Friday, September 22, 2017

What hurricanes and cyber crime have in common

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have devastated huge swaths of the coastal United States damaging homes, businesses and public facilities including roads, water treatment plants and power systems. There have been pleas for donations of food, clothing, water and personal hygiene products. Thousands of first responders, power company employees and civilians have rushed in to save lives. Even Washington in a surprise move got its act together and responded promptly with federal funds to support the recovery effort.

All of that has been big news, including the explosion and fire at the Arkema chemical plant outside Houston which sickened first responders when the toxic fumes from a fire blew over them. Knowing what chemicals are stored at a site which is at risk of fire, flood or other catastrophic event is important for a number of reasons. If you know what might explode or catch fire you can take the precautions necessary to protect your life and health such as wear a gas mask or respirator, wear hazmat gear or increase the distance between the material and you and the people you’re protecting. Then in the aftermath when you’re trying to clean up the mess it’s important to know what chemicals may have contaminated the soil and water. If you’re a fan of CSI or a medical show based in an emergency room you probably know that it’s a lot easier and faster to find a toxin in someone’s blood if you already have an idea of what you’re looking for. Now imagine you’re in the Houston refinery and chemical plant corridor. Wouldn’t you want to know what chemicals you’re likely to find?

What you may not know is that Arkema and other similar chemical plant operators have successfully lobbied to be relieved of their responsibility identify the chemicals stored at their facilities. They spent a few hundred thousands of dollars and stand to save millions. The risk of their failure to disclose can be measured by the damage to the health of the first responders charged with keeping people in the area surrounding their facility safe and the contamination that the public will be contending with for years to come. There is so much toxic material in the flood waters that people are being told not to even try to recover their clothes from flooded homes as the toxins can’t just be washed out.

The hurricanes are the only big news affecting millions of people though, credit reporting company Equifax just announced that due to a security breach 143 million Americans are now in danger of having their identities stolen. How is this connected to the disastrous hurricanes and the undue influence of money in politics discussed in the paragraphs above you might ask? It turns out that Equifax along with the other big credit reporting firms are lobbying congress to prevent the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s regulations on forced arbitration from taking effect later this year. Why is that important? It’s important because Equifax states on their webpage where you’re supposed to go to find out if your social security number and other identifying information was stolen has a small print item which says that by checking on your information you are accepting their claim that you can’t sue them and must use arbitration to get restitution. In other words if you ask them if they failed in their duty to protect your information you have absolved them of responsibility for their failure.

These are just two examples this week of the power of money to influence regulations meant to protect Americans. Why do we allow this to continue?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Rescinding DACA isn't the Christian thing to do

When President Obama signed the executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he said up front that it was a temporary measure designed to give Congress time to act on comprehensive immigration reform. He and most Americans believed it was in the nation’s interest and part of our character to not penalize young people for the actions of their parents. The people eligible for DACA, had to have been brought to this country so young that they had no choice in the matter. They had to be currently in school, have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces. Not only that but, they couldn’t have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, or more than three misdemeanors of any kind; nor pose a threat to national security or public safety. In other words they had to be educated upstanding individuals, the kinds of people we all want in our community and working with us.

Sadly, the Republican controlled congress never got its act together due to their obsession with insuring that President Obama failed. While Obama was re-elected and had a moderately successful presidency despite Republican obstruction congress failed to govern and couldn’t manage to pass an Immigration Reform bill of any kind, even one that Obama would have vetoed.

Now Trump, the darling of many evangelical Christians, seems to be acting more like an Old Testament believer than the Christian he claims to be by visiting “the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34). Whatever you think about people who have overstayed their visas or illegally crossed the border how can any merciful, loving person punish the children of those people? We’re talking about kids who brought here at the average age of six who know no other home, no other culture, and often have no other family. Many of them are now parents in their own right, with babies who are citizens of the United States by birth.

I regard this action as Trump’s spiteful rage over his failure to get his border will approved and built. Regardless of that Trump has put the onus of passing legislation on congress. Speaker Paul Ryan claims “It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution…”  Well, if he’d bother to look at legislation that’s already been filed he’d know that there already is a permanent legislative solution called the DREAM Act, which is a bi-partisan bill now co-sponsored by both of Colorado's U.S. Senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner.

If Republicans really want to govern they’ll come together or this bill or some other proposal in time for it to be signed before Trump’s six month delay in DACA termination expires. I frankly don’t hold out much hope given that as much as I’m glad they failed this same pathetic leadership couldn’t pass a health care reform bill even though it was touted as their number one priority.

I for one, will be doing what I can to put pressure on recalcitrant legislators in an effort to insure that they offer the mercy and justice that I learned Christianity meant from Sister Agnes and Brother John Fairfax. I hope you will too.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Upcoming Republican Tax Break Giveaway Spree

This coming Tuesday Congress will go back to work and the top item on the agenda, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan, is tax breaks for billionaires. Of course, he doesn’t call it that but nevertheless that’s what it amounts to. Oh sure, there’s talk of cutting out loopholes but the biggest ones they’re talking about are the breaks that many of us take advantage of such as the mortgage interest deduction and the one on taxes we pay to states and cities in the form of sales tax.

On top of that the size of the tax breaks the Trump, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are talking about can’t be made up just by closing loopholes. If they can manage to agree on a bill that resembles anything like what’s been proposed and Trump signs it we could be looking at adding another $1.2 trillion in debt each year. It should come as no surprise that it would also break a Trump campaign promise.

Back in September 2015, Trump made this pledge to the American people regarding his tax plan: "It reduces or eliminates most of the deductions and loopholes available to special interests and to the very rich. In other words, it's going to cost me a fortune -- which is actually true -- while preserving charitable giving and mortgage interest deductions, very importantly." As I’ve already mentioned the mortgage interest deduction is already on the chopping block. Another proposed change to the tax code that many don’t understand involves what are called pass through businesses like sole-proprietorships and closely held partnerships. Trump’s proposal would drop the tax rate from 35% to t 15%. Since many of Trump’s real estate ventures are sole proprietorships and closely held partnerships he and his children stand to get huge tax breaks. Given Trump’s penchant for bald-faced lies breaking his campaign pledge comes as no surprise.

Then there’s the Republican bogeyman called the Estate Tax, which doesn’t kick in until the estate is worth well over $5 million. Trump and Ryan want to eliminate it entirely even though it only affects 5200 estates of the very wealthiest Americans. Since that tax rate on qualifying estates is 40% of the amount over $5 million, and assuming he’s telling the truth about his net worth, Trump’s kids stand to save $7 BILLION in taxes.

The triumvirate of Trump, Ryan and McConnell are working hard to make the investments that the oligarchs of this country made in their elections payoff. In fact that’s really what the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is really all about. Part of that legislation implements a 3.8% capital gains tax to pay for healthcare.

With such huge tax giveaways there aren’t enough places to raise taxes by cutting other breaks so the most likely plan is to cut benefits just like Gov. Sam Brownback did in Kansas. His efforts to implement Republican low tax ideology wrecked the Kansas economy after six years and made him the least popular governor in the country until fellow Republican Chris Christie overtook him. Recently the Republican controlled legislature in Kansas recognized that trickle down economics doesn’t work and has reversed some of Brownback’s deepest cuts.

 If there is any hope of saving the economy of the entire country Democrats and non-crazy Republicans must stop the Trump/Ryan tax proposals in their tracks.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - September 1, 2017

Friday, September 1, 2017

Afghanistan, A Solution?

I may have misjudged our president, I thought he was an incompetent fool, now I know better. This epiphany occurred when I learned that his chosen senior aides had a long discussion with Erik Prince, formerly CEO of Blackwater, about Afghanistan. Prince was also a campaign advisor and go between for Trump prior to his election. Mr. Prince’s proposal is that the United States privatize the occupation there by replacing our troops with security contractors working for a new company he offered to create. Prince’s plan would also save the U.S. money by paying for his company troops using the proceeds of the mineral wealth they would extract from the country.

In interviews Prince explained that the reason both Bush and Obama failed to succeed in Afghanistan is that they were attempting restore the country to self rule by training and supporting its fledgling government and troops. In his view holding territory and protecting the rural population should be secondary to securing routes to valuable resources and their extraction points such as mines and wells. The desire to complete the job and leave, in other words have an exit strategy, has been the undoing of both prior administrations’ efforts he said. In a television interview Prince said the occupation of Afghanistan is premised on a faulty model. “We’ve fought for the last 15 years with the 1st Infantry Division model,” he says. “Now we should fight with an East India Company model, and do it much cheaper.”

This is a stunning opportunity for the American people, we could bring our troops home while at the same time have the opportunity to invest in this new, potentially highly profitable corporation. The genius of it is that Prince’s plan harkens back to the days of the British East India Company which essentially ruled India for over 100 years. In his presentation to Trump, Mr. Prince pointed out that while American security contractors cost three times as much as American troops he plans to keep costs down by using foreign mercenaries.

What could possibly go wrong? Let’s consider what went wrong with the British East India Company occupation. By working with local chieftains they created warlords rather than strengthening the national government and troops loyal to it. Their troops and their management took graft and corruption to new heights such that the company didn’t turn a profit during the century of the occupation.

Prince isn’t proposing to just replace the U.S. military with hired contractors, his explicit reference to the British East India Company says he’s actually proposing to remove elected civilian control over operations and replace it with a profit seeking corporation’s board of directors. How do you maximize profits in this scenario? You pay as little as possible to the troops while pillaging natural resources. There will be no schools or hospitals built to win hearts and minds or build a better future for the populace; only mines, oil wells and roads to the nearest port.

The very idea that such a proposal would even be considered by high level White House staff is an abomination. The old adage that you can tell the character of a man by the company he keeps tells us all we need to know about Trump. He’s far worse than even his biggest critics ever imagined.

Published in the Seguin Gazette, August 25, 2017

Friday, August 25, 2017

Trump Shares Responsibility for Murder of Heather Heyer

The terrorist act committed in Charlottesville, Virginia by a right wing, white supremacist makes me angry, sad and afraid for a number of reasons. The senseless murder of Heather Heyer, a young woman lending her voice to those protesting the ugly bigotry of the Unite the Right rally being held by white nationalists, neo-nazi’s and Ku Klux Klan members, is first among them. The President’s disgusting “all sides do it” response is another reason.

With a trio of white supremacists among the senior White House staff it’s no wonder Trump can’t be bothered to make a statement condemning the words and deeds of the leaders of the rally. There’s Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News which by his own description is a website that caters to white supremacists/white nationalists. There’s his friend and fellow white nationalist Stephen Miller, who on national television stated “Our opponents, the media and the whole world, will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned” when discussing Trump’s attempted Muslim travel ban. And there’s Sebastian Gorka, another Breitbart News alumnus, who though lesser known is no less vile, he wears a Nazi pin to work every day at the While House.

If one of President Obama’s senior advisors had worn a Black Power pin you can’t tell me there wouldn’t have been tens of thousands of protesters marching on the White House. My Dad and three uncles, like most young men their age, joined up to fight the Nazi’s in World War II. While all my family members returned home, some with life long health problems, many of their friends didn’t. It sickens me that after the sacrifices all those men and women made in the 1940’s this nation’s current president embraces the philosophical descendants of Adolf Hitler and the treasonous, secessionists like Jefferson Davis.

Event organizers and speakers like former KKK grand wizard David Duke and Richard Spencer, one of the founders of the alt-right movement, as well as president of the National Policy Institute white nationalist think tank are an ugly reminder that this nation still hasn’t gotten past the sins of its founding fathers. It’s even more frustrating that Donald Trump ascended to the presidency with the vocal support of people like them. He got that support by using their hate filled racist language to arouse white voters. They’re some of the few who still support him so it’s no surprise he hasn’t called them out on their hateful actions.

Trump has used the megaphone that the mainstream media have given him since he announced his run for the presidency to activate the pathetic excuses for humanity that make up the white nationalists and he rode it to the top. Since his candidacy we’ve seen people once on the fringe come to the fore and be outspoken about their racist beliefs. After one high school student was informed that flying the Confederate Battle flag from his bumper was unacceptable on campus he came to a city council meeting to defend his right. I was stunned and disappointed but at the time I hadn’t realized what Trump had unleashed, now I know and it saddens me for the country and the people who will suffer.

I was proud of this country when we elected our first black president by a substantial margin. I was sickened when we elected his anti-thesis as his successor. Since he didn’t win by a majority of the votes perhaps there is still hope.

Published in the Seguin Gazette, August 18, 2017

Friday, August 18, 2017

Trump the Worst But Better Than Republican Alternatives

Regardless of the scandals, racist policies, incompetence and outright ignorant foreign policy of our current president I’m not all that interested in seeing him impeached any time soon. I’d much rather the Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation find every bit of the dirt and then begin the impeachment process sometime in May of 2020 after it’s too late for any real competition for the Republican nomination.

Recently published research shows that regardless of Trump’s plummeting national approval rating, Republican voters in those districts that voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 still rate him the same as they did on his inauguration day. I see little chance of that changing so if all else remains equal we’ll lose again in 2020. We’re going to need the next three and a half years to figure out and execute a plan to get non-voters to the polls. Here in Texas that’s a lot of folks, in fact more than half of the voting age population of Texas didn’t vote at all. Based on demographics most of them are likely to vote for Democrats if they can be persuaded to show up at the polls. Winning in Texas is really important since if Texas had swung to the Democrats in 2016 Trump would have been two votes short in the electoral college and we’d likely have a Democratic president today.

We’ve got serious work to do in South Texas, for example in Hidalgo County the voting age population is over 616,000 and just 28% voted in 2016. El Paso County has a voting age population of 638,000 and only 33% voted. Harris County, 3.3 million and 39% turnout, Bexar County 1.4 million 41% turnout, Guadalupe County 115,000 and 49.4% turnout. Pathetic as those numbers are statewide the turnout rate was just 42.62%. Non-voter demographics suggest that about two out of three of them would vote for Democrats if they voted at all, so just an overall turnout increase of 17% would have been enough to win Texas for the Democrats in 2016.

I’m not just interested in impeachment being delayed for electoral reasons. It is actually in the best interest of the American people to have an incompetent Republican in the oval office rather than a competent one. If Mike Pence were President, he might very well have been able to work with the House and Senate to come up with a bill to repeal at least parts of the Affordable Care Act and who knows how many Americans would suffer and die for the greed of his wealthy sponsors. While some pundits argue that Mueller is going after Pence too, even if both are impeached the Speaker of the House is next in line of succession and that gives us Paul Ryan as President which I don’t see as a good thing.

Ryan is the architect of the House version of the bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act which would kick 15 million Americans off Medicaid and cause another 7 million to lose their insurance coverage. Not only that but even very conservative estimates suggest passage of repeal would lead to the unnecessary and preventable deaths of 15,000 to 20,000 Americans every year. Then there’s the untold suffering of those who would be left untreated for illnesses that too often damage their bodies for life. Not to mention the number of bankruptcies that would increase again due to those who received medical care they then couldn’t pay for.

Trump may be one of the worst presidents ever but anyone other Republican is likely to be worse for America.

Published in the Seguin Gazette August 11, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Trump Antics Distract From Damage

While many of us have been watching the train wreck that is the Trump administration quite a few damaging pieces of legislation have been signed into law almost unnoticed.

As is often the case Republicans are all for local control until it threatens some rich guy’s profits. Two bills HJR 66 and HJR 67 have rescinded Obama era rules that made it possible for states to setup their own IRA-type retirement savings programs. California was the first to jump on the option which would have created a way for millions of Californians who work for employers without a 401k or pension plan to save for their retirement. Trump signed the bill which blocks states from setting up such payroll savings plans. The bill rescinds Department of Labor rules designed to expand the number of working Americans with access to IRA-styled savings accounts. Between 30 and 55 million Americans have lost the option to join a payroll deduction savings plan, which is well known to be the best way to save for retirement.

HJR 43 reversed the Health and Human Services rule that prevented states like Texas from withholding funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions. In so doing, Republicans and their rubber stamp Trump have caused tens of thousands of poor women in Texas to lose the chance to have mammograms, birth control and other reproductive health services unrelated to abortions.

HJR 83 rolls back protections for workers who are injured on the job by reducing the statute of limitations on inaccurate record keeping from five years to six months. Once again Republicans let dangerous employers off the hook by letting them get away with sloppy record keeping thus making it harder to prove that the employer is negligent.

For those of you rich enough to hunt from an airplane or helicopter HJR 69 repeals a rule issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which prohibited aerial hunting of bears and wolves and bear-baiting, in Alaska. No one should have to hike for miles in the wilderness to kill an animal so they can hang its head on their wall.

Next time you’re out of work due to your employer going bankrupt or simply a reduction in force and you file for unemployment compensation don’t be surprised if you are told you have to take a drug test because Republicans in congress passed HJR 42 so you can be further demeaned. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that in every state where its been tried almost no one who files for unemployment ever tests positive for drug use. If you’re a conservative it seems to be a matter of principle that being unemployed means you’re a slacker and a druggy. Of course you’ll notice that they never test for alcohol abuse so it must be OK to be a drunk.

Since regulations to protect government contractors by requiring employers to disclose labor law violations, including wage theft, unsafe working conditions and hiring discrimination offended their big money supporters Republicans passed and Trump signed HJR 37. By rescinding those regulations Republicans have once again given a green light to federal contractors who steal from their employees.

That’s just some of the lowlights you might have missed in the first six months of the Trump train wreck. It’s important not to let the shenanigans reported in the media distract us from the real damage being done by the Republican Party.

Published in the Seguin Gazette August 4, 2017