Thursday, January 30, 2014

Confession time

Don't get me wrong.  I like Barack Obama a great deal. I voted for him twice. I support and defend him when he does good things, or tries to, which is most of the time.  And I love to hear him speak.  His speech to the 2004 DNC, which introduced him to America, was one of the greatest political speeches of my lifetime.

But I have not watched, listened to, or read more than short excerpts of any of his five State of the Union addresses.

People who know me as a politics junkie might be surprised by that, although I am less interested in political matters than when I was younger.  Today it's justice, not politics, that dominates my interest--and that includes the conventional justice as well as economic and social justice.

But the reason why I am not interested in Obama's formal speeches, especially the State of the Union, is that I don't need him to tell me what the state of our union really is.  I don't need to hear the platitudes and plans.  I don't care about the applause lines.  I couldn't care less which Republican yells out "you lie" or walks out in the middle of the speech; the Republicans these days are classless in that way, and it is hard to expect them as children to behave in conformity with any standard of adult conduct.  I suppose they never had the benefit of a mother who taught them that if they couldn't say something nice they should say nothing at all.

The truth is that Obama's agenda, such as it is, is never going to satisfy my view of justice.  I'm tired of expecting that it will.  As proud as I am of what Obama, the man, has achieved, I am underwhelmed by the achievements of Obama, the President.  There were some notable advances in the first half of his first term.  But the wheels of government have ground to a halt.  Very little of that bit is of his doing, of course.  He faces a power structure in the House of Representatives that is equal parts insane and entrenched and thoroughly un-democratic.  The opposition to him is increasingly divorced from reality, but their agreement is required to make any advances, and they have rigged the game through gerrymandering so that their majority is elected by a minority.  It might well be impossible to separate the idiots from their offices in the near term.

He is, of course, better than the alternative.  As moderate as I think Mitt Romney might have been as President, he would almost certainly usher in a new era of bad governance.  To pick a semi-obscure example where that has occurred, you need only to look at North Carolina.  Pat McCrory was the Republican mayor of Charlotte--a heavily Democratic city--for seven two-year terms, three more than any other person in history.  He was able to function in that role because he was among the most moderate Republicans.  That Pat McCrory has no place in the GOP today.  He's been replaced by Governor McCrory, a right-wing ideologue who has presided over the rollback of most of the popular reforms that five Democratic gubernatorial terms running had brought the state.  Sadly, McCrory ran as the same moderate the people of Charlotte remembered; after getting elected, it became clear that he was running a bait-and-switch.

From time to time, I come into contact with people who have come to oppose Obama reflexively.  Some of the comments I see and hear are founded on open or thinly veiled racism.  Some of the other comments are so stupid or ignorant that it is hard to believe that otherwise-intelligent people would speak them publicly, which suggests that they are veiling their racism more thickly.  (Often, I want, but elect not, to respond to them with the line, "Why don't you just call him a n----- and get it over with?")

There is a hard core of people who will simply never support anything Obama proposes to do, no matter how much it's needed, how much it will benefit them personally, or how good of an idea it is.  Those people are a minority in the country, but they constitute a majority of the House and a filibuster-proof minority in the Senate.

The country is screaming for reforms.  We're stagnating economically and politically.  Obama can fill up the airwaves with pretty words and grand plans, but I'm more interested in action.  It's time to act, by whatever means he can conjure, and in the meantime, by all means necessary, to bring the recalcitrant minority to its knees in shame.

If they have any capacity for shame left.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The money delusion

All Holocaust analogies are destined to fail, but some Holocaust analogies fail more quickly than others.  And none is likely to fail more quickly than the one in Tom Perkins's recent letter in the Wall Street Journal, in which he warned of a rising tide of hatred against the rich and drew parallels between modern progressivism and the "unthinkability" in 1930 of Kristallnacht, generally regarded as the first concrete step toward Hitler's "Final Solution."

Let me be clear:  Perkins's analogy fails on virtually every level of analysis.  There is no long history of anti-wealth sentiment in this country (if anything, we fetishize wealth).  The rich are not a powerless minority; unlike the Jews Hitler scapegoated, wealthy people actually do have access to the levers of government.  Modern progressives do not advocate for discrimination against the wealthy but for fundamental fairness for the non-wealthy.

(I note with some irony that over the last few years, thousands of poor Americans have been driven from their homes because of deception and, in some cases, outright theft, by "banksters" who guzzled down billions of tax dollars in bailouts; Perkins apparently has no sympathy for people who have had actual losses due to factors beyond their control.)

And, on top of that, his analogy is just offensive to everybody, or should be. 

So let's throw it out and look at the point Perkins is trying to get across.

That's important because even though Perkins has issued a tepid apology--the equivalent of "I'm sorry you were offended"--he has not taken back his claim, that wealthy people are a put-upon minority that is in danger of being wiped out by a progressive majority bent on the destruction of wealth, or his thesis, that wealth is a sign of virtue.

Like many people in his financial stratum, Perkins suffers from the delusion that his financial position is the result of his own virtue, of his work--that he is entitled to what he has because he earned it.  He believes that he has been greatly rewarded because what he does has value to the economy as a whole. In an interview published in the last few hours, Perkins said:

So I think that the solution is less interference, lower taxes. Let the rich do what the rich do, which is get richer. But along the way, they bring everybody else with them when the system is working.
Perkins probably has a tighter grip, a better claim, on that philosophy than most of his peers, because of his history as a venture capitalist, but only slightly.  The firm he co-founded focused primarily on helping already-big businesses get bigger, and the businesses in which he invested have hardly been the drivers of good jobs in this country.

But even if you concede--and I do not--that wealthy people do more to create jobs, Perkins's philosophy that his rewards are based upon the virtues he exhibits, is wrong-headed, to say the least.  Perkins has been rewarded as he has because of the confluence of three factors, only one of which he had any control over:  (1) his own work ethic and applied intelligence, (2) the financial assistance of others in backing his activities, and (3) the availability of opportunities to accumulate wealth and a political and financial climate that allowed him to keep it.

In his book Valley Boy, Perkins recounts his humble beginnings, noting that his parents, especially his mother, demanded of him that he earn money for the family, and crediting a science teacher with pushing him to become the first of his family to attend college.  Perkins won a scholarship from MIT, and, with the scholarship money, savings, and a $200 loan from his father, he took an engineering degree. 

Perkins is to be commended for this part of his biography.  Without his hard work, he would never have climbed to the lofty heights he now occupies.  But lots of people work hard, even harder than Perkins ever dreamed of working, without achievement.  Perkins's hard work was made meaningful by the opportunities presented to him: in the beginning, scholarship money from a prominent university, a public-school teacher who cared about his progress, even a father who could scrape together $200; later, investors who backed his early businesses and the opportunity to be a part of a new venture capital firm funded mostly by others' money.  And Perkins grew his wealth in a climate of low taxes on high incomes.  (In 1960, the top tax marginal income tax rate exceeded 90%; it bottomed out at 28% in the 1980s, and capital gains--where Perkins has made most of his money--are taxed at lower rates still.)

But he views it all as attributable to him alone.  The work part--that was his.  The rest came about because of the work, in his view.  And that's where he goes wrong. 
The central message of progressive philosophy is that we must do more to make certain that those opportunities are available to everyone.  That means that we must take some portion of Tom Perkins's sails in.

Sadly, Perkins worries that the ascendancy of progressivism will lead to billionaires being reduced to mere hundred-millionaires--or, in his case, to lesser billionaires.  Perkins has a financial net worth of about $8 billion.  He is over 80 years old.  If he lives to be 100 years old, does not receive a dime more in income of any sort, and spends a million dollars a day, he will still not run out of money.

So, weep not for the Tom Perkinses of the world.  They are not a put-upon minority, and it is offensive for him to claim that mantle, given the opulent conditions in which he lives.  If anything, Tom Perkins owes us all a debt.  Don't let him delude you into thinking we owe him anything, or that he deserves our kindness and consideration.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On a personal note

I admit that I get a big kick out of people who say they enjoy, or even read, my blog.  But I'm not as big a fan of attention being paid to my personal life.  I've written on this subject before in a different context (I still need to commit my Jonathan Frakes story to writing), and I think my opinion on those matters is well established.

Of course, I am not famous in any real way except one:  It seems that many more people know me than I know.  In a way, to my mind, that makes me a terrible person, because at least part of the reason why this is the case is that I am terrible with names.  Upon meeting people, I often forget their names by the time our first conversation is over.

But if I were to view this situation objectively rather than through the lens of my own personal self-esteem issues, my honest assessment would be that it is mostly a combination of ways in which I am outside the norm.  Although I was by my standards a poor student, I did better than most people do in school.  One of my personality traits, for which I deserve no credit at all--it's just how I am--is that I like people enough that I tend to treat everyone as my equal or better, in a way that is different from most people.*  And I have always, more or less, had an outsize physical stature that makes it easy to remember me.

* - At least I'd like to think that I do, and if there are people out there whose experience with me wasn't like that, I humbly apologize. Perhaps you caught me on a bad day.

This last point means that I can never be an effective criminal.  I cannot go into a restaurant more than twice without being "recognized."  The tellers at the bank could all pick me out of a lineup.  (Which bank?  All of them.)  I tend to make an impression on people that lasts.

That produces some odd results.  For example, I have more than a few Facebook friends that I don't know--I don't know them, and I couldn't tell you where they know me from, although I could make some guesses based on the friends we have in common.  (If you are reading this from a link I put on Facebook, rest assured that I know who you are.  I promise.)

But I also tend not to share a lot of personal information, both because it's not an especially good idea, but because I don't really crave the attention to my life that sharing would draw.

I say all of this as prologue to this:  I had surgery yesterday, and I told almost nobody.  As surgeries go, it was minor, almost negligible.  In technical terms, I had a rather large lipoma ("lie POH mah") removed from my back.  To save you a trip to Google, a lipoma is a tumor composed mostly of fatty tissue surrounded by a fibrous sheath.  There are many different types; my type lay just beneath the skin, above the muscle.

A few years ago, Michelle noticed a small lump, about 3/4 of an inch in diameter, on the left upper portion of my back, near my shoulder.  My doctor immediately recognized it as a lipoma, but she said it was nothing to worry about; they are always** benign.  She encouraged me to schedule an appointment with a surgeon at my leisure to have it removed.

** - Lipomas are always benign, but some lumps that are diagnosed as lipomas turn out to be other things, which can be malignant.

Most people who know me know that I don't ache to visit doctor's offices and don't have a lot of "leisure" time, so I didn't do anything about it.  My lump grew, eventually reaching about 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter.  It stuck out from my clothes in an unsightly way, and I would occasionally bump it on things, so I was ready to have it gone.  I finally scheduled that appointment, a couple of weeks ago, with Dr. Robert Moffett, who is mostly a cosmetic surgeon but who also does general surgery.  (He is excellent, by the way, and if you feel the need for some body modification, he is definitely your man.  But if you're going to do that, do it for you, not for anyone else.)

The problem with waiting is that before, when it was small, I could have had it out in an afternoon under local anesthesia in a doctor's office.  At its final size, a five-inch incision and general anesthesia in a hospital setting (though still outpatient) became necessary, so I showed up at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center at 5:30 yesterday morning to begin the procedure.

Until yesterday, I had never had any procedure done in a hospital.  I'd never had general anesthesia.  I'd never even worn a hospital gown.  This whole experience was entirely foreign to me.  And I realized yesterday that I've been lucky in that regard.

I won't bore you with the details, although coming out of anesthesia was...interesting.  Apparently I was full of detailed questions for the nurse who was monitoring me.  And somehow the IV that was in my right wrist when I went to sleep ended up in my left wrist when I woke up. And they sent me home with a prescription for enough Percocet to start my own drug-running operation.*** I still have all of them and probably will not take any.  They're much more valuable to me as currency.†  I have taken Vicodin before, after having my wisdom teeth out.  Vicodin contains hydrocodone, which is basically a mild form of heroin.  Vicodin did nothing to knock down my pain and simply made me angry.  I joked with my brother yesterday that if I had been the first person to take Vicodin it would never have been marketed.  ("This drug just makes people angry. There's no market for that!")  Percocet contains oxycodone, which is stronger than hydrocodone.‡  I don't need to be that angry, and all things considered, I'm not in more pain than Tylenol can handle.

*** - Not really.  And not that I would.

† - Seriously, I wouldn't do that.

‡ - True story.  After hydrocodone and oxycodone became drugs of abuse, they started requiring it to be packaged with acetaminophen, on the theory that it would reduce abuse because acetaminophen is toxic to the liver in large doses.  (That's why Tylenol ads these days are all about encouraging you to take as little Tylenol as possible.)  Of course, the result of that is now primarily that the people who become addicted to opioids also destroy their livers in the process.  But that's drug control policy for you.

But the larger lesson for me was the reminder that as good as the "old days" were, there is no substitute for modern medicine.  St. Vincent's staff ran the whole process like a well oiled machine.  I went under at about 9:00 and was getting into my car at 11:30.  The nurses were both highly intelligent and compassionate.  Everyone I met was cheerful and appeared to be happy to do their assigned jobs.  If any of them were having a bad day, they never let it show.  They were clearly concerned first with my comfort and well being.  I believe I got the very best care I could have received.  It may be that not everybody gets that, but I did, and I'm grateful for it. 

Of course, as I noted above, I'm terrible with names, so I couldn't tell you any of them.  But they were great.  I love them all.  And I love all of you, every last one of you.  Even if I don't know who you are.

Monday, January 20, 2014

King on Justice

If you ask someone randomly to give you a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most likely result will be some words sourced from his address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,* the famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  It is a great speech, one of the greatest in American history.

* - Yes, that's really what it was called.

But King wrote and spoke a lot of words that were equally powerful, to my mind, if not more powerful.  My favorite of them all is a line that he repeated many times in various speeches and writings across his career.  I like it so much because it both carries the weight of a long struggle and hold up hope for a better future.  When the world gets me down, I think on these words, as he framed them in an August 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, entitled "Where Do We Go From Here?":
I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. ... When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
King said that last line so many times, in many of his most famous speeches, that it might be considered the central theme of the message of his life. 

But, like those of a lot of good speechwriters, the sentiment was not original.  Great language is often the work of many hands, and great thoughts are often shared among great minds.  More than a hundred years before, in 1853, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent abolitionist, gave a sermon he called "Of Justice and the Conscience."  In it, he described the state of the world as he saw it:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Parker was an interesting fellow.  He was one of the great liberals of his time.  He palled around with folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists, Louisa May Alcott (later of Little Women fame), Julia Ward Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), and early women's activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  He pastored a "megachurch" with 7,000 members.  As an abolitionist, he led efforts in Boston to resist enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, helped to arm the militias of free states before the civil war, and secretly supported John Brown, regarded by many as a terrorist, in his efforts to overthrow the institution of slavery through armed insurrection.

If I were to add anything at all to the words of King and Parker, it would be this:  That it is the work of good people that causes that arc to bend in the first place.

Ours to take care of

Without apology, I am an evolutionist.  What that means, to be precise, is that I believe based upon the evidence before me that the theory of evolution as an explanation for human origins is essentially correct.  Of course, over time, our knowledge and understanding of the facts of evolution will grow, and that may require some revision to the theory.  But the theory is substantially correct.

But I also believe that our understanding of evolution requires us to make some moral judgments about particular acts.  Stated another way, I tend to view moral questions through the lens of whether particular acts lead to greater or lesser evolutionary success.  For example, consider that murder is against the law--but why? 

Theists tend to believe, of course, that murder should be against the law because their god has decreed it so.  But that leads to some problems.  What about killing in war?  What about self-defense, or defense of others?  We seem to have little difficulty parsing out which kinds of killing ought to be legal and which ought not to be, but the three major theist religions have their differences, and in any event there is a disturbing lack of specificity in the various scriptures that cover such matters.
I take a different view.  Murder should be generally against the law because allowing murder tends to defeat the process of civilization, which has conferred upon humans a great survival advantage.  Human groupings that allow murder without consequence will not long prosper, or even survive, and those who prohibit it are more likely to survive and prosper.  Viewing these things from an evolutionary perspective also allows for reasonable exceptions that promote our survival, including self-defense and some kinds of war.

Viewing moral choices in their evolutionary context can help plug the apparent gap between the scientific approach to life and morality.  (I've never believed that gap actually existed, but religious people in particular seem to believe that it's impossible for atheists to hold a "good" morality.)  But that same approach can help to expose some rather immoral beliefs and conduct on the part of theists--even judged by their own standards.

Against that background, I'd like you to consider the recent comments about global climate change by a semi-celebrity, a theist who is well known in Arkansas but primarily known as a sports commentator.  Earlier this month, most of the U.S. was in the grip of a weather phenomenon whereby the "polar vortex" had strengthened and aligned itself much farther south than it usually does, resulting in bitterly, dangerously cold temperatures.*  The result of this, politically, was that the hard-core right wingers who deny the existence of climate change were using the abnormally cold temperatures to justify those denials.

* - The polar vortex exists all of the time; most of us had never heard of it because it rarely ventures this far south.

From Media Matters:

ESPN announcers Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes mainstreamed the right-wing myth that cold weather in January disproves man-made climate change.

During the first half of a January 7 game, Dykes discussed a pattern of cold weather blanketing much of the United States and said he had observed a national television debate earlier over "whether or not global warming was still taking place." While laughing Dykes said, "I listened to about 30 seconds of it, but the guy saying no it has not, I think he won the debate." Nessler laughed in response.
The fact that it is cold in January, even exceptionally cold, does not disprove the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  A cold day is a matter of weather, not climate.

But if we were put a name to the weather-related consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the best name would be "global weirding," a term coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a global sustainability think tank.  Weather and climate are chaotic by definition--the behavior of the climate is nonlinear and exhibits sensitive dependence upon initial conditions.  (Stated another way, small changes lead to large consequences.) 

Because of the global average temperate rise that accompanies it, the introduction of excess greenhouse gases is a small but significant change in the inputs of our climate.  The logical result of that is a change in the equilibrium points of the climate, which may mean melting ice caps and rising seas over time.  But it also means wilder swings in day-to-day weather.  Hurricanes become more intense.  Hot days become hotter.  Tornadoes become more frequent.  Rainy seasons become rainier, and dry seasons become drier. 

More importantly, global warming can produce extremes at the other end of the scale--colder cold days, more snow, thicker ice caps.  The thing that all of this extreme weather has in common is that it differs from what we are accustomed to thinking of as normal.  It's weird.

Back to Jimmy Dykes.  After he exhibited his ignorance on television, the Twitter response called him out.  But Jimmy doubled down, tweeting:

God is in control of our climate. He does not make mistakes. Plus it's 3 degrees where I stand right now : )
Hey, if you want to be an idiot about climate change, that's fine.  I doubt anyone is taking their cues about the subject from some half-wit sports color commentator.  But whether you approach the world from a scientific perspective, as I do, or you prefer the Bible to explain things for you, I think you have to end up in the same position. 

The scientific consensus now is that what we do to the environment matters, not just over the short term, but for the long-term survival of our species.  That part is easy.

But I've read Genesis, too.  I don't know what version Jimmy Dykes reads from, if at all, but Genesis 1:26 (KJV) reads:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
If you believe that the Bible is true, either literally or just generally, doesn't it say pretty much the opposite of what Jimmy Dykes believes?  What does that verse mean, if it does not mean that God gave humans the responsibility to take care of the earth?  Even if you believed we couldn't destroy the earth, wouldn't you want to be a good steward of that which God had entrusted to you?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


In the cutthroat, largely uncensored world of college sports message boards, especially those run for or by fans of a particular school's teams, epithets against other schools' teams, players, and fans abound creatively.  These range from the mildly annoying "LS who," to the censoring algorithm that humorously (and fairly accurately) replaces the word "hell" with "Starkville," to the profane, excretory, or aggressively homophobic.

When my team, the Razorbacks, have taken on Oklahoma, my hands-down favorite has been to refer to them, all in good fun, as "Mobilehoma."  But equally popular appears to be "Oklahomo."  I don't enjoy or even like that one, but--and I have to state an apology to those friends and relatives who live in or come from Oklahoma--recent news events have forced me to reconsider.  And it's a good thing.

By now, you've almost certainly heard that a federal judge in Oklahoma has struck down that state's ban on gay marriage.  Oklahoma thus follows Utah down the path toward marriage equality.  It's going to happen.  It really can't be stopped, because enacting official discrimination against homosexual couples, as Oklahoma has done (and as many other states have done) is a pretty clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  It will take some time for these cases to work their way through the courts, but there is simply no longer any intellectually cognizable argument in favor of continuing discrimination. The Supreme Court has already signaled which direction it will go in when these cases come before it.

To me, however, the far more interesting thing to watch has been the reaction of the right wing to marriage equality's march across the heartland.  (For some real gems, go read the comments on the Tulsa World's report of this decision.)  Predictably, most of these people are prepared to hide their hate behind the Bible.  The more sophisticated of them are clinging to long-discredited theories of states' rights.  Some of them are even blaming Obama, who insofar as I am aware had nothing whatsoever to do with this case.

I cannot help but highlight the views of one of those commenters.  The argument is uncharacteristically grammatical and sounds reasonably educated, if not intelligent:

U.S. Federal Judges overturning a question that a state's citizens had unanimously* voted for or against at the ballot box is usurping a state's rights and sovereignty, and the will and desire of the state's people. It is the federal government ruling by fiat. No matter where you stand on an issue, that cannot be allowed. U.S. Federal Judge Terence Kern's decision must be challenged. If we don't win, then our state, every state, will in effect, lose its sovereignty. And that will go directly against the U.S. Constitution. Obama and Liberals are making a power grab. We must not let them get away with it.
* - Yes, she really did say "unanimously."

There are a lot of things wrong with this, of course.  I will leave aside the factual inaccuracies.  This person and the millions of others who agree with her simply don't understand some basic facts about the government and political processes of the United States.  True, the Constitution sets up a general condition of dual sovereignty; the federal government holds delegated powers over some aspects of the law and American life, and the state governments hold other powers.  States are sovereign over their territories.

Except when they're not.

Alexander Pope once wrote that "a little learning is a dangerous thing," and here is another case of that in action.  The Constitution wasn't final when we passed the Bill of Rights, including the Tenth Amendment that provides the source of the anti-gay side's argument.  We kept going, adding 17 more amendments.  Enacted in the aftermath of the Civil War, three of those amendments impose some rather serious restrictions on state sovereignty.  For example, the Thirteenth ended slavery in the United States.  States were no longer free to allow humans to own other humans.  The Fifteenth guaranteed against racial discrimination in voting rights.

But the Fourteenth?  It's the grandaddy of them all.  The Fourteenth not only restricts states in what they can and cannot do, and guarantees that states must provide the due process of law in regulating their citizens, but also applies to the states substantially all of the same restrictions imposed in the Bill of Rights directly on the federal government.  Before 1868, there was nothing in the Constitution that expressly prohibited a state, for example, from recognizing an official religion or seizing a person's property without a warrant.

The Fourteenth makes the will and desire of a state's people irrelevant when the will and desire are to deny a group of people the equal protection of the laws.

The Fourteenth has made "Oklahomo" a reality.  And it's a beautiful day.

Over the next couple of years, there will be more and more of these.  And they will keep getting decided in this way.  The genie is out of the bottle, and no incantations from Exodus, Romans, or Corinthians will get him back it.  Freedom marches, often slowly, but always forward.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Free Debo

In the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, Daniel Faulkner, a white five-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, conducted a routine traffic stop of a VW Beetle belonging to one William Cook, a young black street vendor who lived in the neighborhood.  Cook's older brother, a journalist and part-time taxi driver, happened to be parked across the street from where Cook was stopped.

What precisely happened next depends on whose account you believe, but what is not in dispute is that at nearly four o'clock that morning, both Faulkner and Cook's brother lay bleeding on the street.  Cook's brother was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for his wounds.  He survived.  Faulkner did not.

William Cook's older brother, born Wesley, had spent part of his youth as a disciple of the Black Panthers.  He dropped out of high school and became involved in Panther politics, eventually drawing surveillance from COINTELPRO and the Philadelphia Police Department, but was convinced to return to high school.  Radicalized by his Black Panther experience, the elder Cook found himself drawn to the more militant aspects of the civil rights movement.  An African Studies teacher from his high school bestowed "classroom names" on the students; Wesley's meant "prince."  Later, after the birth of his son Jamal, drawing on that experience, Wesley Cook would take the name Mumia Abu-Jamal.

* * * * *

The story of Mumia Abu-Jamal remains the subject of hot debate among conspiracy theorists, but the racial aspect of the story has made for a far higher level of controversy and given it staying power.  In 1982, Mumia was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Daniel Faulkner and sentenced to death.  There was substantial evidence supporting the conviction, including both circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony.  The passage of time has caused some elements of the proof to be eroded, but to what degree that matters is probably a matter of perspective.

I cannot say for certain whether Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Daniel Faulkner.  I wasn't there.  It would certainly not be out of character for the Philadelphia Police Department to have framed him.  PPD has a long history of friction with radicals, especially black radicals, that culminated in the 1985 bombing, by the PPD, of a communal house occupied by members of MOVE, a cult-like "back-to-nature" group that loudly advocated for its positions and engaged in violent conflict with the police.  But Mumia was unanimously convicted by a 12-person jury, and that conviction has been repeatedly reviewed by higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and upheld. 

You will never see me wearing a "Free Mumia" t-shirt.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I certainly have no sympathy for cop killers.  In fact, there is little doubt in my mind that Mumia did kill Faulkner.  I am not equipped to sort out whether there were factors that would support a lesser sentence than death or life imprisonment.  Ballistics showed that Mumia was shot by Faulkner's gun.

In 2008, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals--a federal court that, among other things, reviews state-level criminal convictions in Pennsylvania--ruled that Mumia's death sentence had been decided according to improper jury instructions, and it ordered that either the state would conduct a new sentencing hearing or Mumia's sentence would be reduced to life in prison.  After further review of that decision, the prosecutor decided not to attempt to re-sentence, and Mumia left death row--but not prison--in 2012.

* * * * *

The appeal that led to the altered sentence was spearheaded by the NAACP, an organization that has a long history of advocacy for justice for African Americans.  After all, it was the NAACP who employed attorney Thurgood Marshall to argue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, which brought de jure racial segregation in education to an end, albeit slowly.  The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund exists to provide legal representation to criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs on issues of importance to persons of color.

As an attorney, the one thing I can glean from the NAACP's position in the Mumia case is that because they won, they had a point.  The Third Circuit reviews thousands of cases and leaves convictions undisturbed almost every time.  If these judges--two Reagan appointees and one Clinton appointee--could unanimously agree that the jury instructions were improper, there is a pretty good chance that the jury instructions really were improper.  So I view this result as a just result.

* * * * *

Debo Adegbile was an attorney for the LDF who assisted on the Mumia appeal.  He did not argue for Mumia, nor was he in any respect a lead attorney in the case.  But he did assist, and in 2012 he became the acting director of the LDF following the death of his predecessor.

Adegbile was recently nominated by President Obama to be the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, an immensely important position that bears day-to-day responsibility for managing the division of the Justice Department that ensures that Americans' civil rights are upheld.  For me, it is hard to think of a more worthy goal of the government than to ensure that our rights are upheld, even when those rights and the exercise thereof may be unpopular.

Every morning, millions of school children stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and as much as it infuriates me that "under God" has been inserted into it, the far more important part of that pledge is in its last clause:  "With liberty and justice for all."  I do believe that those words mean something.  Our American experiment doesn't work unless we have people willing to put those words into practice.  That means that even rapists and murderers, even terrorists and assassins, even cop-killers and racial radicals like Mumia Abu-Jamal get justice--real justice, not "the right to be convicted," but genuine review, basic fairness, and equal treatment by and through the law.  Adegbile appears to be genuinely dedicated to the cause of justice, and we will be well served if he becomes the AAG for civil rights.

As you might imagine, the Fraternal Order of Police has been highly interested in Mumia's case from the beginning.  The FOP has been the focal point of the "Fry Mumia" movement, and it has long opposed attempts by various organizations to obtain a different result in that case.  It was incensed when Mumia's sentence was reduced.  It also has a long memory.

The right wing's professional outrage machine has seized on the FOP's view and amplified it, suggesting--no, outright alleging--that by nominating Adegbile, Obama supports cop-killers.

The outrage machine is doing what it does best, and it should simply be ignored.

But this episode has made it clear that the FOP has gone too far.  It has lost its perspective.  We must respect and honor the dangerous service that police officers provide, and we must do what we can to protect police officers from those who would do them harm.  We must not shrink from the duty to hold cop-killers accountable.

But Mumia is being held accountable for what he was convicted of doing.  He will leave prison in a hearse.  That day may be a long time from now, but it will come eventually.  By allowing its position to be used as a foil for politics by people who don't much care for them as a rule,* the FOP undermines the broader message that its organization stands for.

* - One need only witness the gleeful advocacy, popular among right-wingers, for dismantling civil service and union protections for public workers, including--especially including--police officers, to understand that these people are no friends of police.

The truth is that the death penalty is simply unnecessary to justice in this case.  Mumia Abu-Jamal has been removed from our society; to whatever extent he once represented a danger to the public, he no longer does.  Advocating for the proper application of the law to every case, as Debo Adegbile has done, does not change that.  It makes our justice system better by proving that we are all equal before the law.  I would hope that the FOP could get behind that.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Problem with Chris Christie

It should come as no surprise that I'm not a big fan of Chris Christie.  Christie received accolades for bipartisanship based upon his unequivocal praise of Barack Obama's handling of the Superstorm Sandy aftermath, just before the 2012 election, and it was likely in part due to that praise that the election wasn't close. So I suppose I have to be grateful, somewhat, that unlike most Republican officeholders he was at least honest about Obama.

And I think a lot of the criticism Christie has endured has focused upon his weight problem.  It's a good thing that the people of New Jersey didn't hold that against him, and I have found a lot of the references to it, even in the mainstream press, to be almost unspeakably cruel.  His weight is not and should never be the issue.

But I do not like him.  His tenure as governor of New Jersey has been marked by a fairly extreme agenda.  For example, shortly after taking office, he turned down billions in federal funding for a new tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan--one that is sorely needed because of the number of people who work in Manhattan but who cannot afford to live there--to satisfy the extreme anti-spending wing of his party.

Policy disagreements aside, however, he must never be the President.  In fact, the latest episode has shown he really is not fit to hold public office of any type.

A lot of the criticisms of politicians are valid.  Many if not most of them are vain; they are interested primarily in accumulating power; they always have an eye on the next higher office; they are focused on retaining office; more than a few of them are subject to graft and other forms of corruption; and almost all of them will say anything, irrespective of the truth, in pursuit of their goals.

But if there is one characteristic that all* American politicians share, regardless of any disagreements they may have about how to do it, it is that they are all motivated to serve their constituencies.  Rare is the politician who does not care, even a little bit, about the people who sent him to be their representative.  Politicians may be indifferent to the harm caused by the policies they advocate, and they may focus on serving a subset of their constituency, but they do generally care about doing right by the public.

* - Well, almost all, apparently.  Until this episode, I had never heard of one doing something quite like this.

It is clear, at this point, that Chris Christie, acting through a trusted adviser, ordered the implementation of a bogus "traffic study" on the George Washington Bridge that was designed to create horrible traffic gridlock in Fort Lee, a New York suburb that lies on the New Jersey end of that structure.  His motivation appears to be retaliation.  I doubt that it was to retaliate against the (Democratic) mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse (Republican) Christie for re-election as governor, though that is the story we've been given.

I really don't care about the specifics of his motivation.  The simple fact is that in order to accomplish his political goal, without any benefit to anyone other than him, Chris Christie caused several days of extra trouble for his constituents.

And I don't believe his apology or his explanation, despite the fulsome praise he received from the talking heads for giving his apology and his explanation while withstanding a nearly two-hour press conference on the subject.  The reality is that it is entirely within his demonstrated character to do what he claims he had no idea was being done.  Don't believe me?  Just Google "Chris Christie screaming at teacher" to read the story.

I have often joked about the incompetence of what the late Arkansas Gazette humor columnist Richard Allin referred to as the City of Little Rock's office of traffic light oiling, timing, and lens acquisition.** I have been fortunate to live and drive in larger cities that somehow manage to keep traffic moving by applying engineering principles.  The Maryland Department of Transportation is probably the best I've ever seen at it; they spent lots and lots of time getting it right because poorly timed traffic costs everybody money with no benefit to anyone.  Charlotte never seemed to get it quite right, and Little Rock is on an even higher plateau of incompetence.  But incompetence at that task is simply a question of priorities, not malice.

** - I'm sure that I don't have that exactly right, but if I dig into the far recesses of my memory, I can definitely make out Allin commenting on the antics of one "Radiance Wuppertal," a city official dedicated to ensuring that every vehicle stopped at every traffic signal.  She is apparently still at work after all these years. 

Christie's actions go much further.  This involved direct damage, to the benefit of no one, to people who are simply trying to get to and from work to put food on the table, to put a roof over their family's heads, to put clothes on their backs, and to pay the very taxes that pay Chris Christie's salary.

As Americans we can disagree about just about everything, but I would hope that all of us can agree that a politician who is capable of pulling a stunt like Chris Christie pulled is unfit for political office of any type.  We've got enough problems without electing a bully who would hurt people just to prove a point.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


A couple of days ago, I was involved in an online discussion with some folks I don't know--they were friends of a friend--about a startling statistic the AFL-CIO had published that day.

The statistic was that in a little over one calendar day, the average CEO of an S&P 500 company makes as much money as the average American worker makes in an entire year--and over the course of a year, 354 times as much.

The other side of the discussion was presented by folks who were quick to defend CEO compensation on the basis that what CEOs do is worth every penny of what they receive, and then some.  Their side was long on conservative economic orthodoxy and short on information.  Eventually our mutual friend pulled the plug on the discussion before it became too rancorous, but it was fairly clear where the debate was headed.

I thought I might take the opportunity to talk a little bit about something that frustrates me greatly.  That frustration is rooted in the quasi-biblical faith that economic conservatives place in the economic choices we began to make in the early 1980s, and to paint as "socialism" (gasp!) all efforts to save our fair-market capitalist system from the anarchist plutocrats who are intent on plundering the American economy.

As I have said recently, I am opposed to orthodoxy in all of its various forms.  I am interested only in results, in what works and what doesn't work.  There are no sacred cows on my farm.

First of all, I am a capitalist, not just in philosophy but also in deed.  For the last 10 years, I have worked only for myself, in my own companies.  Not a single dollar passed through my wallet during that time that was guaranteed to me because I held a salaried position in someone else's employ.  I have had opportunities, I suppose, to work for other people, but I prefer to work for myself because of the economic freedom it gives me.  Prosperity or starvation, it's all within my responsibility.

But not everybody is well positioned to do as I do.  I have an advanced degree, licensure, and skills that are valued highly by the market.  For example, in my law practice, when I am billing hourly, my clients pay as much as $400 an hour for my services.  (Don't be fooled; most of the work I do is compensated at a much lower rate.)  When I am setting my rates, the only people who get to weigh in on that point are (1) me and (2) the client who is paying the bill.

That is, the bargain for my services is a market transaction that is almost entirely unregulated.  Of course, the Bar has some rules about fees; I can't charge a fee that is "clearly excessive," whatever that means.  But no one is looking over my shoulder to decide what I can and cannot charge.

And as a rule that is how I think the labor transaction ought to go.  If CEOs can convince corporate boards to part with $12 million for a year's work, that's fine with me, all else being equal.  The problem I see with the pay ratio of 354:1 described above isn't that CEOs make a lot of money; it's that the other piece of the ratio is undervalued.

Capitalism is often described as the economy of the free market.  That descriptor is partially accurate but incomplete.  That market most conservatives advocate for is the "laissez-faire" market, in which government regulation and taxation are minimized or eliminated entirely.  The French words mean "allow to do," meaning that pretty much anything goes. 

In actuality, capitalism is the economy of the fair market, in which rules are established to ensure equity in market behavior and referees enforce those rules by imposing penalties on those who break them.  The equity being enforced can be described in some senses as a balance between individual freedom and common interest.  The ability of the rules and referees to balance these competing interests tends to lubricate commerce.

To provide an example, consider that you are hungry and wish to purchase a can of beef stew for your dinner.*  In the United States, because we have a (reasonably) fair market, that transaction is incredibly easy to accomplish in a way that satisfies you.  You simply go to the store, select your brand, pay the cashier, and hurry home.  You can feel confident about that transaction because the manufacturer (and retailer) are subject to rules about inspections, contamination, spoilage, the quality of the ingredients, the processing practices, disclosures about the ingredients and their nutritional value, disclosures about the manufacturing date and the expiration date, and even the identity of the company that is selling the product.  You can also rest assured that if something has gone both wrong and undetected, and you are injured, there is a mechanism for you to obtain compensation for your injuries, either administratively from the company or through litigation.

* - If you don't like canned beef stew, feel free to substitute any other food that you do like.

In a laissez-faire economy, with none of those regulations and no mechanism to obtain compensation if you are injured, you would literally take your life into your own hands every time you opened a can of beef stew.  (More than usual, that is.)  That would force you to spend a great deal of additional time scrutinizing your purchases, which makes them more expensive than the market price would indicate.

A further reason why the lack of regulations makes markets unfair is because well designed regulations impose the consequences of a transaction on the party best able to control those consequences.  Economists often refer to these consequences as "externalities" because the burden (or benefit) of those consequences generally falls on someone who did not choose to incur or receive them.  For example, consider a hog farmer.  The farmer incurs costs associated with hog production and receives payments for what he produces.  But hogs produce a lot of manure, which doesn't smell good (and must be borne by the farmer's neighbors) and can contaminate waterways when it runs off the farm (and must be borne, ultimately, by everyone).  In the absence of regulation, the farmer is enjoying the benefit of his economic activities without incurring all of the costs associated with them.  The manure smell and runoff are "unpriced negative externalities," meaning that they (a) aren't built into the price of the transaction, (b) cause harms, and (c) are experienced by others who aren't parties to the transaction.

A well designed set of regulations will force the farmer--who is in control of his operations and is in the best position to mitigate the externalities--to incur the cost of preventing those negative externalities from occurring.  Because this raises the farmer's cost, he is likely to raise his prices (or cut his production, which will also raise prices, all else being equal, because as supply goes down, price goes up if demand is constant), which means we all pay a little more for pork.  But that's OK, because the farmer isn't the only one benefiting from the transaction.  Pork buyers benefit, too.  When we pay a higher price for pork, we're sharing proportionally in the cost of preventing that externality.  That makes the market more fair.

More importantly, however, forcing externalities into the pricing equation makes it less likely that individuals will be able, unfairly, to gain at our common expense.  One symptom of an economy that suffer from too many unpriced negative externalities is a wide disparity in incomes and income growth.

To understand what I'm talking about, consider the plight of fast food workers.  Fast food producers are under enormous pressure to keep prices low because competition is fierce.  The largest component of fast food costs is generally the labor required to produce it.  Fast food producers have responded to this challenge by standardizing the preparation process to the point at which even illiterate workers can perform it to an acceptable standard.  The most financially successful operations constantly review and refine their practices to squeeze out every last penny.  In fact, many such operations cross the line into illegal conduct by forcing workers to work unpaid or outright stealing from their employees.

In a down economy, in which jobs are hard to come by, fast food producers have market power over their workers and can rachet wages down to the minimum (or below), because workers, especially the unskilled, have little other choice.  We enable that possibility by (a) keeping the minimum wage low, and (b) subsidizing fast food companies' workers through social welfare programs.  McDonald's, for example, has an extraordinarily high rate of food stamp eligibility among its workers.  Bear in mind, by the way, that these are people who work full-time hours, who are nonetheless eligible for (and receive) food stamps.

Now, I'm a big fan of the food stamp program, and I think it ought to be vastly expanded.  But if you are working full-time hours, you should not need to get a government subsidy to put food on your table, at least in most circumstances.

The justification for the minimum wage is not necessarily that all labor is deserving of at least a particular rate of compensation.  It's that the failure to impose a minimum wage, or to impose a sufficiently high minimum wage, creates unfair market conditions that favor the people who own fast food producers and other employers of low-wage jobs.  We, the taxpayers, aren't really subsidizing the food insecurity of needy people so much as subsidizing the cost of the externalities generated by the "free market" transaction between low-wage employers and their employees, to the benefit of the employers.

Government assistance to fast-food workers costs taxpayers about $7 billion a year, according to a recent study...which is about equal to the bonus compensation paid to top fast-food executives every year.  It's hard to think of a more stark, direct example of an unpriced negative externality.

If we imposed a minimum wage that required that low-wage companies pay a living wage to their employees, the effect would be to force those companies to bear the true cost of their labor instead of foisting a portion of it off onto taxpayers.

Such a move, and others designed to right our ship, is not socialism.  There is no central planning of our economy associated with these moves.  No one is talking about having a government agency determine all salaries or regulate in fine detail what transactions are allowed and which are not.  Rather, this is regulation for the benefit of the general welfare, which is supposed to be one of the main functions of our government.

If what the conservatives advocate worked, I would be the first person in line to sign up for it.  It just doesn't work.  It's time to try something else.  Real capitalism would be a good start.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pete Rose

Today's post doesn't have a lot to do with Pete Rose, but I couldn't resist the title.  It's actually about marijuana legalization.

For some reason I feel like I should offer some kind of disclaimer at the outset, so I will.  I've never tried marijuana, not even once.  I've seen it and smelled it when a cop brought some to one of those "don't use drugs" seminars we had at the United Methodist Youth meetings when I was a kid.  If it were legal to use I can't say that I definitely wouldn't try it, but cigarettes have been legal my whole life and I've never been tempted to those.

For a long time I was opposed to legalizing marijuana, and if anyone asked me why, I'd say because of Pete Rose.  Pete Rose was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, one who played the game with more heart than just about anybody.  He played hurt.  He played different positions according to what his team needed.  He holds the career record for the most hits, with 4,256, although to be fair he played more than 500 more games than Ty Cobb, whose record he broke.  Still, it's a noteworthy achievement.

(Based on at least three independent personal encounters between Rose and people I know and trust, I can say he isn't a nice guy, but that's sort of irrelevant.)

Rose was banned from baseball for life in 1989 after mounting evidence showed that he had bet on baseball games while a player and manager.  For a baseball player or manager, betting on the games you're playing in or managing is the one unforgivable sin.  Every clubhouse has a sign warning against the practice.  In fact, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were briefly banned in the early 1980s because they had worked as greeters at a casino, just because of the association with gambling.  Rose's ban has been used as a justification for keeping him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame, probably with good reason.

Rose and his defenders--who are many--have justified his behavior by claiming that he only bet on his team to win, and that doing so gave him an extra incentive to do well.  That may well be.  But that approach ignores some of the effects of what he was doing, even if he only bet on himself.  The reason why betting on baseball and consorting with gambling is against baseball's rules is because it calls into question the legitimacy of the competition.  That might seem like a small thing, but most folks don't think it's a small thing when performance-enhancing drugs call into question the legitimacy of the competition.  Even the whiff of possible PED use--a bare rumor--is enough to sway many Hall of Fame electors to leave some players off the ballot.

Consider for a moment that Rose, or someone like him, bets frequently enough, and enough money, and loses enough money, that he owes money to his bookmaker.  Under those circumstances, the temptation--or coercion--for Rose to affect the outcome of games he played in, in order to "pay back" the bookie, would be tremendous.

The integrity of the game, such as it is, must never be subject to an easy attack, so a draconian rule keeps players and managers well away from the temptation.  Rose's ban is a warning to everyone:  Even one of the greatest players, the holder of one of the most important career records, is subject to this sort of discipline, so don't do it.

And that used to be my view of decriminalizing marijuana.  To some extent, it still is.  Consuming marijuana requires that you consort with the kind of people who don't mind breaking the law to make money.  And I don't think that's exactly the message we ought to send to people.

So I really don't think that "decriminalizing" marijuana is the answer.  But neither do I believe that marijuana--a less dangerous substance than cigarettes, alcohol, and trans fats put together--should be illegal as long as people who use it cannot force me to use it also. 

That leaves full legalization--at least for adults--as the only viable option.  So I think Colorado is getting it right, and in fact we would almost certainly be better off if marijuana were regulated and taxed instead of criminalized and prohibited.  That is the trend; even here in tight-laced Arkansas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, a medical marijuana narrowly failed at the last election.  This is an area in which public opinion is rapidly evolving, most likely because the experience in other states has been mostly positive.

I have my reservations, but at this point I have to say that it's time to make it legal.

As for Pete Rose, though, no mercy.  Some things just can't be forgiven.