Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, June 27, 2015 2:02 pm

Depending how your dream goes

FlagsConfedRainbow

(I don’t know who this artist is; if someone knows, please advise and I’ll be happy to give credit. Cartoon by Bob Englehart, Hartford Courant, but was Photoshopped; the original included only the first three panels.)

“This has been the best week for all Americans of good will since Richard Milhous Nixon fled the presidency.”

This post started out to be a lot of gloating about how badly so many different people of ill will have taken it in the teeth this week. I was going to write a lot about how the moral arc of karma is long but this week it bent toward a righteous, multifaceted ass-kicking. I was going to write about laughing as the people on the wrong end of these decisions cried their bitter, bitter tears of frustration and rage, and how I intended to fill goblets and flagons with those tears and how the whole damn house was going to enjoy several rounds on them and so on. And I particularly intended to review Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissents in two Supreme Court cases so that you could enjoy the spectacle of a right-wing hack’s head exploding.

But overnight, those feelings receded. They didn’t go away. They’re still there, and for all I know could come flowing back in all their fury given the right prompt. But they’re no longer top of mind.

Instead, what I’m feeling most right now is something that feels quite foreign to me: satisfaction. Why? Because without doubt this has been the best week for all Americans of good will since Richard Milhous Nixon fled the presidency more than 40 years ago. Not only is the Confederate battle flag likely coming down at the South Carolina Statehouse (at this writing no vote has been scheduled), but a number of large companies have pledged to stop selling Confederate-themed stuff. And at the Supreme Court, not only was the Affordable Care Act upheld (again), the court also ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in this country.

That last one, though not unexpected, was particularly delicious because the bad guys were hoisted on their own petard. The anti-SSM crowd had argued that marriage was so important an institution to our society that it had to be protected. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in a neat bit of judiciary jiujitsu, responded, in effect, “Yes, it IS important — so important that it is a basic right that belongs to ALL.” And then he dropped the mic.

Let’s look at who lost here:

So who won? Everybody, really, including the people who lost, because as a result of these changes, all of us, including them, are going to live in a better America. America is a little less bigoted, significantly more financially secure and a helluva lot more equal today than it was last weekend.

Now, this wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t point out a few caveats. For one thing, nice as it is to get the Dixie Swastika off the Statehouse grounds and to start a real conversation about the noxious culture surrounding it, we still have to start a real conversation about the larger culture of racism, of which the flag is only a symbol.

We would be morally obtuse if we didn’t grasp that the whole reason we’re even having a conversation about the Dixie Swastika is that a young man in the pernicious grasp of its culture walked into an old and beloved Charleston church and shot nine innocent people to death in cold blood. And we would be even more morally obtuse if we didn’t start that real conversation about the culture of racism. Oh, we’ve nibbled at it here and there — a number of politicians, including my own Sen. Thom Tillis, have been caught taking money from a white-supremacist group, the Conservative Citizens Council — but I’m afraid it’ll take even more bloodshed before we get serious about this.

We also need to talk about how easy it remains for crazy people to buy guns. I know that it looks like Gun America (including but not limited to the NRA) has shut down this conversation, and that more people will die needlessly as a result, but we need to keep having it anyway.

As for the Affordable Care Act and health insurance, we remain basically the only Western industrialized democracy where a health problem can bankrupt you. That still needs to change, for all the good, and it is a lot of good, that Obamacare has done in recent years (at lower cost than expected and with greater beneficial effects on the deficit than has been expected).

And while same-sex marriage remains the law of the land, there are still some holdouts, including some county clerks or deed recorders who are saying they simply won’t marry anyone rather than marrying same-sex couples. (Remember when public pools were closed outright during the desegregation era rather than be opened to African Americans? Good times.) They’ll have to be sued individually. But they will be. And they, too, will lose. And there no doubt will continue to be lawsuits because in areas other than marriage, some people will continue to insist, in the face of law, logic, and morality, that LGBTQ folks don’t have the same rights as the rest of us.

All these challenges, and some nontrivial losses, still lie ahead of us. More blood and treasure will be spilled. Reactionaries gonna react. It’s what they do. It’s how they roll. And they tend to get worse, to escalate, every time they do; as Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog reminds us, “they vote, they dominate many American states, and they own guns.” And they’re getting at least some positive reinforcement from high places; as my friend Mark Costley observed on Facebook of the Supreme Court’s dissenters:

… they are — I believe consciously — furthering a right wing theme calculated to weaken the confidence of the citizenry in our government. The right wing of the Republican Party (commonly understood to be the right 11/12 of the party) has embraced an anti-intellectual populism in which the courage to be wrong and stick with your position is one’s greatest trait. This anti-intellectualism makes it impossible to engage in any effective discussion of policy making, national priorities, or governmental accountability.

Few politicians in U.S. history have gone broke inciting lack of confidence in the competence and good will of government, and there are a lot of scared, uninformed, armed people only too willing to believe the worst. So this, too, will be an issue even as we now have 35 years of experience in seeing what horrors so-called limited government inflicts upon our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

But I actually have some hope. As I observed above, this is going to be a better country for the losers as well as the winners in this week’s events, and it isn’t foolish to hope that because the country will be better, at least some of those who may see themselves on the losing end eventually will come to see that it all was for the best.

And I hope everybody else sees that, too, for this week has been as transformative in America as any in decades. And even as we begin to think about what lies ahead, it would be churlish of us not to celebrate it. It is uncharacteristic of me to say so, but I suggest we celebrate — not with the bitter, bitter tears of our opponents, but with champagne.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 7:06 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 17,

Seasalt & Co. offers a grade-A example of how not to do corporate communications. Pro tip: Threatening to sue people for what they say about your marketing materials is never a good idea.

President Obama’s executive action on immigration is on hold while a lawsuit against it by a number of states proceeds. IANAL, but from what I could tell, this looked legal to me — and not horribly different from what Reagan did 30 years ago. A district judge thinks there are tryable issues of fact and/or law, but his opinion reads like a long string of GOP talking points and judicial activism, not a finding of fact and determination of law, so we’ll see.

N.C. gets a winter storm, and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata is … promoting a book on cable news. In fairness, 1) It hasn’t been THAT bad as storms go, 2) the Highway Patrol, local police, and local and state emergency-management are probably up to the job without Tony’s help, and 3) his appearance probably was scheduled well before we knew the storm was coming. But the optics aren’t very good.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has extended its no-bid contract with a D.C. consulting firm to roughly $8 million. The firm made a $12,000 contribution to the Republican Governors Association in 2012 that found its way into now-Gov. Pat McCrory’s 2012 campaign. DHHS still hasn’t fixed its long string of problems, however.

N.C. state taxpayers should be glad the state’s business-incentive program doesn’t like to bet the ponies. We’d go broke fast.

Chapel Hill triple-homicide suspect Craig Stephen Hicks has been indicted on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of shooting a firearm into an occupied dwelling, a felony. The death penalty remains a possibility, although the DA hasn’t indicated whether he’ll seek it.

N.C. State Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, was the only legislator to go to work during today’s snow day in Raleigh. To judge from his Twitter feed, he got an AMAZING amount of work done; I’ve Storified the relevant tweets here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014 7:45 pm

Here’s where a good part of the middle class went — and what Obama could do to fix it

Welp, in today’s blind-pig category, self-described “wealthy capitalist” Nick Hanauer identifies one reason why the middle class is weaker than it used to be.

And he does it in the pages of Politico, which will never be mistaken for a publication interested in the concerns of the middle class (or, to be more forthright, will never be mistaken for a publication interested in interrupting the greatest theft from the middle class in history).

If you’re in the American middle class—or what’s left of it—here’s how you probably feel. You feel like you’re struggling harder than your parents did, working longer hours than ever before, and yet falling further and further behind. The reason you feel this way is because most of you are—falling further behind, that is. Adjusted for inflation, average salaries have actually dropped since the early 1970s, while hours for full-time workers have steadily climbed.

Meanwhile, a handful of wealthy capitalists like me are growing wealthy beyond our parents’ wildest dreams, in large part because we’re able to take advantage of your misfortune.

So what’s changed since the 1960s and ’70s? Overtime pay, in part. Your parents got a lot of it, and you don’t. And it turns out that fair overtime standards are to the middle class what the minimum wage is to low-income workers: not everything, but an indispensable labor protection that is absolutely essential to creating a broad and thriving middle class. In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Not because capitalists back then were more generous, but because it was the law. It still is the law, except that the value of the threshold for overtime pay—the salary level at which employers are required to pay overtime—has been allowed to erode to less than the poverty line for a family of four today. Only workers earning an annual income of under $23,660 qualify for mandatory overtime. You know many people like that? Probably not. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute. And so business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all.

And he points out a way that the problem can be fixed, singlehandedly, by the president.

The president could, on his own, restore federal overtime standards to where they were at their 1975 peak, covering the same 65 percent of salaried workers who were covered 40 years ago. If he did that, about 10.4 million Americans would suddenly be earning a lot more than they are now. Last March, Obama asked the Labor Department to update “outdated” regulations that mean, as the president put it in his memo, “millions of Americans lack the protections of overtime and even the right to the minimum wage.” But Obama was not specific about the changes he wanted to see.

So let me be specific. To get the country back to the same equitable standards we had in 1975, the Department of Labor would simply have to raise the overtime threshold to $69,000. In other words, if you earn $69,000 or less, the law would require that you be paid overtime when you worked more than 40 hours a week. That’s 10.4 million middle-class Americans with more money in their pockets or more time to spend with friends and family. And if corporate America didn’t want to pay you time and a half, it would need to hire hundreds of thousands of additional workers to pick up the slack—slashing the unemployment rate and forcing up wages.

But … but … wouldn’t this be bad for business?

But here’s a little secret from the corner office: The arguments that the corporate lobbyists are making—about how badly business will be hurt—just don’t add up. What is adding up instead is the trillions of dollars in corporate profits and stock gains that corporations have made over the same decades that your hours climbed and your wages fell. From 1950 to 1980, during the good old days of U.S. economic might—the era in which the Great American Middle Class was created—corporate profits averaged a healthy 6 percent of GDP. But since then, corporate profits have doubled to more than 12 percent of GDP. That’s about a trillion dollars more a year in profit. And since then, wages as a percentage of GDP have fallen, you guessed it, by about the same 6 percent or 7 percent of GDP. Coincidence? Probably not. What very few Americans seem to understand is that that extra trillion dollars isn’t profit because it had to be, or needs to be or should be. That extra trillion dollars is profit because powerful people like me prefer it to be. It could have been spent on your wages. Or it could have gone into discounts to you, the consumer. We capitalists will tell you that our increasing profits are the result of some complex economic force with the immutability and righteousness of divine law. But the truth is, it is simply a result of a difference in negotiating power. As in, we have it. And you don’t. …

Of course, capitalists like me will tell you that when we cut into profits, the entire economy is damaged. And think of all the investment that corporate profits make possible. What do executives like me do with all that extra money? Why, invest in creating good-paying jobs for middle-class Americans like you, of course.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true either. Mostly, we use profits to manipulate our stock price for personal gain.

Here’s a little history that will explain how: Back in the 1970s, when the share of total U.S. income that the top 0.1 percent of households got was at a 100-year low, corporate executives received most of their compensation in the form of a salary, just like you. But since the late 1980s, the largest component of income for the top 0.1 percent has been stock-based pay. This shift toward compensation via stock options and grants means that CEOs are directly incentivized to increase the share price of their company’s stock.

Building better products that lead to higher sales and fatter margins are the traditional way for a CEO to push up the price of his stock. But that’s so old-fashioned. So yesterday. Instead, ever since a former Wall Street CEO in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission back in 1982 loosened the rules that define stock manipulation (beginning to see a historical pattern here?), U.S. corporations have increasingly resorted to stock buybacks to prop up share prices.

(Aside on this point: There is an economic climate in which taking this action would have the effect that the corporate critics say — a climate of wage inflation and full or near-full employment. But we’re nowhere near either and haven’t been in decades.)

The president is going to announce his new, unilateral immigration policy in a few minutes, and that’s good. It’s so good, in fact, that Congressional Republicans have threatened to impeach him over it (although Reagan and Bush 41 did basically the same thing) is gravy.

That’s no reason not to change immigration policy. But if the president really wants to pick a hill to die on, this is the one. It benefits pretty much every wage earner making less than $70,000 a year (and the median total household income in this country is only about $53,000). It would pump up the economy significantly, directly benefiting the Americans who most need the help. It would be a strong substantive AND symbolic response to the complaints of voters in the 2014 elections that Democrats weren’t hearing their concerns about the economy. And it’s just the right thing to do on the merits.

Unfortunately, as Hanauer points out, there’s little indication that Obama understands why this is the right thing to do. Perhaps you can help him out on that one.

Hanauer agrees that that’s the right thing to do — for purely selfish reasons:

Contact the White House. Do it for yourself. Or, at the very least, have the courtesy to do it for me. Because honestly, I’m beginning to run out of customers.

Saturday, August 23, 2014 6:51 pm

“I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database [of police killings] is intentional.”

The question has been raised a lot in recent years: How many people die each year at the hands of the police?

There’s no good way to find out, so D. Brian Burghart of the Reno (Nev.) News & Review set out to try to find out after driving past the scene of an officer-involved shooting about two years ago. He has enlisted the Internet to help him find out.

This, by damn, is why we have, and need, an Internet.

He’s compiling what he and others find, after rigorous fact-checking, at fatalencounters.org. Here’s how he got involved in it:

It began simply enough. Commuting home from my work at Reno’s alt-weekly newspaper, the News & Review, on May 18, 2012, I drove past the aftermath of a police shooting—in this case, that of a man named Jace Herndon. It was a chaotic scene, and I couldn’t help but wonder how often it happened.

I went home and grabbed my laptop and a glass of wine and tried to find out. I found nothing—a failure I simply chalked up to incompetent local media.

A few months later I read about the Dec. 6, 2012, killing of a naked and unarmed 18-year-old college student, Gil Collar, by University of South Alabama police. The killing had attracted national coverage—The New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN—but there was still no context being provided—no figures examining how many people are killed by police.

I started to search in earnest. Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn’t being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn’t have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know “best practices” for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn’t.

The bottom line was that I found the absence of such a library of police killings offensive. And so I decided to build it. I’m still building it. But I could use some help. You can find my growing database of deadly police violence here, at Fatal Encounters, and I invite you to go here, research one of the listed shootings, fill out the row, and change its background color. It’ll take you about 25 minutes. There are thousands to choose from, and another 2,000 or so on my cloud drive that I haven’t even added yet. After I fact-check and fill in the cracks, your contribution will be added to largest database about police violence in the country. Feel free to check out what has been collected about your locale’s information here.

This is some righteous crowdsourcing, let me tell you.

And what has he learned from all this? Two things, both of them sad and infuriating.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this project is something I’ll never be able to prove, but I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.

It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.

I’ve been lied to and delayed by state, county and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time. They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency. And these are the people in charge of enforcing the law.

The second biggest thing I learned is that bad journalism colludes with police to hide this information. The primary reason for this is that police will cut off information to reporters who tell tales. And a reporter can’t work if he or she can’t talk to sources. It happened to me on almost every level as I advanced this year-long Fatal Encounters series through the News & Review. First they talk; then they stop, then they roadblock.

He elaborates on how journalism is failing to deal with this problem. I don’t think it’s quite as intentional as he does, but I do think the consciousness of a lot of reporters and editors needs to be raised on this issue. That means being intentional and serious about collecting data, to the point of lawsuits in jurisdictions in which the law is on journalists’ side.

And it also means taking up for what Jesus called “the least of these,” because — surprise! — that’s who most often winds up dead at the hands of law enforcement:

Journalists also don’t generally report the race of the person killed. Why? It’s unethical to report it unless it’s germane to the story. But race is always germane when police kill somebody.

This is the most most heinous thing I’ve learned in my two years compiling Fatal Encounters. You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men. You know who dies in the least population dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.

And if you want to get down to nut-cuttin’ time, across the board, it’s poor people who are killed by police. (And by the way, around 96 percent of people killed by police are men.)

I’d like to think that my local daily will get better at this, but I know better. So I’m going to see if I can help this project out. Wherever you are, I hope you will, too. We empower police officers with the right to use deadly force if necessary to protect themselves or innocent others. We deserve in return a full and complete accounting of how that right is used, or misused. There is no excuse for law enforcement to provide less, and there is no excuse for those departments’ communities, including but not limited to news outlets, to expect less.

(h/t: John Robinson)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 9:46 pm

Greensboro Urban Ministry needs your help. Now.

The ministry’s plea, [fixed] from its news release (via Yes! Weekly):
 
This summer, we held a food drive call “Feeding the 5,000” in partnership with the City of Greensboro, First Lutheran Church, First Presbyterian Church, Friendly Avenue Baptist, Grace UMC, New Garden Friends Meeting, Starmount Presbyterian, VF Corporation, West Market Street UMC, Adams Farm Community Church, Christ UMC, Faith Wesleyan Church, St. Andrews Methodist, and St. Pius X Catholic Church.  Through this drive, cash and non-perishable food items totaling more than 15,000 lbs were collected.  However, this food provided for only two weeks of food assistance.
 
Our pantry now looks much like that of our clients – it is bare. And, there is little hope in sight until the end of September when the annual Leadership Greensboro Senior’s Food Drive restocks our shelves. Until that time, we will be purchasing food to meet the needs of our clients. In their first annual meeting last night, the Greensboro Urban Ministry Board of Directors pledged enough funds to purchase nearly two weeks worth of food, yet we have six weeks to cover.  That is why we are asking you, our supporters, to help us fill this gap and meet the needs of our clients. Your monetary gift, or donation of non-perishable food items, will go directly to those individuals in our community who would otherwise go to bed hungry tonight. Won’t you please support our efforts and give?
 
As reported last week, hunger is growing faster in this metro than in all but nine other metros nationwide. And no long-term solution is on the horizon at the federal, state or local level. So dig deep. And, please, do it today.

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