Friday, November 29, 2013

Black day for Wal-Mart

It was bad enough when it was just Black Friday. Then the stores started racing each other to see who could open earliest. One year when I took my oldest up to College Station to watch the Longhorns stomp on the Aggies we saw the line of folks waiting outside a store before the football game ever started.

Now, of course, we have stores open on Thanksgiving Day because it's so much more important to sell the latest consumer devices than to allow your employees to spend a day with their families.

Today is also a day of protest against Wal-Mart and their business practices. Wal-Mart made around $17 billion last year. The company earns that profit by paying its hourly workers subsistence wages and by holding their hours down.

Sign at a Wal-Mart in Ohio asking for donations for associates who can't afford Thanksgiving Dinner on the wages Wal-Mart pays.
Wal-Mart is able to do this because their actions are subsidized by our government us. To be fair, Wal-Mart isn't the only company that pays its employees poverty-level wages because we, the taxpayers, subsidize them. Wal-Mart, however, serves as the poster child because of the ruthless way it conducts its business.

Workers who toil for minimum wage can work full-time and still find themselves under the federal poverty line. They may receive food stamps (SNAP), welfare payments or earned income tax credits to supplement their meager incomes. They may also qualify for Medicaid (or subsidies for private health insurance). President Clinton's welfare reform package encouraged companies to keep their wages low since welfare recipients were required to work (and, needless to say, found themselves in minimum wage jobs).

These income transfer programs allow them to scrape by. But someone who is working a full-time job shouldn't have to just scrape by. It is a sad statement on our economic model that you can work full-time and still be living in poverty.

Ironically enough, the same companies that take advantage of income transfer programs to subsidize their low wages, do their best to do away with any legislation that would further regulate their businesses. They are more than happy for government interference when it allows them to pay poverty-level wages but want no part of it should the proposed rules or regulations deflect one penny from the bottom line.

The federal minimum wage must be raised. And I'm not talking about President Obama's day-late-and-dollar-short plan of hiking it to $9.00 an hour. That figure still leaves full-time workers in poverty. The minimum wage needs to be raised to somewhere between $12.00 and $15.00 an hour. Wal-Mart and its shareholders can subsist on a little less profit every year but their employees can't survive on what they make today. That dynamic needs to change.

Our economic philosophy cannot be built solely on the idea of greater economic efficiency. Our society is not a machine. It is made up of people who all have to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Economic fairness and equity must trump efficiency in the long run.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Standing up to coercive bonding guidelines

The first post I wrote for this blog - way back in August 2008 - was a short piece on the need for PR (personal recognizance) bonds in Harris County. A PR bond is nothing more than a promise from a person accused of a crime that he or she will show up in court when ordered (much like your signature on that traffic ticket).

Today, more than five years later, there are too many people locked up in the Harris County Jail for non-violent offenses - mostly driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. The lucky ones are able to arrange for a friend or loved one to post a bond so they can fight their case from the outside. Some aren't so lucky and sit in jail for weeks or months while their cases are being litigated.

In the meantime law enforcement demand taxpayers take on more debt and build another jail as the existing jails don't have enough room to hold all of the folks the county insists on keeping behind bars.

What too many of our black-robed officials and prosecutors have forgotten is that a person accused of a crime is innocent unless proven otherwise. That includes those arrested for driving while intoxicated, possessing a baggy of pot, shoplifting and driving with a fake inspection sticker.

There is absolutely no excuse for not issuing PR bonds for folks charged with non-violent offenses who have no prior convictions. The purpose of bail is to ensure a person's appearance in court - not to punish the accused. Instead of looking for reasons to keep someone behind bars, our judges should be looking for reasons to release them pending trial.

Anyone who has done this job for any period of time is well aware of the fact that it is far easier to fight a case when your client is not behind bars. Keeping someone in jail does nothing more than coerce them into pleading guilty in exchange for being released. Who's more likely to wait for the results of a blood test in a DWI case - the guy who posted bond or the guy sitting in the holdover? The prosecutor is more than willing to offer time served (or a few days in jail) to the guy who can't post bond on the theft case while the defendant sitting out in the courtroom has the time to challenge the allegations.

PR bonds would lead to fewer first setting pleas as there would be fewer members on the chain gang to be pled out without bothering to investigate the facts. They would also present a challenge to the bondsmen in Harris County who depend on the judges blindly following the bond schedule to make their living.

Robb Fickman has had enough. Mr. Fickman is on a fast to bring attention to the problem. While the vehicle for his protest may be extreme, his argument is just and right. It is high time to bring an end to "coercion by bond" in Harris County. It is time we all remember that the only presumption we are allowed to make in the criminal courthouse is that the defendant is innocent.

From The "Meaning" of America...
For years, I have observed the chain of orange jump suits come into our courts.  I watch people pleading guilty, not long after they have met their appointed counsel. The lawyers who plead multiple clients guilty an hour after they met them, are not truly functioning as defense lawyers. A defense lawyer is duty bound to investigate the law and the facts. Those lawyers who plead multiple clients guilty, not long after meeting said clients, cannot possibly have done an adequate job of investigating the law or the facts. A lawyer who is appointed to represent 6 clients at 9AM, does not have sufficient time to investigate the law and facts for those 6 clients between 9AM and 11AM. Yet we routinely see lawyers who were appointed at 9AM, pleading 6 clients guilty at 11AM.  Doing the math, that affords the lawyer no more than 20 minutes tops to work on each client’s case. I suspect if it were our loved one, we would all expect a lawyer to spend more than 20 minutes on our loved one’s case before making even an initial recommendation. 
There is no time for these lawyers to interview the client in any meaningful way, interview prospective defense witnesses, investigate potential defenses, investigate the state’s case, or investigate relevant legal issues. That cannot be done in 20 minutes.  I refer to this system as the “Harris County Plea Mill”. I am not picking on Harris County, I am aware similar bad systems exist elsewhere. (Nor am I picking on all lawyers who do court appointed work in the county courts. We have some lawyers who, despite the system, do their very best to provide effective assistance. These lawyers are more the exception than the rule.) 
I believe the inherently unfair “Plea Mill” stems largely from the incarceration of the accused. The accused remain in jail because they have not been able to hire a bondsman and because your courts will not give them personal recognizance bonds. Logic dictates that people prefer liberty over incarceration.
So, while you're enjoying your turkey, ham or whatever other food is on your table today, give a brief thought to the sacrifice that Robb Fickman is making to bring attention to a problem that happens to "those other people." Criminal defendants aren't anyone's favorite constituency. No one wants to be seen by the voters as "soft on crime." But those folks sitting in jail because they can't post bond are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers and, sometimes, our family members.

Keep up the good fight, Robb.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book review: League of Denial

As we prepare to sit down for a day of food and football (I will be in Austin tonight for the Longhorns' tilt against Texas Tech), it feels like an appropriate time to talk about the NFL's effort to cover up the fact that football causes brain damage.

In their book A League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru peel back the onion and examine just what the NFL knew about concussions, when they knew it and what they did with the knowledge.

The centerpiece of the story is famed Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster. Iron Mike, as he was known, was a beast on the field. To make up for his size he used his head as a weapon. For some 14 years, Webster pounded his head into other players - and had his head pounded by other players. Once he could no longer play the game due to a long list of lingering injuries and health issues, he was cast aside and forgotten.

His is a familiar tale in the world of professional football where the average career lasts less than four years. And that number is very significant. Most rookie contracts come up for renewal after four years - that's when a team has to decide whether to pay the player more money or cut him loose and replace him with the latest piece of meat taken in the draft. Cutting a player with four years or less of service also means he isn't covered by the league's health plan.

Mike Webster would likely have been forgotten to most football fans had he not died a shell of himself. In the years after he retired, Mr. Webster was both homeless and in need of mental health treatment. After his death a pathologist in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennet Omalu, peformed an autopsy and discovered Mr. Webster had suffered brain damage -- much as boxers have at the ends of their careers.

The league denied there was any link between Mr. Webster's brain injury and football. Ironically enough, the NFL's disability board had already determined there was a link and awarded Mr. Webster compensation for his injuries.

From there the league did its best to cover up the truth, lest they be found liable for not warning players of the risks they faced playing football. The book details the attempts by the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to hide the truth and provide cover for the league. The book also details competing teams of scientists (and publicity hounds) to expose the truth.

The authors are reporters for ESPN and their employers teamed up with PBS's Frontline to produce a two-part episode of the investigative show about the crisis in football. Shortly before the documentary was to air, ESPN severed its ties with the show. The most likely explanation is fear of reprisal from a league that provides much of ESPN's programming.

Just prior to the start of the 2013 NFL season, the league announced it had settled a case with former players who alleged the league knew about the risk of brain damage and mislead the players by not disclosing what it knew. The league agreed to pay the former players $765 million in compensation. The settlement not only settled the league's liability to the players, it also prevented the plaintiffs from putting NFL executives on the stand and questioning them about what they knew and when they knew it.

But, as in many issues between players and the league, the league got the better of the deal. The NFL is awash in cash and the money they will pay out for the settlement will be but a drop in the bucket compared to the money the league rakes in from its contracts with broadcasters.

The league has long gotten its way with the players and the players' union, the NFLPA, is (next to the NHL players' union) the most ineffective player union in sports. For far too long the NFLPA has been the lapdog of the league - which explains why NFL contracts are not guaranteed and why former players are left out on the street to fend for themselves. The ugly truth is that the players in the NFL are nothing more than meat to the owners and the league - once they are no longer useful they will be discarded and forgotten about.

While I am very critical of the NFLPA and the way it has sold out the players' interests, NFL-flacks such as Mike Florio are way off-base when they try to blame the union as much as the league on the brain damage issue. Yes, the union stuck its head in the sand and went along with league denials about the link between football and brain damage - but the difference is that the league had the data and the doctors and they put out misleading propaganda disguised as research to cover its ass.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Another useless conference

Last week marked the end of the 19th annual UN conference on climate change (referred to in bureaucratic UN-speak as the Congress of Parties) in Warsaw, Poland. As is par for the course there were no binding agreements hammered out and no decisive actions other than proclaiming that in two year's time in Paris the parties will reach an agreement about trying to reverse climate change. Of course that raises the question of why there's going to be another annual conference next fall if no one's going to agree to anything. But...

The biggest issue of contention is the idea that the developed world either needs to pay for, or provide sources of funding for, projects in the developing world that will allow continued development without increasing carbon emissions. The nations in the developing world like the idea because they would like to raise their living standards but new technologies - while beneficial to the planet - tend to be a bit more expensive than yesterday's "dirty energy" solutions. The governments in the developed world don't like the idea because, well, because it's the poorer nations' faults for being so poor and they just need to figure out how to carry out these changes.

Of course the developed world's point of view isn't put across so bluntly, but the fact remains the advanced capitalist countries and the (crypto-fascist) Chinese have fucked this planet up to an unimaginable degree but, since we can't put a price tag on clean air, clean water and the climate, we're not about to do a damn thing about it. It's the nature of capitalism, folks. If you can't monetize it - it just doesn't exist to be analyzed.

Since no one owns the air above us we have pumped tons and tons of hazardous materials into the sky without giving a second thought to the consequences. And because industry operated for decades on the model that you might as well pollute because it doesn't cost anything to do so, the governments that serve as bag men for the industrialists are downright hostile to any scheme that would cost their biggest campaign contributors a penny for their past sins.

In the meantime every new initiative aimed at fixing the mess we've made of the planet puts the burden on the developing world to keep their emissions down to a level that all but insures the largest corporations of cheap pools of labor for years into the future.

The simple fact of the matter is that we, through our consumption and way of life, have done far more harm to the environment than can be quantified. If we were forced to pay the true cost of environment degradation in the products we purchase, our lifestyles would change in a hurry. Yet our leaders aren't willing to concede that the decisions that have been made in Washington and western Europe have put the developing world in a can't-win position.

Until a plan is developed that takes into account the harm we have done to the planet and creates a mechanism by which the developing world has access to money (cash, not debt obligations) to raise their citizens' standards of living in an ecologically friendly manner, these conferences are a waste of everyone's time and money.

Monday, November 25, 2013

288 and counting...

The Houston Police Department is on a 288-0 win streak. There have been 288 officer shootings without a single indictment since Arthur Charbonneau shot an unarmed teenager to death in a closet back in 2004.

From 2008 to 2012 there were over a hundred officer shootings - and a quarter of the civilians fired at were unarmed. The victims of the Houston Police Department include a double-amputee in a wheelchair and a Navy veteran suffering from a mental illness.

Making matters worse for the citizenry is the lack of dashboard cameras in the vast majority of HPD patrol cars. The lack of cameras means that there is almost never a video record of a police shooting in Houston.

Police Chief Charles McClelland has defended his officers going so far as to say that deadly force is justified even if the suspect is unarmed. During the five year period investigated by The Houston Chronicle, the department found only one of 636 officer shootings (including shooting animals and unintentional firings) was not justified.

Yes, officers are faced with making split-second decisions about how to handle a particular suspect. But the same laws that govern our behavior are, at least in theory, the same laws that govern police officers. A police officer's job is to protect and defend the citizens of their city - not to declare war on part of the population. While it is not justified for a citizen to walk down the street and shoot at someone else just because he thinks that other person might be carrying a weapon, police officers in Houston seem to have carte blanche to do just that.

The matter isn't helped by the callous attitude of the Harris County District Attorney's Office when it comes to police shootings. The attitude of prosecutors is that the police wear white hats while everyone else wears a black (or grey) hat. While prosecutors will always refer to complaining witnesses as "my victim," when a civilian is on the wrong side of a police shooting the focus turns to "my officer."

If the targets of police shootings weren't overwhelmingly black, brown or poor maybe there's be a different attitude on the part of prosecutors and the public. If the victims of police shootings lived in better neighborhoods and looked more like judges and prosecutors, maybe the attitude would change.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Open mouth. Insert foot.

And while we're on the topic of poisoning the jury pool, Jerry Ray, a visiting district judge in Travis County, takes the grand prize.

After a Travis County jury found David Tran not guilty of driving while intoxicated - and disregarding a .10 breath test in the process - Judge Ray took it upon himself to berate the jurors. And, just to make it that much more special, he did it in open court on the record.

From Texas Lawyer we have this account of Judge Ray's rant:
You know, and I've been at this such a long time I know better than to get angry. But you just decided to ignore the law and your oath, and you know you did," Ray told the jury, according to a transcript printed on Nov. 11. "The note that you sent out says, 'Can we ignore the Intoxilyzer.' And you have the definitions of intoxication . ... "

Ray went on to accuse the jury of engaging in "jury nullification," according to the transcript.

"And for whatever reasons, you chose to ignore that part of the evidence. And you have the right to do that. It's called jury nullification. It's when a jury decides to ignore the law or ignore evidence. And they maneuver until they get there. Perfect example, the O.J. Simpson trial. ... "

"I've been around for over 40 years in this profession, tried an awful lot of cases as a defense lawyer, as a prosecutor, and as a judge, and it happens. But this ranks among there as one of the most bizarre verdicts that I've ever seen," Ray said, according to the transcript. "Thank you for your service and you are excused."
Keep in mind that we're talking about a .10 breath test - a test score that is barely higher than the legal limit of .08. Judge Ray apparently forgot the instructions he read to the jury just before he sent them off to deliberate.

He told the jury that they were the exclusive judges of the evidence presented and that they were the ones to decide how much weight to give any one piece of evidence. They were instructed that it was up to them to determine the credibility of the witnesses and the evidence (and that includes the test slip).

What those jurors did was not jury nullification. What they did was their duty under the law. I can almost guarantee you that the prosecutor told the jury panel during voir dire that he or she could prove up intoxication in one of three ways - loss of normal use of mental or physical faculties or a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher. In Harris County, prosecutors also like to tell the jurors that they don't even have to agree on the theory of intoxication.

That breath test score is close enough to the legal limit that it can be attacked in a variety of ways. You can attack the accuracy of the machine. You can attack the assumptions the programmers of the machine made. You can argue tolerances and margins of error. You can even throw in that the machine isn't warranted for breath testing.

Judge Ray may not have liked the verdict - but so fucking what?! His job is only to preside over the trial and ensure that the defendant's right to a fair trial isn't violated. If the defendant wanted Judge Ray to decide the case he would have asked for a bench trial.

But the bigger problem is the message Judge Ray is sending out to the community. His actions only serve to poison the jury pool in the future. A juror's only job is to listen to the evidence, follow the law and render a verdict. It isn't a juror's job to convict or to acquit. Once that verdict is entered, the jurors have done their job and they sure as hell don't deserve to be berated in public by the person sitting on the bench who is supposed to be a neutral arbiter.

And maybe that's why most judges prefer to go back into the jury room and talk with the jurors after the trial. That way there isn't a record of them poisoning the panel.

Perhaps Judge Ray should review the judicial canons of conduct before he next steps to the bench.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Out of the mouths of prosecutors

On Tuesday afternoon up in Montgomery County (for those of y'all not familiar with the place - it's just north of Houston), Verna McClain, a nurse, pled guilty to killing a mother in a doctor's parking lot and taking her baby. Ms. McClain was facing the death penalty, but the deal brokered by her attorney, Tyrone Moncriffe, will see her spend the rest of her life in prison instead.

But that's not the story.

The story is what Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon told the media afterward.

Here is a clip from the article in yesterday's Houston Chronicle:
Although McClain will not have an executioner end her life with a lethal drug, she will "wither and die" in prison, and her victim's famly can have the certainty that the verdict will never get overturned on a technicality or appeal, Ligon said. 
"The victim's family also got to hear what few in their place do, an admission of guilt," he added. 
"No games were played in the courtroom. There was no hiding behind insanity defenses." 
While McClain had no prior criminal record, not even a parking ticket, Ligon believes she is all the more dangerous because nobody can predict what she might be capable of doing at any instant.
Of course, as has been pointed out in this space many times before, what the prosecutor refers to as a technicality is a constitutional protection. Yes, it can get messy sometimes trying to gather evidence and present it in court with that pesky little Bill of Rights nipping at your heels. But that's the point, isn't it?

The Founding Fathers had a profound fear of someone being wrongfully convicted. They also had a profound fear of allowing the government too much power to intrude into our private lives.

When we allow the government to refer to a constitutional protection as a "technicality" without calling them on it, we make it easier for the courts to cast those protections aside.

Mr. Ligon would like for us to believe that the insanity defense is a great tool for folks accused of murder to walk away from any responsibility. The truth is that the insanity defense in Texas is a very narrow defense that is rarely invoked by a defendant. In order to prevail on an insanity defense, the defendant must show that due to a mental defect he was unable to determine right from wrong at the time of the alleged offense.

While it is my understanding that Ms. McClain's attorneys thought about putting on an insanity defense, they were unable to do so because there was no evidence that Ms. McClain suffered from any mental defect.

I would propose that, as our understanding of the brain increases, that we revisit the insanity defense in Texas. If a defendant can prove up a mental defect should it even matter if he was able to distinguish right from wrong? I have seen folks with brain tumors do things they would never have imagined doing before - they knew it was "wrong," but they had no ability to control the impulse due to the effects of the tumor in their brain.

As to the question of whether Ms. McClain would be a threat in the future, Mr. Ligon's argument that an absence of a criminal record makes her more dangerous is beyond absurd. The absence of a criminal history makes it all the more likely that what happened that day in the parking lot was an outlier. If we are going to allow prosecutors to argue that a person should be considered a danger to society because their behavior was unpredictable, then we might as well tear up the special questions a jury must answer in a capital case once they find the defendant guilty.

What makes Mr. Ligon's comments all the more distressing is the fact that he was a member of the defense bar prior to becoming the DA in Montgomery County. He knows what he's spewing is horseshit but he doesn't care because his only goal is to poison as many jury pools as possible. Mr. Ligon might want to take a look at the disciplinary rules in Texas - his job is not to win cases but to see that justice is done.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Federal judge halts Missouri execution (but SCOTUS gives the green light)

James Franklin killed a man and wounded two others outside a synagogue in Missouri in 1977. He was sentenced to die.

The State of Missouri is one of several states who have run into problems with their lethal injection protocols as a result of restrictions placed on the use of certain drugs by their manufacturers. Missouri had been using pentobarbital as part of its lethal drug cocktail until the maker of the drug stopped selling it to states for use in executing inmates.

Yesterday, just hours before Mr. Franklin was scheduled to die, US District Judge Nanette Laughrey granted his request for a stay based upon the lack of scientific evidence that the drugs the state intended to use would work properly.

Missouri is one of several states that have turned to compounding pharmacies to make the drugs used in executions in the absence of a market for such drugs. Judge Laughrey ruled that the state had failed to prove that the use of the drug obtained from the compounding pharmacy wouldn't cause undue pain to Mr. Franklin during the execution.

Yes, there is a certain amount of absurdity in the notion that an execution protocol is unconstitutional if it causes the inmate undue pain. But the fact that a federal judge granted a stay of execution to an alleged racist serial killer is a sign that at least on judge is concentrating on the process of killing an inmate and not the result.

Mr. Franklin isn't a kind person. He isn't the kind of person you want living next door. He has been convicted of a heinous crime. But, whether you want to think about it or not, he is a citizen of these United States and is entitled to the protections of the Eighth Amendment.

I applaud Judge Laughrey for her conviction in staying Mr. Franklin's execution. I commend her for deciding that the protections afforded us under the Constitution are more important that looking tough on crime.

Ultimately we are judged on how we treat the lowest members of our society. As reprehensible as Mr. Franklin is, he is a member of our society and he is entitled to a modicum of respect. The drugs that Missouri sought to use to kill Mr. Franklin were never tested by the government to ensure they did what they were supposed to to do. Mr. Franklin is, regardless of how you may feel about what he did, a human being - not a lab rat.

There is nothing sympathetic about Mr. Franklin's plight. There is no one who feels sorry for him. Judge Laughrey made an unpopular decision. But she made the right decision.

States who wish to murder their inmates are scrambling for ways to do it. Governors and legislators know that there isn't a constituency for convicted murderers. They know that a good number of folks couldn't care less about whether an inmate suffers in the final minutes of his life.

And that's why what Judge Nanette Laughrey did is so important.


Mr. Franklin was executed earlier this morning after the US Supreme Court lifted a stay and said it was perfectly acceptable for a state to use an inmate as a guinea pig. The nation's highest court apparently wasn't nearly as concerned with the process than they were with the outcome. Given the history of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, this shouldn't come as a surprise.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

To the point

150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches ever given by a president. The speech was short - it lasted all of two minutes. But in those two minutes, President Lincoln summed up the sacrifices made by those who died on the battlefield in July 1863.
According to Wikipedia, this is one of only two
photographs of Lincoln at Gettysburg on 11/19/1863.

If you haven't read the Gettysburg Address since you were in high school, take a moment of two to read it and think about what Lincoln was saying. Reflect upon the timelessness of the message.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 
- Abraham Lincoln, "Gettysburg Address" (Nov. 19, 1863)
Maybe the speech is so powerful because of the economy of words. Sometimes, you see, less can be more. Great oration doesn't mean long oration. We can all take a lesson from Lincoln, sometimes when we strip a speech (or writing) to its very essence, we enhance not only its meaning but its effectiveness.

While he pays homage to those who died, Lincoln also challenges the rest of us - those who lived during the Civil War, and those generations that came later - to ensure that our representative democracy survived. At the time Lincoln gave his speech there were still millions held in slavery. At the time of the speech, neither free blacks nor women had the right to vote.

Since that time the word people has taken on new meanings - and it will continue to take on new meanings into the future. The road has not always been easy and the course has not always been straight, but as we expand the meaning of the word people we get closer to that government of, by and for the people that Lincoln spoke so reverently of.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Feeding at the trough

Boeing is a hugely profitable company. Between them and the European consortium, Airbus, they control most of the market for commercial airplanes. Boeing also does a brisk business as a defense contractor.

But sometimes making money hand over fist isn't enough. Last week the union of Boeing machinists rejected a contract offer that would end their traditional pension plan (and replace it with a 401k) and increase health care costs. As a sweetener, Boeing offered workers a $10,000 bonus if they approved the contract.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to reject the contract offer on the grounds that the new contract would represent serious givebacks to the company. The changes in the company's pension plan are the most insidious. For decades employers assumed the risk on pensions - guaranteeing payouts to their former employees. Back in the 1980's and 1990's employers looked at the piles of cash that were being held to pay these pension obligations and found another way to extract money from the wallets of their employees. The 401(k) was born. Now, instead of the employer assuming the risk to funding the pension fund down the road, the employees are forced to assume the risk of the vagaries of the market. Meanwhile, corporate executives and their shareholders get their rocks off looking at the growing bottom line.

Boeing officials immediately announced that, as a result of the vote, they might have to look elsewhere for a location to manufacture their latest plane. Political "leaders" in Washington then decided to try to rush a vote through the state legislature offering $8.7 billion in tax breaks to the company.

This is on top of a package of tax breaks the state handed over to the company in 2003. For corporations, government largesse is like crack. They keep on coming back for more and more and more.

This is free enterprise at work here in these United States. There is a race to the bottom as companies seek to find locales that will offer up the cheapest labor and the biggest package of tax breaks so they can squeeze out even larger profits. And states and municipalities are only too eager to play the game - never once stopping to think that they may be on the wrong end of the equation some day.

In the meantime, taxpayers are asked to subsidize these bastions of modern-day capitalism while students, the elderly and the poor are asked to make do with less.

It's a nice little irony that those on the right are quick to criticize any government program that's purpose is to assist those in need, but they have no compunction about ponying up billions of dollars to satisfy the greed of corporate executives and their shareholders.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A false debate

Janet Yellen, President Obama's choice to lead the Federal Reserve, went up to Capitol Hill yesterday to face the Senate Banking Committee for her confirmation hearing.

Predictably Republicans were critical of Ms. Yellen while Democrats were supportive. The Fed's so-called quantitative easing policy took center stage. Republican senators took their time criticizing the policy and raising the specter of inflation. Their contention was that the expansive monetary policy was not working.

On that point I agree with them. But not for the reasons they gave.

According to the Keynesian model, whenever the economy is in a period of decline, it is primarily because their is an inadequate level of investment. Keynes theorized that if there was insufficient private investment in the economy then the government needed to step in to make up the difference. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways.

First, the government could take the direct approach and up the level of aggregate spending. This is the path that President Roosevelt eventually took to try to bring the country out of the Great Depression. Some of the increase in spending is the result of welfare programs that assist folks in need. Overall investment can also be increased by reducing taxes - therefore freeing up more money for investment. Finally, total investment can be increased by reducing the interest rates the Fed charges banks to borrow money. Reducing those rates should, in theory, lead to lower interest rates on loans and credit cards.

Of these methods, the most direct way of impacting the economy is through direct government investment. That entails public works projects such as road, bridge and school construction. It can also be accomplished through programs in which the government hires unemployed folks to carry out various projects. President Roosevelt's New Deal created an alphabet soup of direct hire programs that brought the unemployment rate down. The New Deal programs put money in the pockets of those who needed it most. They spent the money on essential goods and services which insured that the money kept circulating through the economy.

While cutting taxes also puts more money in people's hands, it puts more money in the hands of those who have more money. Just think about it, if you cut taxes, the folks who benefit are the folks who have the most money to begin with. Some of that money is spent on essential goods and services but a good chunk of that money is squirreled away where it doesn't increase overall demand for goods and services and, therefore, workers. The best example of this would be the mountain of cash most corporations are sitting on as we speak. Instead of using that money to hire new workers, companies are hoarding it or doling out more bonuses to executives and managers.

The least effective method of spurring economic growth is through monetary policy. While raising interest rates is a great way to choke off the economy by making it more expensive for businesses to borrow money to invest in new plants, equipment and workers, lowering rates have a very marginal effect on economic growth. Again, just look at the amount of cash that companies have sitting in their bank accounts right now. If banks aren't willing to lend out money, it doesn't matter how low interest rates are - no one will be borrowing. As it stands right now, the interest rate the Fed charges banks to borrow is effectively zero - yet the economy still stumbles along with unreasonably high unemployment.

We have sat through years of record low interest rates and expansive monetary policy and yet we still have unemployment well over 7% and low- to moderate economic growth. It's the policy, stupid.

Trying to restart the economy by tinkering with interest rates is, as Mr. Keynes once said, akin to trying to push a string. Republicans would have you believe that the biggest worry we have right now is the possibility of inflation. I've got news for you. The only folks worried about inflation are bankers and those who lend money. The real problem is unemployment and sluggish demand. Those problems are not going to be solved by expanding the money supply. Those problems will only be solved by polices that promote full employment.

Until we have unemployment down to manageable levels, inflation isn't something we should fear. Quite the contrary. Except for inflation caused by external shocks to the economy, inflationary pressures are a sign that aggregate demand is increasing due to increased employment.

If working folks had political power in proportion to their numbers, we wouldn't be having this silly debate over inflation versus employment. But such is that artificial world known as Washington, D.C.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A few more burnt ends

Yesterday former NFL wide receiver Sam Hurd was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiring to distribute marijuana and cocaine. He pled guilty to the charge shortly before his trial was to begin this past April. His lawyer argued for the minimum - ten years - while the AUSA presented a sentencing memo that sought a life sentence based upon the "advisory" sentencing guidelines.

Sports Illustrated ran an excellent long-form article this week on Mr. Hurd's plight. If Mr. Hurd was telling the truth when he sat down with Michael McKnight, his situation is a cautionary tale about mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines, over-charging and police informants. It is a highly recommended read.

In other news, a Tennessee prosecutor asked a judge to prevent the defense attorney from referring to her as "the government." Tammy Rettig argued that it was a derogatory term and that it might poison the jury. Her request was denied.

Of course when we refer to the prosecutor as the "government's lawyer" we are playing off people's aversion to government. But that's not the only reason we do it. It also serves as a reminder that it is the government - not the alleged victim - that is bringing the suit. The term is also used to point out that when we allow the courts to carve out new exceptions to our rights under the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments that we are giving the government even more power over our lives.

Ms. Rettig, if you think the term is derogatory, maybe you need to take a second look at how you do what you do.

Finally we have a little something to keep our lives (and our existence) in perspective. This past July, the Cassini space probe took these amazing pictures of Saturn - and showed just how insignificant the third planet from the Sun in our solar system is in the larger scheme of the universe.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Update: Execution fails to bring back killer's victim

Jamie McCoskey is dead.

The State of Texas murdered him last night.

The Houston Chronicle carried out its duty to distract the public from the cruelty and inequity of the death penalty by reminding readers that Mr. McCoskey was a bad person.

But what did this execution accomplish?

Mr. McCoskey was convicted of a particularly heinous crime. He kidnapped a young couple, drove them around Houston, stabbed the boyfriend to death and raped the girlfriend. At trial, after the jury convicted him - but before sentencing - he picked up a chair and hurled it at two prosecutors.

He served time in prison for violent offenses. He cracked the skull of another inmate at the Harris County Jail.

But strapping Jamie McCoskey down on a gurney and injecting massive amounts of pentobarbital obtained from a compounding pharmacy in The Woodlands didn't undo any of the crimes he committed.

On Execution Watch last night, host Ray Hill interviewed Mr. McCoskey about his case. Needless to say, Mr. McCoskey's version of the events that led to his conviction were at odds with the facts as presented to the jury. I daresay, however, that the verdict would have been the same, in my opinion, had he presented him account of the evening at trial.

He was also asked about his legal representation. Of particular note were his comments regarding his appellate attorney. He told Mr. Hill that his appellate attorney came and spoke with him a couple of times but that both meetings were short and the attorney didn't want to discuss what Mr. McCoskey wanted him to discuss.

What I believe Mr. McCoskey failed to grasp was the difference between a trial attorney and an appellate attorney - or, more specifically, the difference between trying a case and appealing a case. While the trial attorney needs  to sit down with his or her client and discuss the events leading up to the arrest, the appellate attorney relies solely on the record of the trial. The trial attorney is interested in telling a story to the jury, in bending the facts in such a way as to fit inside the narrative. The appellate attorney, on the other hand, parses the record for hints of reversible error.

One approach means talking to everyone tangentially involved in a case in order to get the clearest possible picture of the alleged crime and the client. The other approach consists of looking for case law that distinguishes this case from others that came before it. The defendant is an integral part of trial preparation while his role in the appellate arena is negligible.

In the end Mr. McCoskey was convicted of murder while committing a felony.

He was sentenced to death.

The world is no safer today than it was yesterday. The young man he killed is still dead today. His victim's parents still mourn the loss of their son.

Nothing was changed when the State of Texas pumped a lethal dose of pentobarbital into his arm.

Texas has murdered over 500 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated. There are still murders committed all across this state. There are still people who die at the hands of others for no good reason.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Capital punishment is insanity in action.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A (tiny) step in the right direction

Former state district judge Ken Anderson, the man who prosecuted Michael Morton for a murder he didn't commit, entered into a plea bargain on Friday that will see him serve 10 days in the Williamson County Jail, perform 500 hours of community service and be disbarred. In exchange for his guilty plea on a criminal contempt charge, Mr. Anderson will avoid trial on charges of tampering with evidence that could have seen him sentenced to prison time.

The contempt charge dates back to a 1987 exchange at the bench in which Mr. Anderson told the court and Mr. Morton's attorneys that he had no Brady material. What he didn't reveal was a statement by Mr. Morton's three-year-old son that put someone else in the house at the time of the murder.

Mr. Morton was present in the courtroom when Mr. Anderson entered into the plea agreement.

While there is some satisfaction that Mr. Anderson has paid something for the years he stole from Mr. Morton, there is no way the debt can ever be repaid. Mr. Morton lost seeing his son grow up. He lost all those moments we have with our children. He endured unspeakable horror in the state prison system.

But it wasn't just Ken Anderson who stole that time from Mr. Morton. It was our criminal (in)justice system. It was a jurisprudence that begins with the proposition that if the facts are bad enough a way will be found to uphold the conviction. Our Fourth Amendment resembles a piece of Swiss cheese because the US Supreme Court has spent decades carving out exceptions in order to uphold convictions of folks who did bad things regardless of how the police conducted their investigation.

Such a jurisprudence results in protections and guarantees that are so riddled with holes as to be entirely unrecognizable. We are left with an illogical framework of rights that makes no sense.

If our courts wanted to make it right judges would start off analyzing police behavior in isolation. If the police violated the Fourth Amendment it shouldn't matter what the defendant said or did (or how much of whatever he had on him). The Fourth Amendment doesn't distinguish between alleged offenses. Its language is absolute. Either a defendant's rights were violated or they weren't. There are no two ways about it.

This Alice in Wonderland-esque method of jurisprudence is what landed Mr. Morton in prison for 25 years. Ken Anderson was merely the delivery device for a system broken beyond repair. There are those who would say the end result of the case is a vindication of our criminal (in)justice system. I'm not one of them. Any system that allows an innocent man to lose 25 years of his life is broken. It is broken in the district and county courtrooms. It is broken in the Court of Appeals. It is broken in the Court of Criminal Appeals. And it is broken in Washington at the US Supreme Court.

We lost our way when it became more important to uphold convictions of people who did bad things than it was to uphold the Constitution. Michael Morton paid an awful price. So has every other man or woman who sat in a prison cell for even one day for a crime they didn't commit.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Execution Watch: 11/12/2013

On Tuesday night the State of Texas will kill again...

JAMIE MCCOSKEY, a Houston bartender convicted in the 1991 kidnapping and stabbing death of a 20-year-old man. McCoskey was one of 16 defendants sentenced to death in separate cases after the now-disgraced psychologist George Denkowski used his own, non-standard methods to conclude that none was developmentally disabled. His determination and the defendants' chances of having their death sentences declared unconstitutional. Mr. Denkowski's punishment included being barred from performing such evaluations in the future.

For more information on Mr. McCoskey, click here.

Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast live:
Tuesday, November 12, 2013, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT FM Houston 90.1 and Online...

Friday, November 8, 2013

Love and chemicals and hate and unnecessary federal prosecutions

A suburban couple.

An affair.

A love child.

An angry wife.

Poison. Poison. Poison.

Soap opera? Lifetime movie? Nope - fact pattern for a case before the US Supreme Court.

Carol Anne Bond found out her husband was sleeping with a neighbor and had fathered a child with his mistress. Ms. Bond was, understandably, upset. Folks tend to deal with their anger issues in different ways. Ms. Bond threatened her hubby's little hussy.

She ended up pleading guilty to a charge of harassment.

But, believing, as the Mythbusters do, that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, Ms. Bond turned up the volume and set out to poison the object of her husband's affections. The US Postal Service eventually learned of her actions and recorded her in the act.

Federal prosecutors then charged Ms. Bond with violating the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention - a treaty to which the US is a signatory. Ms. Bond was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Ms. Bond appealed her conviction, arguing that the application of the treaty violated the notion of state's rights. The question is whether the provisions of an international treaty signed by the US government are binding on individuals in the states.

What Ms. Bond did was a clear violation of state law. She could have been prosecuted by prosecutors in Pennsylvania and sentenced to a maximum of two years.

The defendant and the victim both lived in Pennsylvania. The attempted poisonings were committed in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has laws that make it a crime to try to poison someone. There was no vital federal interest at stake. While treaties are the law of the land, the treaty in question concerns nations at war with each other - there was no contemplation that the treaty would be used to prosecute a wife scorned.

There was no reason for a federal prosecution in this case. There is never any reason for a federal prosecution when there is a state statute that covers the activity in question. The only crime mentioned in the Constitution is treason - a crime against the state itself. Maybe this is too radical a notion - and I'm certain that it's far too late in the game to pursue - but we really need to rethink our approach to federal criminal jurisprudence. Our goal should really be to reduce the number of federal crimes - not increase them.

Until then we will continue to have to deal with the absurdity of folks being prosecuted in federal court over actions that properly belong in the state courts.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book review: The Kings of Sports - Football's impact on America

Gregg Easterbrook is the man behind the weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on He is an accomplished author. His brother, Frank Easterbrook, is a federal appellate judge. He can get a little bit full of himself at times and sometimes his politics rub me the wrong way.

But, while I don't agree with everything he writes in his TMQ column, and while I don't agree with everything he's written, I do find him to be an enjoyable read. Especially his latest book - The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America.

There is plenty wrong in football today. The NFL has done its best to hide the fact that repeated blows to the head can be hazardous later in life. The NFL has done its best to keep the public from learning about the lingering aftereffects of concussions. The NFL has done its best to shield us from the ugly reality that the league chews up and spits out young players day after day after day.

But colleges, and the NCAA, are equally complicit in the illusion we are presented daily about football. Too many colleges act as minor league affiliates of the NFL. Few coaches and administrators are concerned with graduation rates of athletes. The reality is that very few college football players will ever play on Sundays. And, of the ones who do, the average professional career is but four years.

Colleges and the NCAA have built a business model in which millions upon millions of dollars are exchanged between media companies, sponsors and schools while the players give their labor away for (almost) free. Now I'm not about to make the argument that players should be paid to play. Such a system would lead to more and more consolidation of the top teams and would leave a permanent underclass that has no chance of ever catching up. The players are rewarded with a scholarship that will permit them to earn a degree that they can use later in life. Mr. Easterbrook suggests that football scholarships should be for six years which would allow players an extra year after their playing career is over to earn their degrees.

He also suggests that players be paid a small stipend - much along the line as what students who participate in work-study programs or who work for the school get. The only way to be fair is to make it a fairly low number that every football players earns.

Allowing the free market to determine the price at which a player sells his ability to play football would never work because the vast majority of universities have athletic departments that lose money. In other words, at most campuses, regular students subsidize the football team (and other sports teams).

And it's not only college football. We all subsidize professional football. It's our tax money that's used to build playpens for the super-wealthy so that the owners of these teams can make even more money. Teams blackmail municipalities for more and more goodies - local politicians give in because they are scared of losing votes should the local squad pick up and move elsewhere.

Here in Houston the county government gave in to Bud Adams' demands that the Astrodome be renovated. Mr. Adams threatened to move the Houston Oilers someplace else if the county didn't spend taxpayer money to put in more seats and spruce up the luxury seating in the Dome. But, long before the bonds had been paid off (they still haven't been), Mr. Adams up and moved the Oilers to Nashville, leaving the residents of Harris County to foot the bill. Things reached the point of absurdity when it became more costly to tear down the Dome than just to let it rot from the inside. Just this week taxpayers rejected a request for millions more in bonds to turn the Dome into a convention center.

Much of what Mr. Easterbook writes about in regard to safety on the gridiron has to do with the "trickle down effect" the NFL has on college, high school, middle school and peewee football. When the NFL projects an attitude that safety isn't important - that message finds its way down to the lowest levels of football. With the amount of money that flows into the NFL there is no excuse for the league to shortchange player safety.

But, lest you think everything about football is rotten, Mr. Easterbrook gives us an in depth look at the Virginia Tech program and its long-time coach, Frank Beamer. Virginia Tech seems to get it. Coach Beamer understands the importance of education and emphasizes it in the way he runs the team. No, Virginia Tech isn't sitting at the top of the polls and they haven't contended for a national championship in years, but their players graduate and they reflect very well on the university. For Frank Beamer, there are things more important than winning football games. After all, football is just a game - it's what comes afterward that's more important.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When driving the speed limit is breaking the law

If, on a highway having more than one lane with vehicles traveling in the same direction, the Texas Department of Transportation or a local authority places a sign that directs slower traffic to travel in a lane other than the farthest left lane, the sign must read "left lane for passing only."
- Texas Transportation Code Sec. 544.011
An operator of a vehicle on a roadway moving more slowly than the normal speed of other vehicles at the time and place under the existing conditions shall drive in the right-hand lane available for vehicles, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, unless the operator is: (1) passing another vehicle; or (2) preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway. -- Texas Transportation Code Sec.  545.051(b) 
What better way to create an excuse for pulling motorists over to see who might have been drinking but to enforce a little known, and little observed, traffic statute.

We all know that the left lane is the fast lane. We're all taught to pass to the left. I have been known to drive my car at a speed quite a bit above the one posted on the roadside traveling back and forth to the Dallas area for seminars - but even I move to the right when someone's coming up behind me at warp speed.

So, yes, there are plenty of motorists out there who think for some yet unknown reason that they are more than justified to plod along in the left lane at the speed limit. These tend to be the same people who count the number of items someone takes out of their basket in the express lane and who tattled on their younger siblings when they were growing up.

And, as much as I hate getting behind that person on the freeway, I have a hard time supporting anything that gives the police yet another excuse to pull someone over who isn't doing anything wrong. But, up in Montgomery County (the land the Constitution forgot) and out in Fort Bend County, if you're cruising along in the left lane not passing anyone - you risk getting pulled over and either being issued a warning or being ticketed. And, should you be coming home from a night out with friends after consuming an adult beverage or two, you could find yourself being arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Why else would Warren Diepraam and the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office get themselves involved in such an initiative? Hell, if you can't pull 'em over for doing anything illegal - you might as well pull them over for driving the speed limit.

So, as annoying as it may be to be driving behind the guy who thinks he needs to police speeds on the highway, the last thing we need to do is give the police yet another excuse to pull someone over. It's bad enough that we allow DWI stops based on behaviors that during the day wouldn't get a second glance from a police officer. But to allow a DWI stop when the only sin being committed is driving the speed limit in the wrong lane is hardly a good idea.

And what about officers who want to have it both ways? Are the police not going to ticket anyone for speeding if they are passing slower moving vehicles to the left? At the rate things are going, pretty soon up in Montgomery County driving on the highway alone will amount to reasonable suspicion that someone is breaking the law.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Serving two masters

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. -- Hippocratic Oath (English translation)
When a person becomes a doctor, or other health professional, they take the Hippocratic Oath vowing never to do anything to harm a patient. A doctor's ethical duty is to do what's in the best interest of his or her patient. 

After the US government declared its War on Everything Terror after 9/11, the CIA began its programs of rendition and torture. In order to determine the most effective method to extract information from a prisoner, the Department of Defense looked to its Behavioral Science Consultation Teams made up of behavioral scientists - including psychiatrists.

Psychiatrists are considered to be medical professionals. They have a medical degree and they take the same Hippocratic Oath as a pediatrician, internist or neurologist. 

But, instead of following their ethical obligations to do no harm to any patient, they jumped at the opportunity to put together interrogation programs designed to humiliate, degrade and cause physical harm to prisoners. Other medical professionals who worked for the government provided assistance to the regime of torture by advising interrogators how far they could go in a given "interrogation technique." They treated prisoners and nursed them back to health so they could be tortured again. They also assisted the government by forcibly inserting feeding tubes into prisoners who were on hunger strike so they wouldn't die on the government's dime.

Even more galling is the fact that not one of the doctors, nurses or other medical professionals who witnessed and participated in the torture program ever raised their voice in protest against what can only be described as a crime against humanity. Not a one. 

They were more than willing to sell their souls - and their ethics - to win the War on Terror. 

The Institute of Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations conducted a two-year study that looked into the role medical professionals played in the torture regime initiated by President Bush and continued by President Obama. What they found should turn the stomach of anyone who hasn't yet drank the government's koolaid.

The US government would like us to believe it's no big deal. They would like you to believe that the oath these men and women took upon joining the team trumps the one they took when they became doctors and nurses. I hate to break it to you, but it doesn't work that way.

A doctor takes an oath to serve his or her patient. The doctor didn't take an oath to serve another power. He didn't take an oath to serve a publicly-held hospital corporation. He didn't take an oath to serve an insurance company. He took that oath to put his patient first.

The medical professionals who provided assistance to those who tortured prisoners may very well have gone into government service for the very best of motives. But they were blinded by the pre-packaged patriotism that we are fed like turkeys being fattened up for the holidays.

They violated the oaths they took when they helped design torture regimes. They violated the oaths they took when they monitored prisoners during the torture process. They violated their oaths when they strapped prisoners down and forced feeding tubes down their noses. They violated their oaths when they kept their mouths shut about what they had seen and what they had done.

A lawyer takes an oath to represent his client as zealously as possible (with the exception that a prosecutor takes an oath to see that justice is done). Everything that a lawyer does in a particular case must be weighed against that duty. A lawyer serves his client - and his client alone. A lawyer can't have two masters. And neither can a medical professional. Once you start trying to serve two masters you will find that you can't do it and act in the best interest of your client - or your patient - at the same time.

Those medical professionals who assisted the torture program betrayed not only the prisoners they were supposedly there to assist; they also betrayed society.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Cutting the cord

On Saturday I spent a glorious day running the trails in Huntsville State Park with my colleague Rand Mintzer in the Rocky Raccoon 50K. Just imagine - eight hours with no cell phones, no text messages, no e-mails, no voice mails and no list-serve refuse.

Instead we had fellow runners, aid station workers, random hikers and bikers and the sounds of nature.

It does the body good to get completely off the grid every now and then. There has to be more to life than that shiny little phone on your belt or that tablet in your briefcase. There is a world out there with dirt and sand and mud underfoot and tree canopies overhead. Trail running forces you to focus on the present.

Take your eyes off the trail, lose concentration for a moment and you'll find yourself taking a tumble. Or, you might even find yourself off course if you're engaged in an interesting conversation with another runner.

We live in our own virtual worlds - our artificial constructs. To maintain sanity and to ground ourselves, sometimes you need to exit stage left and explore the real world. I have a sore foot and tight muscles and it hurts to walk at times but, damn, that was a good day out in the woods.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Lurching from crisis to crisis

Yesterday on my home from the office I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR. The subject was an interview with Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta Airlines. The host was asking him questions about the state of the economy as seen through the eyes of the airline industry.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Mr. Anderson said he thought one key to sustained economic growth was for Congress to get its act together when it comes to the sequestration, budget negotiations and raising the debt ceiling. His thesis was that Congress' inability to do its job with regard to these matters was slowing the pace of economic growth.

He made the point that the economy is doing better than the statistics imply. He pointed out that savings rates were up, that businesses were sitting on a huge pile of cash and that investment by US companies overseas was increasing.
The government needs to solve the sequester issue and the debt ceiling issue permanently. And regardless of whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, if you're in the leadership of the most powerful, wealthiest nation in the world, it's just not acceptable that we lurch from event to event every 90 days. And that's what's causing a lot of the angst in the economy. 2012, our economy in the U.S. grew at 2.8 percent, and it's 1.5 percent in 2013. And one of the factors, I believe, is that we need stability in the underlying funding of government and the debt ceiling issue. -- Richard Anderson, CEO, Delta Airlines
Ah, there is your problem, sir. The economy is just creeping along, not because of gridlock on Capitol Hill, but because of the inner contradictions of capitalism. Why are corporate profits growing? Could it possibly be because of increased automation and productivity and the accompanying elimination of jobs? Could it possibly be because workers' wages are growing (if they are growing at all) at a rate less than increases in productivity?

Corporations are sitting on mountains of cash because they aren't hiring new workers. All those folks sitting at home looking for work are putting downward pressure on wages. All that investment overseas means more and more good paying manufacturing jobs are leaving the US, leaving lower paid service jobs instead.

The result of all of this is decreased demand for goods and services which means lower economic growth. As wages and unemployment continue to stagnate the structural crisis in our capitalist system will continue to fester.

The goings-on in Washington are just a side show. The real crisis is hidden from view. Mainstream journalists, economists and politicians are more than happy to pontificate about partisan gridlock and who's getting the upper hand - just so long as no one questions any of the basic assumptions that underlie our economic system.

This current crisis has been some 40 years in the making and wouldn't have happened but for the cooperation between the two major political parties and the business and finance communities. The policies of both Democans and Republicrats have only served to weaken the labor movement and strengthen the hand of capital.

Until we decide to make a critical analysis of our economic system and to address those factors that lead to systemic crisis we will continue to lurch back and forth between boom and bust. Meaningful change will only occur when a critical mass of the population makes the decision to question the basic assumptions that underlie our economic system.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program...