Saturday, April 21, 2018

Is a Fraternity Just a Gang for White Men?

I came across an eye opening essay today, written by Professor Ibram X. Kindi, titled What’s the Difference Between a Frat and a Gang? His essay points out that a college fraternity may be just as frequently violent as an urban street gang and the statistics bear that out. In fact just as studies show that being a member of an urban street gang makes a boy three times more likely to engage in violence as a similar boy who is not a gang member so to does membership in a fraternity make it three times more likely that a young man will engage in sexual assault than a non-fraternity affiliated college man.

Now flip this around and look at how victims are treated. Most victims of violent crime who report to the police are treated with dignity and it is assumed that they are indeed victims. An officer is assigned to the case and an investigation is started, a prosecutor will get involved if a perpetrator is identified. Victims of rape on a college campus are often stigmatized, demeaned and called liars by authority figures including campus police and administration officials work hard to avoid investigating the crime let alone prosecuting the perpetrator.

Even when a 20 year old college man is prosecuted for a campus rape much is made of their potential and attempts are made to excuse the behavior as a youthful mistake that shouldn’t cost them their future. We don’t treat 16 year old members of urban street gangs that way, instead we want them punished as adults and given harsh sentences. Why, what’s the difference? The answer is usually the gang member is black or Latino and poor while the fraternity member is usually white and often from a privileged background.

In the 1990’s when violent urban crime peaked 7.4 percent of urban residents reported being victims of violent crime. The response by the public was to demand action and District Attorneys have been running for office with “tough on crime” as their slogans ever since. By 2016, only 2.9 percent reported being victims of violent crimes but “tough on crime” is still demanded by the public.

A nationwide survey of 27 universities conducted for the 2014-2015 academic year found that 16.9 percent of female freshmen reported being victims of non-consensual sexual contact by force and incapacitation. In the same study 27.2 percent of senior women reported being victims of inappropriate sexual contact over the course of their collegiate life. Where is the call for “tough on campus crime”?

During the Obama administration an effort to was made to address campus sexual violence and funds allocated toward that goal, recently current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos terminated that program. She claimed the Obama-era guidelines represented federal overreach by putting an undue burden on accused students to defend themselves.

Even though violent crime is 60% lower than it was two decades ago Trumpian Republicans have recently declared war on gangs. In an October 2017 address Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “We cannot afford to be complacent in the face of violence that threatens too many of our communities.”

Professor Kindi doesn’t offer solutions but he does ask us to expand on the question that is the title to his essay. I would ask, how about we spend less effort on a problem we’ve already largely resolved and more effort on one that we’ve hardly scratched the surface on? How about we treat adolescent boys of color a little more like white adult men on college campuses and white men more like those adolescent boys?

Published in the Seguin Gazette May 20, 2018

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Reverse Robin Hood at the federal and state level

Imagine for a moment that you are the manager a successful family business owned by your retired parents and you also own a separate business. You have a reputation for borrowing very little and calling out others who do. Now further imagine that in order to pay for the lifestyle you believe you deserve you started paying yourself more than your personal company was earning and it will soon go into debt. You then decide to reduce the monthly payment your parents have been getting from the business you manage for them so you can transfer difference to your personal business in order to prop it up. I think you’ll agree that would make you a lousy daughter or son and a lying hypocrite.

Now replace the family business with Social Security, the personal business with the rest of the Federal Government and you with Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. That’s exactly what Ryan is calling for as the congress resumes after Easter break. He’s scheduled a vote on a bill that would reduce Social Security benefits claiming that federal revenues aren’t keeping pace with spending and therefore the national debt is going to increase. What he’s trying hard not to mention is that the reason the budget is out of balance has nothing to do with Social Security because as in the example above it has its own revenue stream and expenditures completely separate from the rest of the federal budget. Not only that the entire reason that the budget is out of balance and the country will borrow a trillion dollars this year is the massive tax cut Republicans just gave to the wealthiest among us and which most of the rest of us got little or nothing. That makes Paul Ryan a lousy representative of the people, and a lying hypocrite.

It’s like reverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor, Social Security recipients, and giving to the rich. If this were Sherwood Forest I’d be rooting for Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Sadly Texas has its own very similar situation, Lt Governor Dan Patrick is running around lying to the public by claiming that school districts are at fault for property taxes going up. He says he has a plan to reduce property taxes by putting limits on how high school districts can set their tax rates. Patrick fails to mention that the reason school districts keep raising their rates is that he keeps lowering the state’s portion of funding for public education.

Just like Paul Ryan, Dan Patrick is both responsible for the mess and blaming it on the victims so he can cut taxes on his wealthy patrons. He too is a lousy representative of the people, and a lying hypocrite.

In November we have an opportunity to replace Dan Patrick with someone who will tell the truth and has a plan for restoring state funding for public education without increasing the burden on the average Joe. Mike Collier is running for Lt. Governor and he wants to change the way real estate purchases are reported to local taxing authorities so that wealthy individuals and big businesses can’t hide the price they pay for multi-million dollar homes and business sites. Just making our property taxes fair by taxing those properties the same way your home is taxed will go a long way toward restoring the balance between state and local funding for public education.

Check out Mike Collier, you’ll find he’s a straight shooter and if you elect him you won’t feel like rooting for the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Trump Takes Overtime Away

This week 100,000 Americans lost the right to overtime pay and what’s worse is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. Monday’s Supreme Court decision in the case Encino Motorcars v. Navarro was all about whether or not service advisors at auto dealerships are exempt from overtime provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act which was originally passed in the 1930’s. The result was disappointing though unsurprising as the Supreme Court had ruled much the same way two years ago when sending the same case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with orders to rethink their prior decision in favor of the service advisors.

The five conservatives on the court claim that “if you ask the average customer who services his car, the primary, and perhaps only, person he is likely to identify is his service advisor.” The four liberals disagree, and I’ve got to say while I’ve never spoken to a mechanic at any dealer where I’ve had my car repaired I know darn well that the service advisor isn’t the one doing the work if for no other reason than they’re sitting in an air conditioned room talking to customers like the receptionist at the doctor’s office. I’ll bet you’re not fooled for a minute either.

While it’s frustrating that anyone loses their right to overtime pay you might think, “well it’s only service advisors at auto dealerships so this is a really limited issue”, but you’d be wrong. You see when Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision he made a point of also declaring that prior decisions which were based on narrow interpretations of exemptions to requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act were also wrong. This means that a lot more people stand to lose not only overtime protections but any number of other protections of the law. Experts believe that we’ll be seeing new court cases over employers seeking to cut their employees pay, benefits, and other protections of the law for years to come.

When we elect a president we aren’t just getting that one person or just their ideas and actions, we’re getting a whole list of appointees both in the cabinet and in the courts. When we elect members of Congress we aren’t just getting one person to act on our behalf, we’re getting the entire party they belong to for good or ill. In this case Ted Cruz and John Cornyn are just as responsible for taking away overtime protection from the service advisors and others who will lose those and other benefits in the coming years as Donald Trump. They were active participants in stealing the Supreme Court seat that allowed Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch when they withheld hearings on President Obama’s nominee claiming that a year was too close to an election to name a new Supreme Court Justice.

The next time a friend or family member tells you they aren’t political so they don’t vote or that it doesn’t matter who is elected, remind them that overtime, family leave, sick pay and any number of other benefits they take for granted can be taken away due to who gets elected. In November Texans have an opportunity to forcibly retire Ted Cruz by electing Beto O’Rourke to the United States Senate. That will go a long way toward stopping further Trump appointees who would stand for corporations and billionaires at the expense of every day working people like you and me.

I wonder how many service advisors are rethinking their vote for Trump now.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - May 6, 2018

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Trump - Clinton or Capone?

Last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” episode was its highest rated in a decade. Americans turned in to watch the interview with Trumps alleged former mistress Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels. I didn’t watch because I wasn’t interested in his randy behavior as it really is none of my concern.

Bill Clinton suffered through years of investigations attempting to find evidence of misdeeds but it was his libido and attempt to cover up that nearly brought him down. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Clinton had said “a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell” or “none of your business”, when being questioned under oath about his liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Or perhaps if he’d said “Yes, we had sex. So what?” It was his lie that allowed the impeachment to go forward. In the end even a dozen Republican senators didn’t believe his falsehood was significant enough to warrant removing him from the presidency though his law license was suspended by the state of Arkansas.

Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have learned anything from Clinton as he continues to deny affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. It’s pretty clear that both women have evidence to support their claims and are likely telling the truth. Given that he’s in office now and isn’t even up for election for another three years it would seem Trump would do well to admit these as well as any others might also come out and clear the air. Instead his continued denials may yet lead to his downfall.

Unfortunately for Trump, his extra-marital affair with Daniels isn’t his big problem, it’s the cover up that may end up his Waterloo. It appears likely that he or at the very least members of his campaign broke campaign finance laws when they paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money. The watchdog group Common Cause which has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission calls it an in kind contribution which is required to be reported on disclosure forms. Allegations of threats and intimidation by his lawyer don’t help his case but aren’t material to the campaign finance case. As in Watergate this is a case of “follow the money”.

I’ll laugh my head off if the Stormy Daniels cover-up turns out to lead to Trump’s impeachment when there seems to be so much more significant material to work with like money laundering for Russian mobsters and oligarchs through his hotels and real estate businesses. Of course, there’s also the possibility he was complicit in the Russian efforts to get him elected such as the theft and publication of the DNC emails. Then there’s the Russian bots unleashed on Twitter, Facebook and other social media that may have been coordinated with his campaign. And we still don’t know enough the possible connections between Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Russian government operatives to say for sure whether or not there was a conspiracy though there’s plenty of smoke suggesting a good size fire.

Al Capone was never convicted of bootlegging, murder or any of his other violent and noteworthy crimes, instead it was tax evasion that put him in the federal penitentiary. Like Capone before him, I’m betting on Trump getting punished for something other than what most of us would consider his more substantial crimes.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - March 30, 2018

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Trump's take on 'Drug War' unhelpful, hollow

Earlier this week Trump called for the death penalty for drug dealers as if that will solve the opioid “crisis”. Given that the problem opioids are generally prescription drugs I suppose he’s planning to execute an awful lot of pharmacists and doctors. Like his border wall to fight unauthorized, immigration executing drug dealers is all noise and no solution.

There are numerous similarities and connections between drug smuggling and human smuggling. The similarities are that much of both are controlled by the same criminal organizations and they use similar routes and techniques often tractor trailers or carried on the backs of people walking across the desert.

Walls don’t work to keep out people who want to be on other side, it didn’t work for China around 200 BCE and it didn’t work for the Romans who built Hadrian’s Wall across England around 140 CE. Whether it is do to insufficient enforcement or bribes to those supposed to be watching if people want to cross the wall they’ve always found a weakness to exploit.

The “War on Drugs” that Nixon ramped up in the 1970’s has been a proven failure ever since yet we as a nation continue to the same tactics expecting a different result, a failing referred to as insanity in an oft quoted remark. We know the “War on Drugs” has failed because availability of a wide range of drugs is as high or higher than ever and prices have fallen while the potency has increased over time. In addition it drives other violent crime as dealers contend over sales territories.

Much of the authorization immigration and asylum seekers are driven by economic problems and violence caused by United States policies over the last two centuries. Some times it was overthrowing democratically elected leaders or fighting locals to protect the business interests of American companies such as Chiquita of banana fame and hence the term banana republics. On other occasions it’s been violence and corruption involving drug cartels that wouldn’t exist without the financial incentives of the black market for drugs in the United States.

We could pull the rug out from under the drug cartels overnight by legalizing drugs. Their income streams would take a massive blow that can’t readily be made up in other ways. The cessation of violence and reduced funding of corrupt officials would likely make many living in the source countries and transit countries more willing to stay. If the United States would take the money we now spend on DEA agents, funding provided to the military and police forces in those countries and reallocate them to education, infrastructure and business loans instead there would be less incentive to leave.

Natural experiments on both of these topics have taken place on the Iberian peninsula of Europe. Throughout much of the latter half of the 20th century unauthorized immigration by Spaniards to other European nations was very high due to a poor economy. Once Spain’s leadership gained the assistance of the EU and its economy improved Spanish immigration dropped off and many who were out of the country returned home. Spain wages still aren’t at the German level but they are markedly improved and so has life in the nation.

The other experiment is Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs. Drug inspired crime is down dramatically, so are drug overdoses and HIV infections. Contrary to the expectations of many overall drug use didn’t rise significantly.

The proposals of the Trump administration are proven failures but there are other existing models that have been successful. It’s past time we tried them.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - March 23, 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Welfare Makes Better Workers

Liberals are often said to be bleeding hearts and though our goals may be admirable we’re told our proposed programs and policies are impractical, too expensive, counter-productive or all of the above. The truth is that our empathy and gut instinct to do right by our fellow man is in fact not just morally righteous, but also practical, cost effective and productive. A fine example of this dichotomy of views is public assistance generally known as welfare.

Studies done around the world show that insuring that children are adequately fed and clothed via cash public assistance to the family can increase working hours and earnings, particularly when the beneficiaries are required to attend classes that teach specific trades or general business skills. Welfare isn’t just morally righteous it is an investment in the health and future careers of low-income kids.

In a recent paper from researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago the results of a Mexican program called Prospera, the world’s first conditional cash-transfer system, were analyzed. The program provides money to poor families on the condition that they send their children to school and go to the doctor regularly and stay current on vaccinations.

By matching up data from Prospera with data about households’ incomes the researchers were able to analyze the program’s effect on children several decades after they started receiving benefits. They found that young people who participate in the program for seven years usually completed three more years of education and were 37 percent more likely to have a job. Prospera beneficiaries grew up to become adults who worked nine more hours each week on average than similar poor children who didn’t participate in the program. On top of that they also earned higher hourly wages.

This is important for the United States in particular right now when the Republican Party is on a bender to reduce public assistance of all kinds including those programs like Medicaid which benefit poor children. Republicans make a lot of dubious claims about the connection between public benefits and non-working adults but the evidence proves they’re wrong. Of course, facts don’t seem to matter to Republicans all that much, particularly when they contradict core revealed “knowledge” spouted by their authority figures. It doesn’t seem to matter that the agenda of those authority figures is driven by the wealthy campaign donors and the corporations who will employ them once they have left congress.

It isn’t just Mexico where providing the basics goes beyond addressing immediate concerns, American adults whose mothers received prenatal coverage under Medicaid have lower rates of obesity, higher rates of high-school graduation, and higher incomes than those from similar households who were ineligible for Medicaid. Other research has shown that children covered by Medicaid expansions went on to earn higher wages and require less welfare assistance as adults than similarly situated children who didn't get those benefits. Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania on people in Canada and the United States shows that even basic-income plans encourage people to either continue working or go back to school to improve their skills.

All this shows that the conservative claims that public benefits are too expensive is just short term thinking. In reality it’s much less costly to provide benefits now because those children will grow up to earn their own living and thus pay taxes than it is to leave them destitute during their formative years and have the public suffer the effects of too many unskilled people with no hope of ever earning a living for themselves and their families.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Dark Money and Foreign Interference in Elections

In a decision made by the Supreme Court in 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, overturning campaign finance protections, they made it legal for Political Action Committees (PACs) which spend money on political advertising to hide the names of the donors who provided those funds. Since the public is therefore in the dark as to who is really paying for the political advertising the term dark money was coined. In many cases people donate funds to one organization which must provide the names of its donors then that organization donates the bulk of its funds to another organization that doesn’t have to reveal the names of its donors. If this sounds like money laundering that’s because after a fashion it is, though it’s legal.

When interpreting a message most of us will consider not only what is said but also who is saying it. If a known liar makes a bold claim the average listener will consider that claim with a large helping of salt. The same is true for political advertising most of us want to know who is making the claims in the ad in order to better judge whether or not to believe the claims.

The most recently appointed Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, was supported by $10 million of dark money pushing for him. Given that it is a lifetime appointment doesn’t is seem appropriate that the American public know who was promoting him and in order to provide guidance on how legitimate the claims made about him might be?

If China had donated $5 million to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or Iran had donated $3 million to an Islamic mosque in Houston which was then used that money to support Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency I’m quite certain that Republicans in congress and everywhere else would have jumped all over it. The National Rifle Association spent $30 million in support of the Trump campaign. It has come to light that Russia may have donated millions of dollars to the National Rifle Association at that time. Hardly a word is being said about it by Republicans.

There are laws in place prohibiting foreign governments and their citizens from funding political advertising or campaigns but when “dark money” is allowed how do we truly know whether or not those laws are being followed.

Dark money isn’t just a problem in presidential campaigns, there aren’t any prohibitions on it in state campaigns either. Numerous state legislature races have been impacted by dark money in recent years. State Representative Charlie Geren twice filed bills that would have prohibited such anonymous funding of campaign advertising but Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t gotten behind the bills so Texas legislature has failed to pass them. Isn’t it well past time that the public get the opportunity to judge political ad claims by who is paying the bills for those ads?

Published in the Seguin Gazette March 9, 2018