Saturday, May 19, 2018

Unchecked Income Inequality Leads to Revolution

There is plenty of evidence going back more than 2000 years and continuing to the present that high rates of income inequality can cause revolutions. Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive policies especially trust busting kept a lid on that unrest at the turn of the last century. Franklin Roosevelt had to act again in the 1930’s to address income inequality and his policies remained in effect through the 1950’s and 1960’s during which our economy boomed. We are rapidly reaching that state again where income and wealth inequality surges out of control and can lead to significant unrest.

Between 1880 and 1890 there were over 20,000 strikes involving approximately 6.6 million workers. In 1899 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, union miners, led by the Western Federation of Miners attempted to unionize non-union mines, and have them pay the higher union wage scale. The miners were frustrated with mine operators that paid lower wages, hired Pinkerton or Thiel operatives to infiltrate the union; and routinely fired any miner who held a union card. The worker versus owner confrontation culminated in a dynamite attack that destroyed a non-union mining facility, followed by military occupation of the district.

Government has often been used by the wealthy to keep wages down by suppressing workers rights, sometimes violently, as in the case of the Railroad Strike of 1877, which was precipitated by pay cuts. President Rutherford B. Hayes called out federal troops and the violence eventually led to the deaths of over 100 people. Local governments also stepped in to support their wealthy benefactors such as in the 1897 Lattimer massacre near Hazleton, Pennsylvania in which 19 unarmed striking coal miners and mine workers were killed and 36 wounded by a posse organized by the Luzerne County sheriff for refusing to disperse. Most of the strikers were shot in the back.

Labor unrest wasn’t just happening in the United States, it was a worldwide phenomenon and in France and later Russia, then China, and Cuba, it ended in revolution which at least temporarily reset the level of wealth and income inequality. The United States has managed to escape such revolutions and retain a capitalist economy because of the restraints that Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt place on corporations. Unfortunately beginning in the 1970’s with Ronald Reagan and continuing under Bill Clinton many of those restraints were loosened. Every president since has had some part in removing restraints. States have done their part as well such as the mis-named Right to Work laws passed in many states including Texas which only serve to break unions.

Once again income and wealth inequality in the United States is rocketing toward the stratosphere and many Americans are being left out, some are getting angry. It’s in the interests of the wealthiest among us to recognize that the to 1% of Americans owning the same wealth as the total had by the bottom 40% is unhealthy for their continued physical well being, think guillotines, and the existence of their assets, think Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. History tells us that they won’t act on their own to save themselves.

No one looks forward to suffering through a French style revolution, though you wouldn’t know it from the tax bill passed recently that serves to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Fortunately Bernie Sanders and many Democratic Party leaders have concluded that it’s past time to take action to reduce income inequality before it’s too late. Your votes in November can help lead the way back from the brink.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Trump Deepens the Swamp

As if it isn’t enough that within the lifetime of many here today rising temperatures and sea levels will change Texas dramatically now the Trump administration seeks to roll back fuel mileage requirements set to go into effect in the next couple of years. The roll back that Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is pushing will just make matters worse for our children and grandchildren. Pruitt is the former Attorney General of Oklahoma who made a name for himself as the go to guy for oil and gas companies that wanted official help in suing the federal government to relax pollution standards so they could increase profits. Pruitt acted like a lobbyist and put their model letters on official Oklahoma government stationary then signed them in his official capacity as the state’s Attorney General in attempts to effect federal regulatory efforts.

Pruitt sued the Environmental Protection Agency at least 14 times while in office and most of those cases are still in the courts. Unfortunately for our children and grand-children Trump put him in charge of the agency he spent so much times suing and is now using that office to make those lawsuits moot by rolling back the regulations he once sued over. While he’s doing that he’s also making trips around the world on the taxpayers dime to sightsee in places like Rome and Morocco with his own 20 person body guard detail.

Pruitt is now under eleven different investigations for a wide range of financial misdeeds such as having a $43,000 sound proof phone booth built into his office in violation of regulations on how much people in his position are allowed to spend on office renovations. Then there is the investigations into him giving out raises to staffers who were ineligible for them by improperly using funding that belonged to other projects and his lavish travel spending on private planes and use of military aircraft. On top of all that his million dollar 20 member personal body guard detail and questionable security measures which are also under investigation for out of budget spending is all predicated on purported threats of violence but records released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that there were only cases, one of which is someone drew a mustache on a picture of him and another was a threat of violence by a man who has been in prison for years and will continue to be so for years to come.

Pruitt is a lot like Mick Mulvaney, currently director of the Office of Management and Budget, who openly admitted to only listening to those who donated to his campaign. Both continue to serve their corporate and billionaire masters.

While never a Trump appointee long time fixer Michael Cohen seems to be drowning in investigations into sketchy dealing as well. Last week we learned that he’s been billed for back taxes to the tune of $280,000 on his taxi businesses. Earlier this week it was revealed that he’s been collected millions of dollars from the likes of AT&T and drug giant Novartis. That’s on top of the questionable payments from Trump for arranging hush money to porn stars and Playboy playmates.

Candidate Trump claimed he’d be different but when he told Americans he would drain the swamp either he lied or he meant some other swamp.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - May 11, 2018

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Honoring a Defender of Democracy

A week ago I had the privilege of attending the League of Women Voters of Texas "Defending Democracy Dinner" honoring Randall Buck Wood for his career defending democracy in Texas. Mr. Wood served as Director of the Elections Division of the Texas Office of the Secretary of State, then he became the Executive Director of Common Cause Texas, a public interest advocacy organization, and now in addition to his private law practice serves as the General Counsel to the Equity Center, an association of over 500 below-average-wealth school districts committed to improving public school funding in Texas.

Common Cause, a citizens’ group focused on government transparency and ethics, hired Wood in September 1972 as Executive Director. Early the previous year, at the beginning of the bi-annual legislative session the Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges alleging a far-reaching stock manipulation scheme organized by top business and political leaders which would eventually become known as the Sharpstown scandal. The speaker of the House, one of his top aides and another house member were convicted. The ensuing investigation uncovered other shenanigans involving lobbyists handing out checks on the House floor in exchange for legislative action as well as legislators enriching themselves on the taxpayers dime sometimes through outright theft of public property.

With Texas in the throes of the Sharpstown scandal and having elected a large number of new legislators claiming a reform agenda Wood struck while the iron was hot and pushed his programs through against the opposition of practically every other lobbyist and many of the legislators themselves. Wood was provided several model bills by the national organization which he then modified to meet the needs of Texas and wrote some bills of his own, they all focused on ethics of legislators and state officials; lobby registration and reporting of expenditures; campaign finance reporting; expansion of the open meetings law; thus enlarging the public’s access to government information.

Wood’s work for Common Cause led to an improved open meetings law; tightened controls over campaign contributions and expenditures; easier public access to government records; and, most importantly for the lobby, tightened control over lobbyists and their spending.

After the state lost the landmark school finance case, Edgewood ISD v. Kirby, which alleged discrimination against students in poor school districts the Governor contacted Buck Wood and instructed him to write a public school finance bill that was constitutional in under a week. The school district and several parents had charged that the state's methods of funding public schools violated at least four principles of the state constitution, which obligated the state legislature to provide an efficient and free public school system. His team worked up a bill and saw it through the legislative process successfully.

Since then Mr. Wood, as the General Counsel to the Equity Center, has been involved in most of the numerous school finance cases over the last 30 or so years. All the cases have charged that the state continues to fail in its constitutional duty to provide an efficient and free public school system and the courts have agreed over and over.

Many area districts including San Antonio ISD which has announced staff reductions and Schertz/Cibolo/Universal City ISD which will ask to raise property taxes later this year are or soon will be in difficult straits under the current financing formula. It is unconscionable that after more than 30 years the state legislature still doesn’t have the guts to do what needs doing and develop an equitable tax and funding system. Mr. Wood says he’ll keep working to improve public education through the courts if he has to.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - May 4, 2018

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Puerto Rico Suffers While Federal Government Fails

You rarely hear news about disaster recovery in Puerto Rico anymore though you may have heard about the 2 day power outage on the island recently. Given the dearth of coverage you could be forgiven for believing that all is well but you’d be wrong. In fact between 10% and 20% of the population is still without power a full seven months since hurricane Maria devastated the island. Many homes are still not in livable condition and yet they’ll be eligible for foreclosure starting May 18.

Puerto Rico is an American territory with a population of over 3.3 million United States citizens, that’s more than the population of entire states of Iowa, Utah, Mississippi and 17 other states. Puerto Rico is about the same size and population as Connecticut.

It’s nearly hurricane season again and tens of thousands of the island’s residents are essentially homeless and living in shelters or doubling up with family and friends. The electrical grid is incomplete and unstable as evidenced by the recent two day island-wide outage. This is on top of rolling blackouts lasting anywhere from 1 to 16 hours at a time.

While the president made excuses immediately after hurricane Maria last year that it’s difficult to provide assistance because “This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water,” that’s no longer an acceptable excuse if it ever was.

Back in January the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) stopped providing water and food aid even though tens of thousands are will without access to safe drinking water let alone running water. The situation is so bad that thousands of people are still getting their water from springs that aren’t officially tested for contamination.

In order to protect their community’s health it has become a project at Maricao high school students to test water are community sites daily and put up warning signs with recommended treatment precautions. The project started when water activist Steve Tamar offered his citizen-science training at Maricao High School in western Puerto Rico this past October. He expected perhaps a dozen students, instead, the sweltering hot auditorium was packed with teenagers looking to help test the island’s water. Eventually the whole school got involved one way or another with teachers incorporating the theme of water testing into their curriculum.

Earlier this year Congress allocated $2 billion to the recovery effort but the federal government has yet to make any of that available to Puerto Rico. While that sounds like a lot of money, consider that Puerto Rico asked for $17 billion just to restore the electric grid. Florida citrus growers got $2.3 billion in hurricane recovery assistance so you can see the disproportionate allocation of assistance.

Between November 2017 and January 2018 Puerto Rico’s health department recorded triple the number of calls to their suicide hotline from those who had already attempted suicide. Mental health workers are concerned about widespread post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the effects of the upcoming hurricane season.

The fact that recovery in Puerto Rico still lags and is underfunded is a failure of the federal government. The fact that we as citizens are mostly unaware of the lag in recovery and its cause is a failure of our national news media. It is incumbent on us as citizens to hold both our government officials and our media accountable.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - April 27, 2018

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