Blog on the Run: Reloaded

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.

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