurants and lavish hotels.

The “partnership” Gov. Pat McCrory wants is nothing more or less than a license to steal from the poor and the middle class. And I am confident that if our arrangement looks anything like Florida’s, we’ll get the same result Florida did.

(h/t: Billy)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 8:43 pm

Real courage, cont.

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 8:43 pm
Tags: , , , ,

UPDATE below.

On Monday night, Abby Martin, a host on the English-language and generally pro-government Russia Today, tore Russia a new orifice over its actions in Crimea:

Interestingly, unlike Peter Arnett or Phil Donahue, who were fired by NBC and MSNBC, respectively, for voicing concerns about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she appears as of this writing to have suffered no repercussions.

The point is not that the Russian government is better than American corporations. For all we know, by tomorrow she could’ve been taken out back and shot.

But it is interesting that she is calling out her own employer’s government for arguably illegal action in real time and, indeed, when there might still be time to stave off further bad acting by Russia (and, yes, Vladimir Putin is a bad actor). When Arnett, who pulled huge audiences for CNN during the first Gulf War in 1991, and Donahue attempted to do more or less the same thing before and soon after the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in contrast, they were fired — Donahue even before hostilities with Iraq commenced, because the network was thinking about how to broaden its audience in an anticipated “time of war.” At the time, national support for invading Iraq was somewhere in the 50-50 range, but you never would have known it to watch the MSM.

So are journalists for Russian outlets braver than journalists for U.S. ones? Are the outlets themselves braver? It’s impossible to say on the basis of a single case. But it’s an interesting case.

The bigger picture, I think, is that since Watergate, U.S. journalism has hesitated to take on the government on substantive policy issues (no, Bill Clinton’s penis was not a “substantive policy issue”) even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the government was acting out — in Iran-Contra, bank deregulation, and the numerous international and domestic crimes and violations of the Constitution undertaken after 9/11. That won’t end well, for journalism or the country.

(h/t: The Intercept)

UPDATE, 3/5/2014: She quit. On live TV.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,303 other followers

%d bloggers like this: