Saturday, January 17, 2015

EDITORIAL Congress Heads for Trouble

In the first week of the 114th Congress, the new Republican overlords acted to undermine the Affordable Care Act; set up a Social Security funding crisis; require President Obama to accept the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline; enact new roadblocks to immigration reform; and undermine the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

Republicans want to bull ahead with the Keystone pipeline regardless of the threat of potentially toxic leaks over the environmentally sensitive Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest, in pursuit of 42,000 short-term jobs in building the pipeline and less than 50 long-term jobs to maintain it — all to carry Canadian oil to Texas to be refined for export overseas. Of course, the GOP also passed a bill to make it much more difficult to pass and enforce regulations to be enforced by federal and independent agencies.

The House got a quicker start at mischief than the Senate since House leaders don’t pretend to seek consensus. They adopted a rule to create a funding crisis for Social Security Disability Insurance by banning transfer of funds within the Social Security Trust. That wouldn’t be so bad if Congressional Republicans had any intention of fixing the shortfall that is expected in the Social Security Disability program next year, but they have no apparent intention to do so. If Congress does not fix the disability trust fund, it will result in a 20% benefit reduction for 11 million disabled Americans.

“Reallocation has never been controversial, but detractors working to privatize Social Security will do anything to manufacture a crisis out of a routine administrative function,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. “Rather than solve the short-term problems facing the Social Security Disability program as we have in the past, Republicans want to set the stage to cut benefits for seniors and disabled Americans.”

Republicans adopted another House rule to require that the supposedly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office use “dynamic scoring” on tax bills, so that tax cuts will result in forecasts of higher tax revenue, in accordance with Republican “supply-side” voodoo economics, regardless of what experience shows.

Wall Street lobbyists have been working overtime to repeal the Dodd-Frank reforms that were adopted in 2010 to regulate Wall Street speculators and prevent a repeat of the Bush Recession. If Republicans can’t do it in one big bill, they’ll try to repeal Dodd-Frank piecemeal in amendments to other bills..

The House also passed the Regulatory Accountability Act, which is ostensibly aimed at cutting costly regulations, but considers the costs to businesses of regulations, not the costs to the public of allowing businesses to pollute the air and water.

New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested that he might be open to resurrecting talks with the White House over a “Grand Bargain” that would include Social Security and Medicare “reforms” and steps to achieve a balanced budget — presumably, by cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Until now, McConnell and Obama have spoken mainly about fast-track trade legislation, some elements of corporate tax reform and a surge in spending for highways, bridges, and other infrastructure. McConnell appeared much more expansive in what he thought could be accomplished, but progressives should be concerned about any “Grand Bargain” that McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner could sign onto. President Obama had better make sure that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the new ranking member of the Budget Committee, are involved in any such negotiations.

Pelosi has endorsed a “Robin Hood” tax plan that would place a 0.1% fee on financial transactions that would be rolled in with reductions in tax breaks for the top 1% of earners. The new taxes would fund a “paycheck bonus credit” of $2,000 a year for couples earning less than $200,000. Sanders’ vision of a “progressive” budget includes ending tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations, reducing defense spending and boosting entitlement programs, such as Social Security, the Veterans Administration and Medicare. He has introduced legislation that would raise the payroll tax cap on people making over $250,000 a year in order to keep Social Security solvent for another 75 years. If Republicans aren’t going to move in that direction, Obama and the Democrats should feel no need to knuckle under.

Make College Affordable Again

President Obama announced a commendable plan to make community college free for students who maintain their grades. The program would be available for students who maintain a 2.5 grade point average and apply to schools that offer occupational training or credit toward a four-year degree.

If President Obama truly wants to transform the cost of higher education, Bryce Covert noted at (Jan. 9), Obama could make college free for all students without having to lay out more money to pay for it. That’s because the federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead cover tuition at all public colleges, which came to $62.6 billion in 2012, the most recent data. (The government spends another $197.4 billion on student loans.) That would give all students who want to get a college degree a free option to do so. It could also put pressure on private universities to compete with the free option by reducing their costs, which have risen 13% over the last five years.

But states also should take more responsibility for lowing the costs to attend their universities. When Rick Perry attended Texas A&M in 1970, tuition and fees cost $208 a year as the state paid 85% of the cost of running the university. Forty years ago, Texas kept college costs low enough that a student from a working-class family could reasonably cover the costs of tuition and fees by working during the summer at minimum wage.

What happened since then? Ronald Reagan led a Republican effort to increase costs for college students. When he was governor of California, Reagan complained that college students had it too easy, since the state’s universities didn’t charge tuition. He ended that populist feature and, after he became president in 1981, Reagan targeted federal assistance for higher education. He cut Pell grants and excluded middle-class students from the program. He limited the grants to lower-income families, which made it easier for Congress to cut the program further. Reagan also cut low-interest student loans and restricted eligibility for them. He phased out Social Security survivors’ education benefits, which provided one-fifth of student aid in 1981.

Republicans at the state level also reduced their commitment to keeping higher education affordable for the working class. The Texas Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003 under Gov. Rick Perry. Now the state pays less than 15% of college costs. Texas universities now cost more than $25,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. In California, the state pays only 11% of the university budget and it costs undergraduates more than $31,000 annually for tuition, fees, room and board.

States also could reverse the prison-building program that was needed to house the hundreds of thousands of people who were caught possessing and distributing controlled substances, such as marijuana and cocaine, during the War on Drugs.

The number of drug offenders in state prisons nationwide has increased from 19,000 in 1980 to 225,200 today, the Sentencing Project reported. Another 181,700 drug offenders are held in local jails. Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade and no record of violence, the Sentencing Project noted.

Of the roughly 170,000 inmates in Texas prisons, about 90,000 are classified as non-violent, the American Civil Liberties Union noted. But it costs about $20,000 a year to keep an inmate in a Texas prison. Every $20,000 spent to keep a pothead in prison is $20,000 that could be spent sending a budding scholar to college. And if lawmakers don’t want to make that shift in public spending priorities, they should at least increase the minimum wage so that college students can pay for their tuition with summer jobs. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2015

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Selections from the February 1, 2015 issue

And I Saw A Bush Rise Up Out of The Sea …


So the walls are coming down, the plane has finally crashed into the mountain, and Jeb Bush is running for President.

Ignoring the fact that this is very, very bad for Democrats, why not turn to the fascinating questions surrounding the viability of his Presidential campaign?  To examine this question we must assume that Bush will be successful in the Republican primary.  Since I believe his success is relatively likely, given his donors and connections, I believe the question an interesting one.  And certainly one worth asking.  Will we, the populace, really elect a third Bush?  We’re certainly stupid enough to do so (look at Bush II’s second election). 

The looming spectacle of another Bush occupying the West Wing is made even more frightening by the facts that the public likes to switch parties after two terms (probably a healthy instinct, had one of our two major parties not driven right off the sanity-cliff). Bush almost certainly has Florida (root, root, root for the home-team, even if they’re implicated in lots of ethics violations), and he has an ability no Republican challenger has had since Bush I; he seems pretty sane.  Also, he may end up being challenged by a woman.  If that woman is Hillary Clinton, I’m calling it: game, Bush.  The strange national hatred of her has never disappeared.  And she will be blamed—by both sides—for everything they didn’t like about Obama’s tenure. 

We can’t ignore the fact that any woman, be it Warren, Clinton, you name her, would have a herculean task reaching the mountaintop of the presidency.  Obama managed to win despite the disadvantage of not being white, but was assisted in both campaigns.  First, it helped that Bush II was a walking disaster, enjoying his second term.  Second, McCain offered a helping hand by abandoning his politics, going off the rails, and by choosing a living joke as his running mate.  Are you outside your house?  Can you see Russia?

As for Obama’s reelection campaign, I believe that the tape of Romney tossing aside the grubby cloak of the average Joe, and showing us his true colors as a sociopathic plutocrat was very helpful, if not essential.  We must come to terms with the uncomfortable reality that Obama was elected because he is an exceptional politician, a magnificent orator, and much, much smarter than your average bear…and that he had quite a bit of help from the other side.  They were coming off a two term disaster president (of their own party) and simply couldn’t keep up with Obama.  Nor could they stop shooting themselves in the foot, or for that matter old men in the face.  If Obama’s tenure tricks us into thinking that black politicians will be treated pretty much the same as white politicians, then we as a Nation must pull our collective heads out of, well, the dark. 

Politicians like Obama come along rarely and acknowledging that is essential to the Democratic Party.  I suppose what I’m saying is that to vault the gender-gap we’re going to need another exceptional politician, and/or a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy challenger.  I’m talking TMZ catches Presidential hopeful eating live chickens crazy. 

Ever met someone who thinks racism ended with Obama?  Yeah?  Well there are at least twice as many who think either that the gender gap has closed or that women are simply incapable of wielding the awesome power of the Presidency.     

So what do we do?  Do we, as a National Party unwillingly tasked with being the single sane party—the parental figure, if you will—in a two party system, simply take a noble knee and nominate Clinton two show that we’re serious about equality?  Do we run Warren to make the same point and still (maybe) win?  Is Warren, in fact, a more competitive option in the general election?  She certainly isn’t in the primary.  But I think we can all agree that primaries alone do not effective candidates make.

I rarely write articles posing questions to which I simply do not know the answer.  Usually, I at least think I know the answer; know what’s in the last chapter of the book.  Here I do not.  What I do know is that the Democrats have been in power through President Obama for six years going on eight.  I know the populace likes to switch sides after some time, and I know that switching is the difference in states like Iowa, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin.  I know that for a woman to be elected to our highest office, we would need a politician of exceptional talent and character, and we would probably also need her Republican challenger to fumble the ball in the grand tradition of Romney and McCain. 

I write this article because these are questions we need to ask ourselves.  Will Jeb get out of the primary?  Will he maintain his sanity throughout the campaign process?  Will we run a woman against him, and if so, who?  I’m not suggesting we shy away from our female candidates because we fear sexism.  I am asking these questions because a Republican Presidency is not simply a set-back, it is a disaster. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Contrast in coverage shows how mainstream media trivializes big issues

By Marc Jampole

This week both the New York Times and Nation magazine covered the continued ill will that the New York police department has been directing at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio since His Honor joined most New Yorkers in questioning police tactics and procedures after the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner.

The Times article details the missteps that it believes de Blasio has made in his interactions with the police department and police unions. For example, the Times claims that the rank-and-file felt that de Blasio displayed disrespect towards them by embracing the Reverend Al Sharpton, a critic of the police. Then they got pissed when de Blasio hired Sharpton’s former spokesperson as an aide; the cops supposedly didn’t like that her significant other (whom the Times chooses to label as a “live-in boyfriend”) was convicted of murder.

By contrast, Nation takes the long view, recounting the bad blood that the New York police had with past New York mayors going all the way back to Fiorello La Guardia, and including Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, David Dinkins and rightwing idol Rudy Guiliani. The Nation also demonstrates with solid numbers that none of these mayors suffered any vote loss in elections after having public spats with the NYPD rank and file. Nation examines the broader issue of the relationship between the police and the rest of government as a minor dynamic in New York City history

In the Times article, de Blasio comes across as stunned and dismayed by the rift. Nation decides not to characterize the mayor’s current state of mind, instead reminding both the mayor and all of us that New Yorkers appreciate and re-elect strong New York mayors who stick to their principles.

The Times reduces the story to personalities to inflate its significance. Nation places it into the broader context of history to demonstrate its inherent triviality. Both approaches to journalism and history go back a long way. Thucydides used the great man idea—this notion that the actions of a few individuals determines history—when depicting the Peloponnesian War in ancient times, and Victorian Thomas Carlyle proposed it as the explanation of all of history. Karl Marx and the Annales school of historians led by Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and others took a broader look at long-lasting trends and the movement, beliefs and actions of groups more than individuals.

Maybe it’s my leftwing bias, but I’m inclined to side with the Nation on this issue, both in its conclusions and the way it covered the story.

Unfortunately, the Times circulation is more than 1.8 million, approximately 14 times the 125,500 readership of Nation, plus Times articles are routinely published ubiquitously in hard copy and over the Internet, whereas mainstream media aggregators and reprinters assiduously avoid Nation’s articles. Thus many more people will read the Times sensationalized version of the relationship between the mayor and the police than the Nation’s studied analysis.

In a coda to this tale of dueling points of views—the personal versus the historical—Mayor de Blasio has subsequently said that he would veto a City Council law criminalizing the police use of chokeholds. It doesn’t mean that de Blasio is now capitulating to the police to curry their favor. De Blasio’s point is that chokeholds are already against NYPD regulations, so a law is not needed. Instead of seeking to wreak vengeance on a police department that has shown him uncalled-for disrespect, de Blasio is behaving like an adult and expecting the police department to behave in the same way. New York City doesn’t need a law if the department enforces regulations.

The key, of course, is to enforce the regulation and go after any offenders.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Warrior cops continue to destroy civil liberties and the lives of innocent people

By Marc Jampole

I’ve been suffering a slight case of cognitive dissonance lately, a disorientation that stems from residing in two worlds at once. One world is the TV show “The Wire.” I’ve been streaming and watching all the episodes from beginning to end and just completed the second season. I love the show, which is more about the foibles of institutions than people—definitely one of the four or five best TV series of the past 50 years.

But I only watch the TV screen about two hours a day and during some of my other waking hours, I’m reading Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. Both “The Wire” and Balko’s book spend a lot of time detailing anecdotes of police raids on homes, but the differences are so stark that it’s sending my head into a deep and befuddling spin.

In “The Wire” and most other urban cop dramas, the drug dealers always have guns and are often ready to shoot. The cops never raid the wrong place, always respect the rights of the drug dealers, shoot to wound when possible and often take a bullet from the bad guys. The weapons the police bring seem appropriate to the dangerous situation, especially when you consider that the drug dealers are always packing major heat. The cops are heroes.

In Rise of the Warrior Cop, which traces the gradual militarization of American police departments since the Nixon Administration, the cops seem always to hit the wrong location, often kill or injure innocent people, trample on basic constitutional rights and behave offensively even after they know someone is innocent.

When I think of 20 years worth of “Law and Order” episodes in which prosecutors have gone after bad cops, my cognitive dissonance grows even larger. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, prosecutors always defend the actions of the police, no matter how violently inappropriate they were, and both prosecutors and judges rubber-stamp “no-knock” entries with SWAT teams whenever the police ask for them, no matter how tenuous or incomplete the evidence.

The difference between the TV shows and Balko’s book is that Balko backs up his litany of horrifying anecdotes with statistics that suggest that police departments are out of control—they have too many weapons not appropriate for use in civilian situations, they call in SWAT teams way too often and they injure and kill too many innocent people.

Balko traces the growing militarization of the police since the Nixon Administration used the war on drugs to justify “no-knock” warrants and the arming of local police with military-grade weapons. Balko cites statistics that show the inexorable turning of the police from a community resource that keeps us safe to a military operation that often treats the homes and neighborhoods like an army of occupation treats the region it has conquered:

  • Every decade more cities have SWAT teams, which are military-style units that assault urban locations, to the point that 77% of all cities with more than 25,000 has one.
  • Every decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of SWAT raids conducted in the United States. For example the number of SWAT deployments grew by more than 937% from 1980 to 1995!
  • Every decade the Supreme Court has eroded the “castle doctrine” (which prevents the police from storming a domicile without due cause) by redefining exigent circumstances, expanding the proper use of “no-knock” warrants and diminishing the time police have to wait between giving notice and breaking down the doors and barging in guns roaring.
  • Every decade, the number of incidents of police raids of innocent people has increased, a natural function of the increase in SWAT raids and the shoddy handling of police raid requests by judges.
  • Every decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has dumped more tanks, weaponry and other military equipment on police departments.
  • Balko also follows the development of the shoot-to-kill mentality among police officers, the “us-and-them” thinking that may be appropriate to a war situation but doesn’t belong on the streets of a free society.
Before 9/11, the war on drugs was used to justify arming the police with military-grade equipment and playing fast-and-fancy with the Third and Fourth Amendments. But even after 9/11 and the rise of the specter of terrorism, virtually all uses of this equipment across the country have been to raid homes suspected of harboring drugs and drug dealers.

Democrats and Republicans have tripped over each other to see who can scare the public worse and call for more funding of the unwinnable drug war. For example, Clinton put a retired military officer in charge of the war on drugs and started the active recruitment of former military personnel for police departments. Raids on medical marijuana facilities and on illegal immigrants increased significantly under Obama.

The following set of numbers from 1972 that Balko gives us exemplifies the way that politicians representing all parts of the American political spectrum have jumped on the bandwagon to make local police military units: In 1972, President Richard Nixon declared that heroin addicts stole $2 billion each year to support their habit. Democratic ultra-liberal presidential candidate George McGovern said heroin addicts really stole $4.4 billion a year. A Nixon administration drug treatment expert said it was $6.3 billion. Illinois Senator Charles Percy upped the ante to $10-$15 billion. Still 1972, a White House briefing book distributed to the press put the amount stolen by heroin addicts at $18 billion.

By the way, the total value of all property reported stolen in the United States in 1972 was $1.2 billion, a lot less than the lowest of these ridiculous estimates.

In the typical raid described in Balko’s book, the police obtain a “no-knock” warrant based on information from an informant who has proven to be unreliable in the past and then barge into the wrong home with less than 15 seconds’ notice, pistol whip people, shoot to kill if anyone makes a false move, rip the place apart looking for drugs, arrest people even if nothing is found, never apologize when they finally discover they hit the wrong house and are never reprimanded or face any consequences for their mistake. Prosecutors and judges take the attitude that the police can do no wrong, which partially explains why police departments and unions absurdly believe that even the mildest of criticism threatens not just the ability of the police to maintain order but the safety of individual police officers. (FYI, the murder rate among cops is far lower than the general murder rate in every state.)

Even when the police hit the right house, the SWAT approach of overwhelming a house or a neighborhood with no prior warning is almost always overkill, since the average drug dealer is not dangerous and typically carries no weapons. Smaller dealers get it far worse, since the courts have ruled that while a large drug distributor could not possibly destroy the evidence in a few minutes, small dealers could—therefore let’s not give them any warning.

The most frightening trend that Balko details is the push of police departments towards focusing on these military-style operations in their recruitment efforts. Instead of trying to attract people interested in “serving and protecting,” current police marketing materials all too often appeal to those whose like to fight and shoot off guns. They make great soldiers but trigger-happy police officers.

The biggest absurdity of course is that the goal of this over-arming of the police and stripping of constitutional rights is to stop a victimless crime.

Balko is a libertarian, a hired gun of the Cato Institute, which probably explains why he doesn’t explain what I believe is the main reason for the militarization of American police departments: racism. Remember that the original Nixon push to erode constitutional rights and turn the police into an occupying force came at the height of the civil rights movement after a number of riots broke out in our inner cities. Drug laws have always been stiffer for those drugs used primarily by Afro-Americans than those used in white suburbs, and the criminal justice system has applied much worse punishments to blacks than to whites convicted of the same drug possession and dealing offenses. Balko’s horde of anecdotes of wrong raids and raids gone wrong is color-blind, but we know that the percentage of raids on minorities has always been far, far greater than their representation in the general population. We also know that blacks are over-represented in the numbers of people killed by police.

The other factor in police militarization is the lobbying effort of military contractors. Our federal, state and local governments have collectively spent billions of dollars on equipment and weaponry that is pretty much inappropriate for most domestic policing. But the suppliers of these armaments have been minting money and using quite a bit of it to influence politicians in both parties to support this dangerous and un-American domestic arms race.

The print version of the New York Times looks like a great regional newspaper of 1990

By Marc Jampole

I couldn’t help but notice the sudden outcrop of advice columns in the printed edition of The New York Times. The Times now has five weekly advice columns, one each for etiquette, job issues, ethics, real estate matters and consumer complaints, at least to my count. Who knows, maybe I’m missing one.

These columns are cheap to produce—the readers create half the content with their questions and the other half—the answers—are almost always warmed-over information or packaged homilies. There is no difference between these columns and the syndicated columnists like “Hints from Heloise” or “Dear Abby” that local newspapers have published for at least a century. I can remember when the Times had no advice columns, which typically are a staple of local and regional newspapers. Then for years the only advice column in the Times was the “Ethicist” in the Sunday magazine.

The front page of the Times is now also different from what it used to be, focusing very little on breaking news except for the very big stories like the Charlie Hebdo massacre or revelations that the Times investigative reporters have dredged up like the collapse of the market for taxi medallions. Instead, the front page contains analysis of news that happened earlier in the week, investigative pieces and high-end gee-whiz features. I suppose that the assumption of the editors is that you already know what the news is from perusing the Internet. 

The print edition of the Times carries less news than ever before, and for most international and real non-political national news, is relying more on the Associated Press and other wire services than ever before.

Pick up a Times and if you’re older than 40, the first thing you’ll feel is the lack of heft to it. It kind of feels like a good regional newspaper from the 1990s. You know, something like the St. Louis Dispatch or the Syracuse Post-Standard, with lots of local columns, frequent award-winning investigative reports and advice columns from national and regional experts. Of course, these regional papers typically used columnists from the Times, Washington Post and other national newspapers, whereas reading the Times, you got to see Charles Blow, Paul Krugman and Gail Collins a day early. No more, since you can easily find their columns on the Internet the day before the print version hits the streets.

I was enumerating these signs of the decline of what was once the greatest mainstream newspaper in the United States to someone the other day when she asked me what I would do differently if I owned the Times.

My response is that the Times management made all its mistakes early in the Internet game by buying into the nonsense that just because it’s on the Internet, it has to be free.  If I had operated the Times at the dawn of the information age, I would have done the following:
1.      Charged the same amount to see the newspaper on line as to receive a home delivery.
2.      Not given any free samples to visitors to the website.
3.      Offered the newspaper or selected articles to various Internet news portals such as Yahoo! and Google News on a strict pay-for-usage basis.
4.      Hired a bevy of sharp minds to surf the net for copyright infringements and prosecute all of them aggressively. By copyright infringement, I don’t mean referencing articles or quoting from them in other news media and blogs, but printing an article verbatim without permission and payment.
5.      Given free subscriptions to the online edition of the Times to every public library and public school library across the country.

In other words, I would have defended the castle, which in this case means asserting that the basic value of the newspaper is not in its paper or electronic imagery but in the information it contains. In effect, I would have had the Times say, “We can and will translate the value of the information we gather to dollars and cents and set a price on it. But we will always provide those who can’t afford direct access to the newspaper a free way to still get the information.” Sounds like the traditional relationship that news media has had with the economy and the community.

Taking the approach I suggested might have hurt the Times profit margin for a while, but newspaper profit margins were notoriously fat, so I imagine the owners could have afforded it. I’m convinced that the rest of the publishing industry would have followed this same strategy for transferring the media to the Internet, if the Times and other big media players would have shown them the way.

Although implementing this harsh approach would cost billions more today than it would have if the news industry had started with it 18-20 years ago, it could still be done. But instead, the Times and virtually all other American newspapers prefer to continue to slide—following fewer news stories, doing more rehashes and relying more on news services. It wouldn’t matter if Internet media were replacing the traditional print and broadcast media in covering and uncovering the news. But it’s not. The Internet relies more on quoting secondary news sources and giving commentary than even the daily newspapers.

The result is that newspaper revenues and readership continue to decline, while Americans are more ignorant of the world around them then they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago.