Friday, January 30, 2015

TRIALS - Power of Confessions

"True or False, the Power of Confessions is Great" by Joe Sexton, ProPublica 1/29/2015

Over the next several months, defense lawyers for Pedro Hernandez will seek to undercut the central evidence against him, his videotaped confession to having killed 6-year-old Etan Patz.

They will depict the confession as inaccurate when set against the known facts of the infamous 1979 missing child case.  They will portray Hernandez, a onetime bodega clerk in the Manhattan neighborhood where Patz lived, as mentally ill.  They will paint the detectives who gained the confession as manipulative and coercive.

It's a daunting assignment, but here's what may well be scaring the lawyers the most:  They could succeed in every aspect of their attack on the reliability of the confession and still not win an acquittal.

Such is the power of confessions, true or false, for American juries.  A nascent body of scholarship, driven in part by an escalating number of wrongful convictions in cases with false confessions, has begun to document just how persuasive confessions can be.

Of course, the power of confessions owes in part to the fact that they very often are true.  Certainly, that is the argument Manhattan prosecutors will make as they seek to hold Hernandez responsible for a case that has haunted the city, and parents nationwide, for decades.  Prosecutors say Hernandez's claims that he strangled the young boy after luring him from his school bus stop are credible, and that any mental health issues he suffers from are not serious.  They also argue that the confession is supported by the accounts of others who maintain Hernandez told similar stories of killing a child over the years.

But false confessions – including those questioned at trial by effective defense lawyers – also have proven to carry extraordinary weight with juries.  Several studies, using mock jurors and sophisticated analysis, have demonstrated that confessions outweigh the value of eyewitness and character testimony.  And in at least one case, according to a 2010 study, prosecutors chose to believe a confession even when the accused seemed categorically cleared by DNA evidence.

That 2010 study, which appeared in Cornell Law School's Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, produced and reflected on some fascinating insights into the otherwise under-examined universe of juror belief and behavior.

  • Jurors believe they can better judge a confession's truthfulness if it has been videotaped, as opposed to audiotaped or written out (Hernandez's confession was videotaped.)  Still, barely 40 percent of jurors interviewed were confident they could determine whether a videotaped confession was truthful.  The study also remarked that jurors were more likely to regard a videotaped confession as truthful if the tape involved only the accused.  They were less inclined to accept the confession when the tapes included the accused's interrogators.
  • Jurors tended to believe that police officials were better equipped to evaluate confessions than ordinary citizens, even though a 2005 study showed police actually performed less well than college students in a lie detection experiment.  In the 2010 study, non-white jurors were less inclined to regard police as better suited to assessing the truthfulness of confessions.
  • The 461 mock jurors used in the study said there was a better than 50-50 chance that a jury "would convict a suspect who falsely confessed to a murder, even when there was no other evidence that he or she was guilty."

On Thursday, the judge in the Patz case was still working to seat a jury.  To date, Judge Maxwell Wiley has kept aspects of the case out of public view.  The questioning of some jurors has taken place in secret, and the content of those interrogations kept under seal.  The actual videotaped confession, while having been played in open court, has also been kept from the public and news organizations.  And at least two hearings on what evidence will be admitted during trial have also been kept under seal, including one on Thursday.

Not surprisingly, then, the lists of witnesses to be called by both sides have not been made available.  And thus whether Hernandez's defense team plans to call expert witnesses to testify on the phenomenon of false confessions is unclear.  The value of such testimony, however, was endorsed by the state's highest court in 2012.

"That the phenomenon of false confessions is genuine has moved from the realm of startling hypothesis into that of common knowledge, if not conventional wisdom," ruled Judge Susan P. Read of the New York State Court of Appeals.

Hernandez's confession, again, might well be accurate.  If so, and he is convicted, it will be a significant accomplishment for prosecutors who have kept an open file on the case since Patz went missing on his first day of going to school alone.

But in the nearly three years since Hernandez's highly publicized arrest, some experts and law enforcement officials have expressed doubts about the confession's reliability.  Hernandez, as well as the circumstances of his confession, raise the array of red flags looked for when assessing potentially false confessions:  a history of mental illness; a long interrogation (it lasted over the course of 36 hours, much of it not recorded); the crime having been recently the subject of widespread media attention (weeks before Hernandez confessed, a development in the Patz case had been front page news in New York).

Hernandez's trial is expected to last two to three months.  The confession will be played, maybe played repeatedly.  And the jury will have to decide what to make of it.  And when they do, there will be more material for experts on confessions to study.  On how juries regard them, on how judge's handle them, on how expert testimony can help the process or not.

"In the area of interrogations and false confessions" the 2010 study said, "there has been relatively little research exploring the beliefs and abilities of key actors in the legal system such as judges, police and jurors."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

GREED FILES - New Wall Street Scam, Rent-to-Own Sharks

"Rent to Own:  Wall Street’s Latest Housing Trick" by Jesse Eisinger, ProPublica 1/28/2015

At a conference on housing finance last month, a collection of investors described their innovative "rent-to-own" products.

Rent-to-own schemes have long exploited the poor.  Naturally, marketers address that problem with euphemisms.  Today, it's called lease purchase.  The arrangements work in myriad permutations, but the basic deal is that a person rents a home and pays for an option to buy it at a later date.

All the panelists hailed the product, calling it a "yield enhancer" that would increase profits.  In a standard lease, one panelist explained, the owner covers costs like taxes, maintenance cost and insurance.  With lease purchase, the renter pays those expenses.  And it's easier to evict because the occupant has only a rental agreement.  It's not a foreclosure proceeding against an owner, after all.

One went further.  Eli Shaashua, of Red Granite Capital Partners, described it this way:  "Basically, it's an added fee to the rent.  For us, it instills pride in homeownership for some tenants who cannot currently when they rent a house own their own home."

Having pride in ownership means that the renter takes care of the property more carefully.  So that's a good thing — for the owner, that is.

Shaashua went on to explain that his options last generally for two years.  A renter pays a bit extra for the right to buy the house at a predetermined price, one above the current value.

Then Shaashua delivered the kicker to the roomful of would-be investment managers:  "Most times, given the reality, tenants do take it, but it's hard for them to execute the option," he said.  "Our experience is that most stay until the end and then they say they cannot come up with the down payment or decide not to stay in the property."

Voila, free money.  This amounts to an admission that the product exploits consumers' lack of financial savvy.  This shouldn't be surprising.  Who are you going to bet gets the price right, an aspiring home buyer or analyst with access to oceans of data on prices and historic trends?

"I regret that my words at the panel were taken out of context and understood in a way which is completely different than the one I was intending to convey," Shaashua said in response to a request for comment.  "Our firm actively engages, and incentivizes home ownership and community renewal, which, according to our experience and our opinion, constitutes a clear win-win scenario for all parties involved.  However, despite our intention to encourage home ownership and the given incentives, we noticed that the conversion rate to home ownership does not meet the level we hope to achieve."

The country is facing a shortage of rental housing.  At the same time, financial giants like the Blackstone Group have come into the market, raising worries that such investors would neglect the upkeep of the homes they bought or inflate another bubble.  There may be some of that, but they have acted to stabilize plummeting prices.  So the influx of financial firms hasn't been entirely malign.

The rent-to-own business appears to be a small, grubby niche of finance.  People I spoke with said that the big players were not doing rent-to-own.  And I couldn't find any serious Internet presence for Red Granite Capital Partners.

Yet even if rent-to-own is a small, dark corner, there are some important lessons to be drawn.  The first, obvious one is that someone should look out for renters in markets where people might take advantage of them.  That's where the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau comes in.  As it happens, the very thing Republicans would like to do now that they control Congress is gut this fledgling agency.

This is another lesson.  Today, we are having a debate about how to properly run a housing finance system.  About seven in 10 new mortgages have government backing, mainly from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.  On one side is pretty much everyone on the right, center and left-of-center.  They argue that the government needs to have a much-reduced role.  There are various positions, but the main one is that the market can deliver more mortgages more efficiently to more people.

But there is another side:  That the top-down, dominant government role works.  Melvin L. Watt, the Obama appointee who now heads of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, seems to hold a lonely position in this camp.  He is pushing Fannie and Freddie to expand credit, widening the types of mortgages they will back from the private sector.  In doing so, he is reversing direction from his predecessor, Edward J. DeMarco.  Watt is staking out the position that the government can be a responsible steward for most of the housing market.

In recent months, Watt has pushed through changes to allow Fannie and Freddie to buy loans made to borrowers who made lower down payments on houses, loosened up the mysterious "credit box" at the giant mortgage companies and lowered fees.

Some critics argue that the real problem is not tight credit from banks but lack of demand, because the middle class is getting squeezed.

But both things can be true.  The economy is certainly not producing high enough wages for people to be able to afford homes and that bears addressing.  But credit is tight and can be loosened as the economy turns up.

Loosening credit naturally leads to a queasy feeling for people who well remember the excesses of the last decade.  Conservatives and some Wall Streeters are criticizing Watt.  They are doing so while still advocating "reform" for Fannie and Freddie — code for privatizing the mortgage market.  They seem to have a point:  Didn't we learn anything from the housing crash?

Actually, we did.  We learned that the private sector ran amok, selling inappropriate loans to unqualified buyers.  This is not what Fannie and Freddie will be doing under Watt's watch.

Watt is doing "all of the kinds of things we would have liked to have done at the peak of the crisis," said Christopher J. Mayer, a housing expert at Columbia University.  "It's refreshing for people to say that homeownership is important for wealth accumulation.  You have to do it responsibly, but government needs to play a role."

Doing it conscientiously, of course, is the key.

These Watt changes are an important test.  Can the government do it when the private sector, with its rent-to-own sharks, cannot?

Correction:  This column incorrectly said that about nine in 10 new mortgages have government backing.  Recently, more than seven in 10 new mortgages have government backing, mainly from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

HUMOR - U.S. Congress


Monday, January 26, 2015

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 1/23/2015

"Shields and Brooks on inviting Netanyahu, GOP abortion bill revolt" PBS NewsHour 1/23/2015

Excerpts

SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Obama’s State of the Union agenda, a controversial invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address Congress and a fight among Republicans over a new abortion bill.

MARK SHIELDS:  And I would just point this out quickly.  Between 1948 and 1973, the productivity per hour, that is for goods and services produced by the average American worker, went up 96 percent.  And their wages went up 91 percent.  It was a golden era

In the 40 years after 1973, productivity again of the workers went up some 76 percent, and at the same time, their income went up, wages only went up 9 percent.  We have a maldistribution of wealth in this country.  And I think we’re approaching a debate on that subject.

SAUDI ARABIA - The New King

"Saudi Arabia’s new king inherits immediate challenges" PBS NewsHour 1/23/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died Thursday at the age of 90, was laid to rest in Riyadh.  The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, pledged continuity with his brother's policies.  Judy Woodruff remembers the late monarch’s rule.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  New leaders took their places today in Saudi Arabia, in the wake of King Abdullah’s passing.  His death came as the world’s leading oil state, and home to Islam’s holiest sites, faces unparalleled challenges from within and without.

It was a simple funeral for one of the world’s richest and most powerful men.  King Abdullah’s remains lay beneath a cloth covering, as Muslim leaders paid their respects.  Later, hundreds gathered at a Riyadh cemetery as he was buried in an unmarked grave, in accordance with Islamic tradition.

Earlier, the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, pledged continuity with his brother’s policies.

KING SALMAN, Saudi Arabia (through interpreter):  We extend our condolences to the loyal nation of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Arab and Muslim nations, for the loss of our great man.  Our nation mostly needs unity these days.  And we will continue, God willing, in our efforts to unite and defend our nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Abdullah died Thursday, at the age of 90.  He’d served as the country’s ruler effectively for 20 years, the first decade while his half-brother, King Fahd, was in poor health.  Then, at Fahd’s death in 2005, Abdullah became king in his own right.

He ruled a land rife with social pressures.  Roughly half of the kingdom’s 20 million people are under the age of 25.  And despite great oil wealth, many lack jobs, housing or education.  So, Abdullah pressed limited reforms, including a $90 billion economic program in 2011.  And in a land dominated by a strict brand of Islam, he opened a university that allowed men and women to share classrooms, and he allowed women to enter political life.



"Will regional turmoil encourage stability inside Saudi Arabia?" PBS NewsHour 1/23/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta join Judy Woodruff to discuss the many regional crises at play as Saudi Arabia moves to new leadership.

EDUCATION - Is Standardized Testing a Failure?

"Is ‘The Test’ failing American schools?" PBS NewsHour 1/22/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  As Congress considers revisions to the No Child Left Behind education law, there’s a larger debate about the role and efficacy of using standardized tests as assessment.  Anya Kamenetz, author of “The Test:  Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have To Be,” joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the evolving role of testing and the “big, unintended consequences.”

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  As Congress begins to tackle a new federal education law that would succeed No Child Left Behind, one of the major dividing lines is already clear.  What is the proper role and use of testing?

It’s a question that has long touched a raw nerve among parents and educators.

A new book explores that controversy and testing’s possible future.

Hari Sreenivasan has our conversation from our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  On the one hand, parents know their children’s talents can’t be quantified by multiple choice tests.  At the same time, they often want their children to do well on high-stakes exams.

A new book explores those issues and a growing backlash against testing in many circles.  It’s called “The Test:  Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don’t Have to Be.”

COMMENT:  The problem with standardized tests is, like many things, the money connect with it.  It is tying the test results to school funding.  These tests should only be used to compare a particular school to others in a state and the nation.  To answer the question "can my school do better?"  To see what schools work well and those who don't.

POLITICS - The State of the Union as Social Media

"How the White House made this year’s SOTU a social media affair" PBS NewsHour 1/22/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  The number of television viewers of the State of the Union address has shrinking, but online, there’s a growing interest.  How is the Obama administration tapping into social media to keep the American public engaged?  Judy Woodruff speaks with the Kori Schulman, director of online engagement at the White House, about reaching new audiences and the political benefits of speaking with YouTube stars.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  We have all heard the adage all politics is local.  But, more and more, it’s becoming digital, case in point, this week’s efforts by the White House to promote the president’s State of the Union agenda on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

As part of that push, Mr. Obama was interviewed today by YouTube stars, people with large followings on the video-sharing site.

And he made had some news in this exchange with GloZell Green:

GLOZELL GREEN, YouTube Host:  Do you think that same-sex marriage will be legalized in all of the United States during the time that you’re in office?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  The Supreme Court now is going to be taking on a case.  My hope is, is that they go ahead and recognize what I think the majority of people in America now recognize, which is two people who love each other and are treating each other with respect and aren’t bothering anybody else, why would the law treat them differently?

I’m hopeful the Supreme Court comes to the right decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  GloZell Green has about three million YouTube subscribers.

One of the issues facing anybody trying to get a message out is how to do so effectively in this rapidly changing media landscape.  The president’s State of the Union address was the least watched in 15 years; 32 million people tuned in to broadcast and cable outlets.  That’s down from a high of 67 million in 1993.

But, online, it was a different story.  Far fewer people watched than on television, but the audience is growing.  In all, 1.2 million people watched the speech on the White House’s Web site; 2.6 million tweeted about it, and another 5.7 million liked, shared, or posted about it on Facebook.

GAY MARRIAGE - Businesses That Refuse Services

"Why some wedding businesses say ‘I don’t’ to gay couples" PBS NewsHour 1/21/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  In Colorado, a baker’s decision to turn a gay couple away rather than make them a wedding cake has sparked a civil rights legal battle.  In fact, as the number of states allowing same-sex marriages increases, so too has the number of business owners refusing to provide wedding services for religious reasons.  Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Colorado baker Jack Phillips estimates he’s made 5,000 wedding cakes since he opened his shop, Masterpiece Cakes, 20 years ago.

JACK PHILLIPS, Owner, Masterpiece Cakeshop:  I just like everything about the baking business.  With a wedding, I get to know the bride, I get to know the groom, if I can, you know, as much of the personalities and things that I can.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And while his portfolio of wedding cakes is vast, there’s one cake the baker refuses to bake.  Phillips will not make a cake for a same-sex marriage.

JACK PHILLIPS:  It’s a cake that I just don’t do because of my Christian faith.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  A deeply religious man, Jack Phillips says he will bake birthday cakes, cupcakes, and a variety of other sweets for same-sex couples, not just a wedding cake.

JACK PHILLIPS:  I actually feel like I’m taking part in the wedding.  Part of me goes to the reception.  And in this case, that part of me doesn’t want to be represented in a ceremony that I believe is unbiblical.

NEVADA - The Effect of Immigration Political Divide

"Political divide on immigration reform looms over Nevada families" PBS NewsHour 1/19/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  In Nevada, the debate on immigration reform has consequences beyond the political.  Facing a mixed bag of law and executive action, many live with the fear that their families will be divided by deportation.  Gwen Ifill reports on personal stakes at the heart of the political fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The divide over immigration was a major theme of this year’s congressional elections.  But the issue is not just roiling politicians.

As our Gwen found on a weekend trip to Nevada, the president’s policies and Republicans’ opposition to reform has meant difficult splits within many families.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Far from Washington’s politics, positioning and policy, here’s what the immigration debate looks like, a Saturday afternoon gathering of friends and relatives at a family-owned restaurant little more than a mile from the Strip in Las Vegas.

Susana Flores, the owner, is a legal resident who tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to make tortillas.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL:  Susana’s sister, Rocina Sandoval, who works as a waitress, is not here legally.  She could easily be deported.

ROCINA SANDOVAL, Nevada (through interpreter):  I would like some kind of documentation so I could work legally and help the family more.

GWEN IFILL:  Most of the family members have lived in Las Vegas for decades.  Rocina’s son, Juan Salazar, joined his parents here when he was just 7 years old.  He is now covered by President Obama’s 2012 executive action which protects so called dreamers, young people who arrived in this country illegally when they were children.

He runs a pool business with his father, Juan Sr., and attends a local community college.  But good fortune has its limits, even for a dreamer.

HEALTH CARE - Message to Hospitals

"Senator to Hospitals:  Stop Suing Poor Patients" by Paul Kiel and Chris Arnold (NPR), ProPublica 1/22/2015

Prompted by an investigation by ProPublica and NPR, Sen. Charles Grassley asks a Missouri nonprofit hospital to explain why it seizes the wages of thousands of its patients.

Sen. Charles Grassley said nonprofit hospitals could be breaking the law when they sue poor patients over unpaid bills and issued a stern warning to one Missouri hospital that he hopes reverberates nationwide.

Citing a ProPublica and NPR report, Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter Friday to Heartland Regional Medical Center, a nonprofit hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri, that has seized the wages of thousands of lower income workers who were unable to pay their medical bills.

Under federal law, tax-exempt hospitals are supposed to provide care to those who can't afford it, but the requirements are fairly vague.  Even so, Grassley said the hospital, which recently rebranded as Mosaic Life Care, had, at a minimum, stretched the law to the breaking point.  In his letter to Mosaic's CEO, Grassley wrote that the hospital "may not be meeting the requirements to be a nonprofit, tax exempt hospital."  He also asked a battery of questions about the hospital's treatment of lower-income patients, its debt collection practices, and how it administers financial assistance.

"Reports detail a number of instances where Mosaic failed to identify patients who would qualify for financial assistance and who have since been subject to abusive billing and collection practices," Grassley wrote.  "The practices appear to be extremely punitive and unfair to both low income patients and taxpayers who subsidize charitable hospitals' tax breaks."

As ProPublica and NPR reported, the hospital has its own for-profit debt collection subsidiary, Northwest Financial Services, which files thousands of lawsuits each year.  From 2009 through 2013, the company garnished the pay of about 6,000 people and seized at least $12 million.

In response to the story, the hospital announced a review of its debt collection practices.  Tama Wagner, chief brand officer for Mosaic, said the hospital expected that new recommendations would be presented to the hospital's board next month.  "Our goal is to do the right thing," she said.

In an interview, Grassley said the issue of nonprofit hospitals dodging their charitable responsibilities is not a new one.  About a decade ago, as the chair of the finance committee, he launched an investigation into just what these hospitals were doing to warrant their valuable tax exemptions.

Grassley, now chair of the judiciary committee, said he was "astounded" that, years later, some hospitals continued to aggressively pursue the debts of poor patients who should have qualified for financial assistance.  He'd hoped that Congressional focus on the issue would have persuaded hospitals to fulfill their mandate, he said, but "some hospitals, you hit them over the head with a two-by-four, and they still don't get the message."

The 2010 Affordable Care Act contains a provision, co-authored by Grassley, which requires hospitals to make "reasonable efforts" to determine whether patients qualify for financial assistance before taking an aggressive step like filing a lawsuit.  It didn't appear that Mosaic had made such efforts, said Grassley.  As ProPublica and NPR reported, the hospital said it had publicized its financial assistance policy in a number of ways.  But Mosaic put the onus on patients to actively seek assistance and said those that didn't, and had their wages garnished as a result, were truly at fault.

"It seems like Mosaic turned [the law] on its head," said Grassley.  The primary responsibility for identifying patients who need assistance lies with the hospitals, he said.

The IRS recently issued new rules for nonprofit hospitals.  They provide more specific guidance on what steps hospitals must take, at a minimum, to evaluate patients for financial assistance.  But like all laws and rules governing nonprofit hospitals, they provide hospitals wide latitude in how to interpret the law.

Grassley acknowledged this, but said he hoped his focus on Mosaic's debt collection practices would remind other hospitals of "their humanitarian responsibilities" and "the responsibilities they have as a nonprofit."

If they don't change their behavior voluntarily, Grassley said, their responsibilities may have to be spelled out in law.

"If they don't get the message now," he said, "we'll have to work towards getting the ideal language in the legislation."

LABOR - Movement on Deathbed?

"The U.S. Labor Movement: At a ‘Crossroads,’ or the Gallows?" by Jake Blumgart, In These Times 1/21/2015

Steven Greenhouse has been here before.

Nearly a month after his retirement, the august former New York Times labor correspondent spoke to union staffers, labor journalists and sympathetic academics at the American Labor Movement at a Crossroads conference in Washington, D.C.  The title, he notes, is strikingly similar to a similar event he held in 1982, while in law school at NYU (“The Labor Movement at the Crossroads”).

The title made more sense three decades ago.  Today the New Deal model of unionism would be more aptly described as being at the gallows.

The speakers, for the most part, seem well aware of that.  With the exception of an outlandishly upbeat opening speech from Secretary of Labor Tom Perez—“The arc of the moral universe bends towards those who want to expand opportunity!”—the conference seemed to take its inspiration from the evident end of the 20th century union model.

Conferences of this type lend themselves to pontifications on the evergreen question “what is to be done?”—an exercise that often leads to presentations full of banalities.  For the most part, such presentations were mercifully missing at the conference.  A panel on community-labor alliances proved apt at naming everything the shrinking labor movement should be supporting, but provided precious little insight into how it can be expected to pay to ramp up such campaigns.  On an earlier panel, the immanently quotable president of SEIU Local 775, David Rolf described the need for new forms of labor organizing.

“The old model isn’t coming back," Rolf said.  "Many of us in the labor movement have been waiting for that mythical pendulum to swing back since sometime in the 1980s.”  Rolf later told In These Times that Workers Lab, a program he helped form to fund innovative new organizing efforts, had begun making decisions about which proposals it would fund.

In terms of actual ideas, minority unionism seemed to hold the greatest hope—even if many attendees would probably have preferred that it didn’t.

Currently, American labor law requires “exclusive representation” across the nation; workers can be represented by only one union per bargaining unit, and it must represent everyone after being voted in by a majority of workers.  But exclusive representation has been under assault almost since its inception.  The Taft-Hartley Act landed the first blow, allowing states to establish right-to-work laws permitting private sector workers to refuse dues to a union (although the union is still required to represent them).

Last year’s Harris v. Quinn Supreme Court decision seems to bring a similar challenge in the public sector.  Currently, union members who do not want to pay full dues (or, presumably in most cases, pay anything at all to a union) do not have to officially join the union, but must contribute “agency fees” to compensate the union for the resources it is legally required to expend on their behalf.  But Justice Samuel Alito expressed disdain for this standard in Harris V. Quinn.  Once he secures the necessary votes, it is very likely right-to-work will be coming to the public sector.

Minority unionism would grant workers the right to join a union even if the total number of union supporters does not represent a majority of the workplace.  The union, meanwhile, would only have to bargain for and represent those workers who support it.  This would allow private sector unions to escape from the bind created by right-to-work laws under exclusive representation while eliminating one of the more unpopular and confusing aspects of contemporary labor law—the requisite membership required of those who may be opposed to the very idea of a union.  Some scholars believe the NLRB could easily tweak its standards to allow for private sector minority unionism; non-federal public sector workers are regulated by state-level laws, which would have to be amended state-by-state to allow for such arrangements.

The very fact that minority unionism is a hot topic of discussion at a D.C. labor conference is a sign of how badly organized labor’s hopes have been dashed.  The architects of New Deal labor law pushed for majority representation and exclusive bargaining because a union that speaks for the entire workplace is likely to have more influence and can generate enough resources to fund both organizing and political campaigns.  But the spread of right-to-work laws, the likely end of agency fees, and the members-only Local 42 that the UAW recently formed in Chattanooga seems to have forced establishment leaders and intellectuals to grapple with the idea.

University of California-Irvine law professor Catherine Fisk spoke longest in favor of minority unionism.  (A small swarm of admirers hovered around her at the podium after her panel.) But her pitch was coached in ambivalence.

“Members-only unionism is better than no unionism and that’s the choice we face—it’s not like we can just turn our backs on right-to-work,” Fisk told the audience.  “I’m not advocating members-only bargaining as though it were the best strategy in an ideal world. It’s not.  There’s a reason why people smarter than I am decided in the early 1930s to enshrine majority unionism and exclusive representation.  But we don’t live in that world anymore.”

The NLRB has not hinted that they will be altering labor standards to accommodate minority unions.  But the Chattanooga UAW local could force the issue.  There are also several states where public workers now have to labor in conditions that could allow for such a model.  In 2011, Tennessee banned exclusive representation for teachers and now requires members-only bargaining.  Fisk calls it “a terrific natural experiment.”

Minority unionism is the norm in other nations, such as New Zealand.  In 2010, academics Mark Harcourt and Helen Lam performed a comparative study between the two nations and estimated that minority unionism could raise U.S. membership rates by as much as 30 percent.  And in his new book, labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan argues that such unions could actually produce a more militant and powerful labor movement, as unions would not have to worry about pleasing ambivalent or anti-union members and could focus exclusively on representing strong union supporters.

But few other experts seem to share such optimistic analysis.  The takeaway from Labor at a Crossroads seems to be that the remnants of the shattered American labor movement have been forced into a position where they just need to try something.

“We should try [minority unionism]…  Our method should be to fire a lot of bullets, not one big cannonball,” Rolf told In These Times after Fisk’s panel.  “I don’t know if minority membership is the answer, but it must be tried.  We should look at things that have been tried elsewhere and things that have never been tried before, things we can prototype and test.  The impulse to throw up a fortress”—a reference to conference panelist and veteran labor strategist Rich Yeselson’s recent argument for fortifying union strongholds until the next upsurge in worker militancy—"and protect what we have is not how species service, we survive by adaption.”

Greenhouse did not offer any specific proposals in his speech, nor did he adopt the strong rhetoric of Rolf.  But while his diagnosis was delivered in a measured tone, the message was just as bleak.  He reviewed labor’s successes since he took over the New York Times labor beat, over ten years after the conference he organized on labor’s future.  After ticking off some organizing and political successes in the subsequent years, he seemed to tacitly acknowledge that if something doesn’t give, there won’t be any need for a sequel conference 30 years from now—because there won’t be any labor movement left to discuss.

"Last night I had dinner with a top labor official who said to me, 'We are at a moment in American history where the labor movement is weaker than ever before,'” Greenhouse concluded.  “'But never before—considering the position of American workers and wage stagnation—has there been a time when we need the labor movement more.  There’s a lot of frustration among American workers, …a lot of anger and alienation.  The question is how can that anger, upset, dismay be converted into an effort to create a fairer America?'”

Monday, January 19, 2015

STATE OF THE UNION - 2015 Full Speech



OPINION:

TAXES - President Obama's Middle Class Tax Plan

"Inside Obama’s middle class tax plan" PBS NewsHour 1/18/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Obama will reportedly unveil a plan to offer tax relief for the middle class during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.  The plan would be paid for by increasing taxes the rich pay on investments and inherited property.  For more, Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  President Obama reportedly will unveil a plan to offer tax relief for the middle class during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.  The plan would be paid for by increasing taxes the rich pay on investments and inherited property.

For more about the president’s proposal, its chances of success, and its political impact, we’re joined now from Washington by Carol Lee. She is White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

So, Carol, who does the administration say that this will help, and how?

CAROL LEE, The Wall Street Journal:  Their main target is the middle class.

And they — their argument is that it will help the middle class by taking — closing certain tax loopholes that they say benefit the top 1 percent of Americans and making different changes to the tax code, including raising the capital gains tax from 23.8 percent to 28 percent by, as you mentioned, taxing some of these investments and assets that people transfer to their children that currently are not taxed and a number of other things.

And what they do with that money, which is roughly several hundred billion dollars, is put it towards proposals such as tripling the child tax credit.  So, that would go from $1,000 to $3,000.  They’re proposing to create a new tax credit for households where both spouses work.

And they would — the president has unveiled a proposal to offer free community college for folks.  And that’s another thing that — that this would pay for.  And so it’s kind of — it’s basically the president’s opening bid on a number of tax issues that have been vexing Washington for a long time.

And, so far, it has not gotten a very warm reception from Republicans.  But the White House’s argument is that this would help the middle class, the Republicans say that they are now focused on the middle class, the economy is doing better, and so now is the time to do things — things — take steps like this.

And while conceding that they probably won’t get everything that they want, which is a very optimistic view of this package, given the response we have seen from Republicans, the hope is that this is an opening bid to what the White House hopes are broader negotiations on some of these individual tax code issues.

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 1/16/2015

"Shields and Brooks on same-sex right to marry, Romney run resistance" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the Supreme Court’s move to consider same-sex marriage, next steps for Republican congressional leaders, emerging GOP candidates for the next presidential race, plus thoughts on the NewsHour’s decision to not show the post-attack cover of Charlie Hebdo.

CLIMATE CHANGE - NASA Goddard Institute View

"Only a little bit hotter, but 2014’s record temperatures continue long-term trend" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  2014 was the hottest year in recorded history, even despite below-average temperatures in the Eastern U.S.  Judy Woodruff speaks with Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies about the human impact on global warming.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Scientists report that 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history for the planet, and that dates back to 1880.  This was announced today by both NASA and NOAA, the Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

Five months last year set temperature records.  The ocean surface was unusually warm around the world, except for Antarctica.  In the U.S., the Western part of the country baked under extreme heat, shown here in yellow, although the Eastern half of the country saw below-average temperatures, as seen in blue.  And there were temperature records set in several European countries.

Well, we get further insight and information on all of this from one of the lead scientists involved with the report.

Gavin Schmidt studies climate change at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

WYOMING - Reaction to EPA Plan to Cut Carbon Emissions

"How an EPA plan to cut carbon emissions is playing out in coal-rich Wyoming" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2015

COMMENT:  Again, the personal profit of a few before the welfare of our planet, and by extension, the welfare of our world's human beings.

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  In Wyoming, people care about issues that affect their land and energy resources.  A recently announced EPA initiative to cut carbon emissions, the Clean Power Plan, aims to move American electricity generation away from coal -- the economic lifeblood for that state.  Special correspondent Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy looks at both sides of the fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The rise in greenhouse gases and temperatures are the reasons why the president has issued new restrictions on coal-fired power plants in this country.

But now that Republicans hold control of Congress, one issue high on their agenda, blocking or delaying the EPA’s plans.

We get a report on how that’s viewed in a key energy-producing state, Wyoming.

It comes from Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy.  That’s a public media collaboration on energy issues, working with the NewsHour.

LEIGH PATERSON, Inside Energy:  Caring for a few hundred cows during the Wyoming winter is hard work.  Subzero temperatures and hurricane-force winds are normal.

Rancher Dave Hamilton say it’s part of the disconnect between people who live off the land and those who regulate the environment.

DAVE HAMILTON, President, Natural Gas Processing Co.:  We seem to have people that have never, ever even set foot on — in the state of Wyoming, that don’t understand farming, don’t understand ranching pass rules that affect us all, when, in fact, we all want to keep our land together.  I can’t make a living if I destroy my land.

RIGHT TO DIE - In Belgium

"The right to die in Belgium:  An inside look at the world’s most liberal euthanasia law" PBS NewsHour 1/17/2015 (note, this was posted on the 1/15/2015 WEB page)

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Belgium has the world’s most liberal law on physician-assisted suicide, which is not just for the terminally ill.  Patients with psychiatric conditions – and now, even children – can request euthanasia.  Surveys in Belgium show overwhelming public support, and many doctors say it gives patients with constant and unbearable suffering a practical and humane way to die peacefully.  But even in a country with a far-reaching acceptance, controversy still exists.  NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.

Editor’s note:  This broadcast segment contains footage that may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

MEGAN THOMPSON (NewsHour):  As she opens the door to her home…this 34-year old Belgian woman known as “Eva” seems at ease.  But actually she’s chronically depressed.  More than once she’s tried to commit suicide.  And now she’s asking doctors to help her.  Help her die by euthanasia…all of it captured in a Belgian documentary.

EVA (voiceover):  It may seem strange but I am looking forward to the rest.  The choice has been made.  The decision has been made.  I am looking forward to the rest I have longed for, for so long.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  It may sound shocking, but in Belgium euthanasia is quite accepted.  And it’s not just for the terminally ill.  Chronically depressed patients like Eva can request it, too.  And so on a day and time she’s chosen…  Eva says goodbye to her family.

MARC VAN HOEY:  Eva, are you ready?

EVA:  Yes, I am ready, doctor.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  And then she lays down on her couch.

MARC VAN HOEY (voiced over):  Would you like to say something to your brother and sister-in-law?’

EVA (voiced over):  Bye.

BROTHER:  Sleep Well.

EVA (English):  Thank you.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  The man kneeling by her side, about to give her the lethal injection, is her doctor for the past two years.  Dr. Marc Van Hoey.

THE OSCARS - A White Boys Club 2015?

"How the Oscars’ lack of diversity reflects who runs Hollywood" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  For the first time in 20 years, all of the Academy Award nominees for leading and supporting acting roles are white.  Gwen Ifill asks Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio and Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post about the surprises and snubs of the 2015 Oscar nominations, and what it says about power and diversity in Hollywood.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  It took only minutes after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced this morning for the criticism to begin.

Much of the reaction centered on what was missing, namely, diversity among nominees for actor, actress, directing and screenwriting.  For the first time since 1995, all of the actors nominated for lead and supporting roles are white.  One prominent snub, the civil rights film “Selma,” which snagged a best picture nod, but nothing for its director, actors or writers.

What, if anything, does any of this tell us about the Academy or about the films themselves?

For that, we turn to two film critics, Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio and Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post.

Welcome to you both.

So, Ann Hornaday, what do today’s nominations tell us about the kinds of films that Hollywood is making and the kinds of films that Hollywood is awarding?

ANN HORNADAY, The Washington Post:  Well, at least for today, it looks like it’s kind of a boys show.

And even when you look at the best picture nominees — and, gratifyingly, “Selma” did make it into the best picture — to be nominated for best picture.  But so many of those are movies are journeys undertaken by men, either the great men of “The Theory of Everything” and “Imitation Game” or the young man of “Boyhood” or the actor of “Birdman.”

So it is a striking sort of tableaux of men and their stories being represented in that group.

AUTOS - The Coming of The Jetsons Era

"Drive the car of the future?  No, it drives you" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2015

(REF: The Jetsons)

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  A big sensation at the Consumer Electronic Show this year was a preview of the autonomous driving car, a vehicle equipped with a supercomputing chip and software that can recognize other vehicles and obstacles.  Special correspondent Steve Goldbloom takes the passenger seat in one of these connected cars.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM (NewsHour):  If this car looks like it’s from the future, that’s because it is.  It’s the Mercedes Luxury in Motion.  With inward-facing seats and gesture recognition technology, it was drawing a crowd at the Consumer Electronics Show this month in Las Vegas.

Some 20,000 tech products were launched at CES this year, from recreational drones to smart kitchen appliances.  But one of the most buzzed about showings was a preview of the driverless car.

JEN-HSUN HUANG, CEO, NVIDIA:  This is a pretty big deal for us.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM:  Jen-Hsun Huang is the CEO of Nvidia, a Silicon Valley-based technology company that unveiled the Tegra X1 superchip, a brand-new computing platform for cars.

JEN-HSUN HUANG:  One of the biggest revolutions going on right now is the building of and the creating of the autonomous driving car.


WARNING:  Hands-free cars connected to the "cloud" (aka Internet)?  So, right out of a sifi thriller, a assassin hacker takes over your car, waits until you doze-off at the wheel, and takes you over a cliff.

U.S. MILITARY - Best in the World?

"‘An era of defeat’ for the best soldiers in the world?" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Journalist James Fallows says it's time to examine why the best funded, best trained and most professional military in the world hasn't achieved lasting victory in the post-9/11 era.  He joins chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner to discuss his provocative critique in The Atlantic magazine, and how the public should be more connected to American armed conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Now to a critique of America’s war-fighting apparatus that’s making waves in defense circles and beyond.

Journalist and author James Fallows raises hard questions about this country’s defense establishment in a cover story “The Atlantic” magazine titled “Why Do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing?:  The Tragic Decline of the American Military.”

Fallows’ thesis?  That it’s time to examine why the best-funded, trained and most professional military in the world hasn’t achieved lasting victories over insurgent forces in the post-9/11 era.

We will have more on the reaction to his piece.

But, first, we hear from Fallows himself.  He spoke a few days ago with our Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER (NewsHour):  Jim Fallows, thank you for having us.

JAMES FALLOWS, The Atlantic :  Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER:  Now, you contend in this article that, after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which we overthrew Saddam Hussein and the Taliban and drove most of the al-Qaida remnants at least underground, that we essentially lost those wars?

JAMES FALLOWS:  I’m saying that if you looked at this era from a strictly military strategic point of view, you would say there is one clear victory the United States had, which was killing Osama bin Laden.

But by having this last 12 or 13 years of open-ended war in Iraq and the surrounding countries, I argue that, from almost any perspective, that is of use of money, loss of life, taking of life, strategic changes in America’s image and reputation around the world, erosion of American values, this has been an era of defeat, rather than victory.



"Is the U.S. military faced with impossible missions?" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2015

Excerpts

SUMMARY:  A critique of the U.S. military establishment written by journalist James Fallows has made waves in defense circles and beyond.  Who is responsible for how America applies its military might?  Judy Woodruff gets reaction from former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and John Ullyot, a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Ambassador Jeffrey, to you first.

Is Jim Fallows right when he says, essentially, this has been an era of military defeat in this country, rather than victory, since 9/11?

JAMES JEFFREY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq:  It has been an era of lack of success in carrying out our strategic objectives in Iraq and in certainly Afghanistan, and, going back, Vietnam as well.

When we get engaged in these long-term conflicts, we have not done well as a nation.  The military, as Jim Fallows pointed out, do win the battles.  That’s what they are hired for, but they and all of us together under the leadership of the President have not come up with strategies that have led to the achievement of our objectives.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, John Ullyot, that and the biggest point that the country has lost more than it’s gained.

JOHN ULLYOT, Former U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Officer:  Well, the ambassador is absolutely right that if you look battle by battle, that we never suffered a single tactical defeat on the battlefield.

So, while Jim Fallows himself is right that they have not been successful, it has not been because of military shortcomings.  What it has been is, it’s been the policy-makers have committed our military to wars and conflicts both in Iraq and Afghanistan that are essentially not solvable on a military level.


COMMENT:  My fellow Americans, are you listening?

YOSEMITE - Free-Climbers Top El Capitan

"Yosemite free climbers complete their gripping feat" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Two climbers successfully scaled the near-vertical slab of El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, using their fingers and feet without additional aids.  After 19 days, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are the first to free climb the entire granite face.  Gwen Ifill talks to Chris Weidner of the Boulder Daily Camera about their pinnacle achievement.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Two rock climbers made history today in California’s Yosemite National Park, completing what’s being called the hardest climb in the world.

Thirty-year-old Kevin Jorgeson and 36-year-old Tommy Caldwell became the first to free-climb a 3,000-foot sheer slab of granite to reach the summit of El Capitan.  The two started their journey on December 27, and continued their half-mile trek up the Dawn Wall route to the peak.  They marked their progress through different pitches or sections of the route.  They used no climbing aids, other than safety ropes, to catch their falls.

Here’s Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall talking about the weather conditions they faced earlier in their trek.

KEVIN JORGESON, Climber:  We looked at the forecast and saw that there’s this crazy arctic wind storm happening today.  It’s getting pretty rowdy.  The portal edge, despite being latched down, is getting tossed around like a rag doll.

GWEN IFILL:  For more on this journey, I spoke earlier with Chris Weidner, a freelance writer for numerous publications and a climber himself.

Friday, January 16, 2015

CLIMATE CHANGE - 2014 Earth's Hottest Year

"UPDATE 5 - Last year was Earth's hottest on record, U.S. scientists say" by Irene Klotz, Reuters 1/17/2015

Last year was Earth's hottest on record in new evidence that people are disrupting the climate by burning fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the air, two U.S. government agencies said on Friday.

The White House said the studies, by the U.S. space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), showed climate change was happening now and that action was needed to cut rising world greenhouse gas emissions.

The 10 warmest years since records began in the 19th century have all been since 1997, the data showed.  Last year was the warmest, ahead of 2010, undermining claims by some skeptics that global warming has stopped in recent years.

Record temperatures in 2014 were spread around the globe, including most of Europe stretching into northern Africa, the western United States, far eastern Russia into western Alaska, parts of interior South America, parts of eastern and western coastal Australia and elsewhere, NASA and NOAA said.

"While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases," said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York.

"The data shows quite clearly that it's the greenhouse gas trends that are responsible for the majority of the trends," he told reporters.  Emissions were still rising "so we may anticipate further record highs in the years to come."

U.N. studies show there already are more extremes of heat and rainfall and project ever more disruptions to food and water supplies. Sea levels are rising, threatening millions of people living near coasts, as ice melts from Greenland to Antarctica.

PARIS MEETING IN DECEMBER

Next December, about 200 governments will meet in Paris to try to reach a deal to limit global warming, shifting to renewable energies.  China and the United States, the top emitters of greenhouse gases, say they are cooperating more to achieve a U.N. accord.

The new data "is another reminder that climate change is not a problem for the future - it's happening here and now and we can't wait to take action," a White House official said in a statement.

Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would transport Canadian crude oil across the United States said the new data made it all the more pressing to prevent the construction of the pipeline.

But U.S. Senator James Inhofe, a Republican who is the Senate's leading climate change skeptic, said the temperature difference between 2014 and 2010 was so insignificant as to prove there was no need for more stringent regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Human activity is clearly not the driving cause for global warming, and is not leading our planet to the brink of devastation that many alarmists want us to believe," he said.

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it is at least 95 percent probable that human activities, rather than natural variations in the climate caused by factors such as sunspots, are to blame for rising temperatures.

Still, a Paris deal will be hard to achieve since curbs on fossil fuel use are unpopular in many nations.  Low oil prices may also discourage a shift to cleaner wind and solar power.

"The political challenges of organizing countries to respond, particularly through the UN process, remain very high," Michael Levi, a fellow on energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told Reuters.

Rowan Sutton, director of climate research at Britain's National Center for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, said a single year did not mean much because it might be a freak hot year.

"But the fact that now 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century shows just how clear global warming has become," he said.

Even so, temperatures have not risen as fast as they did in the 1980s or 1990s, taking an unusually warm 1998 as a starting point.  The IPCC has described it as a hiatus in warming.

NO EL NINO FACTOR

Since 1880, Earth's average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius), NASA said. The NASA and NOAA analyses showed that the world's oceans all warmed last year, offsetting somewhat more moderate temperatures over land.

The average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.24 degrees F (0.69 degree C) above the 20th century average, NOAA said.

The scientists noted that the record was set in a year that did not have the weather pattern known as El NiƱo, which can heat up the atmosphere and has been a factor in many past record-setting years, including 1998.

The United Nations says it is already clear that promises for emissions curbs at the Paris summit will be too weak to get on track for a U.N. goal of limiting global warming to 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) above pre-industrial times.  (Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner, Roberta Rampton, Caren Bohan, Valerie Volcovici and Alistair Bell in Washington; David Adams in Miami; Nina Chestney and Susanna Twidale in London; Writing by Will Dunham and Alister Doyle; Editing by Alden Bentley, Howard Goller and Leslie Adler)

OPINION - Awakening 'We the People'

"Awakening the 'We the People' Within" by Annabel Park, Huffington Post Blogs 1/16/2015

We had a simple question when Eric Byler and I began our journey around the country with Story of America:  Why have we become so divided as a nation and how can we become more united?

As I watched the video of our interview with James Morgan of Bakersville, NC, a mining town in the Appalachian Mountains, I finally recognized what really propelled this journey.  It wasn't some academic answer to my question; it was something deeply personal.

At the end of the video, when James catches himself being unfairly judgmental of people on welfare, when he realizes that he is not so different from the people he'd been judging, you can see the light bulb go on over his head.  It took me months longer, but a light bulb went on for me as well when I revisited this experience watching the video:  I'm not so different from James.

At some level, I'd been judging James and other white Christian conservatives, particularly in the South.  At the time of the interview, back in August 2013, I remember feeling a lot of compassion for James as he tried to figure out what to do about his personal dilemma, "Should I draw from SSI?  Do I need the help?"

James' personal need is in terrible conflict with his political beliefs, his sense of self, and a story about America, I'll call it the Confederate South story, that he had been using to make sense of life.  The basic story that I had been using, I'll call it the New America story, is different from his, but it operates in the same way in my life.

The basic story gives us a constant framework for understanding most of what happens in the public sphere and where the public and private intersect:  these are the good people; these are the bad people; these are our values; these are their values, etc.

His basic story of America had led him to think that "most people on welfare are lazy and don't deserve it."  My basic story of America had led me to think that James and his father are stuck in their regressive worldview, and their cognitive problem is making America stuck, zapping our hope for the future.

Looking back, it's amazing that James opened up to us about his dilemma and the details of his situation.  If he hadn't done that, I may not see him as a person with a unique personal story.  This conversation challenged the three of us to go outside of our basic story of America to understand each other.

The experience with James gives me hope for the possibility of greater unity in America.  And, it is this hope that I've been pursuing for several years, propelling our journey across the country.  To be honest, by the end of 2012 when we started our journey -- after several years of bitter acrimony between the two parties, after the Tea Party became a household name, and especially after the Sandy Hook Massacre -- I was just heartbroken about where we were as a country.  I felt cheated of a period of time that was supposed to be about hope and change.

There is another reason why I have more hope right now. It is because of something I'll call "Story Therapy."  Think of it this way:  What would happen if all of us critically examined our basic story of America and see if those stories cause us to make assumptions about people in our lives?  What would happen if people could meet each other and see unique individuals with unique stories rather than characters in a pre-existing, pre-scripted story?

What the Confederate South Story and the New America Story get wrong is this:  We are still using the framework we use to tell the story of the Civil War.  Half of the people with one set of moral beliefs and economic interests fights the other half.  However, the story of America today is really about a few people with concentrated power and wealth with the majority of people around the country living on the edge of poverty.  This has been a growing problem since 1979, and it became dramatically more pronounced because of the 2008 financial crisis.  The story of America today is about a growing plutocracy.

Because many of us are so attached to our basic stories and so certain we know who our enemies are, we are missing this big picture.  And even if we see the big picture, because we are a house divided, we as a people are weak and cannot seem to fight the growing plutocracy.

We will stay divided and grow even weaker if we don't talk to other people with different beliefs, ideas, experiences, and appearances.  We will continue to make assumptions about others, fear them in some cases, hate them at times, and allow politicians and oligarchs to exploit that division for political and financial gains.

If we are able to see each other as unique individuals with unique stories, I believe we will begin to awaken the "We the People" within us.  Like any therapy, however, Story Therapy requires us get out of our comfort zone and be vulnerable to each other in the way that James Morgan allowed himself to be.

In these partisan and divided times, "We the People" as a building block of our social identities has been laying dormant.  If we want to keep our democratic republic, we must awaken the We the People within us.

OPINION - Civil Asset Forfeiture

"AG Eric Holder Slashes Civil Asset Forfeiture" by Bill Piper, Huffington Post Blogs 1/16/2015

Eric Holder just issued a huge blow to the drug war.  This is big.

Today the Justice Department limited the circumstances in which local and state police can use a federal program to seize a person's property without evidence of a crime.

That might sound odd, since you would assume that it was already illegal in America for police to take your property without due process -- but you would be wrong.  Originally pushed in the 1980s as a way to combat illegal drugs, civil asset forfeiture has become common throughout the country.

Today people all over America who are simply suspected of drug law violations can have their assets seized without any ability to defend themselves in a court of law.  Even if they are never convicted, or even charged with a crime they can have their property, bank accounts, cars, and assets taken from them forever.

Civil asset forfeiture is another ugly aspect of the drug war, and we are making it a top issue in 2015.

Today's actions by Eric Holder are a good first step to ending the unjust enforcement of this program once and for all.  But now Congress needs to pass legislation to make this change permanent.  #NoMoreDrugWar!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

GAY MARRIAGE - Michigan Judge's Ruling

"Judge:  Michigan must recognize 300-plus gay marriages" by JEFF KAROUB (AP), Seattle Pi 1/15/2015

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Michigan must recognize hundreds of same-sex marriages performed during a brief window last year.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith wrote that the unions are valid, but stayed the decision for 21 days pending any appeal by the state.

A different federal judge struck down the state's gay marriage ban on March 21.  More than 300 same-sex couples in four counties got married the next day, before an appeals court suspended the decision and blocked additional marriages.

Michigan has refused to recognize those marriages, which affects health insurance and the ability of same-sex couples to jointly adopt children.  Goldsmith said those who married "acquired a status that state officials may not ignore absent some compelling interest."

"In these circumstances, what the state has joined together, it may not put asunder," Goldsmith wrote.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement that his office is reviewing the ruling, and added that "the sooner the United States Supreme Court makes a decision on this issue the better it will be for Michigan and America."

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide Friday whether it will put Michigan's same-sex marriage case on its calendar in time to be argued and decided by late June.  Until now, the court has managed both to avoid settling the issue for the nation as a whole.  In the meantime, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states that allow same-sex couples to marry.  Last week, Florida became the 36th state to issue licenses for same-sex unions.

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of eight couples, said the ruling is "a victory for marriage equality."

CUBA - Friday Opening of Travel, Trade, and More

"New trade, travel rules with Cuba start Friday, opening island to US phones, TV's and computers" Fox News 1/15/2015

Starting Friday, the Obama administration will significantly loosen restrictions on American trade and investment with Cuba allowing U.S. companies to export mobile phones, televisions and computers while easing travel restrictions opening the communist island to more American travelers.

The new rules will put a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba and will even allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban cigars after more than a half-century ban.

As of Friday, U.S. companies will also be able to export mobile memory devices, recording devices, and software to a country with notoriously poor Internet and telecommunications infrastructure.  The goal is to "contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people within Cuba, in the United States, and the rest of the world," according to a Treasury Department fact sheet.  Internet-based communications will fall under a general license.

Americans permitted to travel to Cuba for family visits, official U.S. government business, journalism, research, education, religious activity and other reasons fall under a U.S. general license and don't need to apply for a separate license.  A limit on remittance payments to family members in Cuba will be raised to $8,000 per year, from $2,000 per year.  Americans visiting Cuba will be allowed to bring home $100 in alcohol and tobacco products, and $400 in total goods.

Other changes include:

—No more limits on how much money Americans spend in Cuba each day or what they spend it on.

—Remittances allowed to be sent to Cuban nationals has increased from $500 to $2,000 per quarter

—Permissible use of U.S. credit and debit cards.

—Travel agents and airlines can fly to Cuba without a special license.

—Insurance companies can provide coverage for health, life and travel insurance policies for individuals residing in or visiting Cuba.

—Financial institutions may open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate authorized transactions.

—Investments can be made in some small businesses and agricultural operations.

—Companies may ship building materials and equipment to private Cuban companies to renovate private buildings.

—Certain micro-financing project and entrepreneurial and business training is now authorized.

Thursday's announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama's ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother.  They come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free.

Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo.  But the measures give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies.  Investments in some small business are permitted.  General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses.

Obama vowed to soften the embargo last month and begin restoring diplomatic ties with Havana, saying "these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked."  The deal was the product of 18 months of secret talks that culminated in the exchange of imprisoned spies and release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

The sudden rapprochement between Cold War foes has divided U.S. lawmakers across party lines and interests.  Among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Cuban-Americans such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey have been particularly vocal in opposition.

But some pro-business types have welcomed the opportunity to open up a new export market in a country so close to American shores.  The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, said Wednesday it was better for the U.S. to sell computers, smartphones and cars to Cuba than to cede such business to countries like Russia and China.  Still, the embargo as a whole appears unlikely to fall anytime soon.

The U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana next week, the next step in their normalization process.  Leading the American delegation is Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America.  Her visit marks the highest-level trip to Cuba by a U.S. official since 1980.

Further down the road, Washington envisions reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana and carrying out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments.  Secretary of State John Kerry could travel to the island later this year.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

OHIO - Capitol Hill Terror Suspect's Father

"Father of Ohio terror suspect defends 'mama's boy'" by Kimball Perry, Patrick Brennan, and John Bacon; USA TODAY 1/15/2015

The father of an Ohio man accused of plotting an attack on the U.S. Capitol is a "mama's boy who never left the house," his father says.

Christopher Lee Cornell, 20, who used the Twitter alias Raheel Mahrus Ubayda, was arrested outside a Cincinnati gun store Wednesday after purchasing two automatic weapons and 600 rounds of ammunition.

Authorities say he planned to set off pipe bombs outside the Capitol, then shoot lawmakers and staff as they fled to safety.

Cornell's father, John, told The Cincinnati Enquirer that his son had converted to Islam in recent years and had found "peace in the religion."

John Cornell, who said his son is not a violent man, said Christopher frequently endured abuse due to his religious beliefs.  He said Christopher lived in his parents' apartment and worked occasional part-time jobs.

"Everything you're hearing in the media right now, they've already painted him as some kind of terrorist," John Cornell told the Enquirer.  "They've painted him as some kind of jihadist. ... (Christopher) is one of the most peace-loving people I know."

The elder Cornell told CNN he believes much of the blame falls on the informant who led the FBI to Christopher Cornell.  "I believe he was really vulnerable and I believe he was coerced in a lot of ways," John Cornell said.

He said he and his wife are heartbroken and love their son more than ever.

"He may be facing life in prison," John Cornell told CNN.  "Do you know how devastating that is?"

FBI Special Agent T.A. Staderman described some details of the alleged plan in the seven-page complaint supporting charges of attempting to kill a U.S. government officer and possession of a firearm.

Federal authorities said the public was never in any danger because investigators were closely monitoring the activities of the suspect during the inquiry.

Tom Willingham, president and CEO of Point Blank Range & Gun Shop in Cincinnati, said he was approached by FBI agents and asked him to help them arrest someone they suspected of wanting to commit a terrorist act on U.S. soil.  "Nobody knew enough to be scared," Willingham told the Enquirer.

After the gun store employees ran Christopher Cornell's name through the national background check system to ensure he had no criminal record — "Not anyone can come in and buy a gun and walk out," Willingham said — Cornell bought the rifles and ammunition.  He was arrested by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the parking lot.

Cornell is accused of using cyberspace to plot to assassinate congressional employees and attack the U.S. Capitol for his personal jihad.  He was charged with attempted killing of U.S. government officers and possession of firearms in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence.

Christopher Cornell was a wrestler at Cincinnati's Oak Hills High School, graduating in 2012.  Principal John Stoddard issued a statement describing Cornell as a "typical student" who was not a discipline problem.

"His teachers were shocked at the news of his involvement in this situation," the statement said.  "Teachers ... remember Christopher as a quiet, but not overly reserved, student who would participate in class and did not withdraw from his class work."

Schoolmate Jake Flick told NBC News that Cornell began to change during his senior year

"He would say the weirdest stuff about the government," Flick told NBC, adding that Cornell was very interested in "anarchy."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

HEALTH - Widespread Flu in 46 States

"Facing widespread flu, health officials encourage antiviral drug use" PBS NewsHour 1/13/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  This year’s flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent years.  Judy Woodruff talks to Dr. Tom Friedan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about this year’s influenza strain and the benefits and limitations of using antiviral drugs for patients sick with flu.  The CDC director also gives an update on the Ebola outbreak response in West Africa.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  No doubt about it, we’re in the middle of flu season, and this one is shaping up to be a particularly tough slog, possibly the worst since 2008.

The Centers for Disease Control report that flu activity is widespread in 46 states.  In fact, the only places where flu activity was limited to local pockets were Arizona, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and here in Washington, D.C.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Friedan is here to discuss that, as well as what he thinks people should do, and why some in the field are questioning some of those recommendations.

POLITICS - The Ohio Voters' View

"What do Ohio voters want?  More political cooperation despite clashing views" PBS NewsHour 1/13/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  What do Americans think about Washington politics and productivity over the last two years?  Across the political spectrum, one thing that many seem to agree on is that both parties share blame for dysfunction and stasis.  Judy Woodruff talks to voters in Columbus, Ohio, about their hopes for the new Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Well, now that the President and congressional leaders are getting down to business, we thought it was a good time to check in with voters about what they expect from Washington right now.

We picked a Midwestern state you hear a lot about in presidential election years.

GOV. JOHN KASICH, (R) Ohio:  I, John Richard Kasich…

JUDY WOODRUFF:  We showed in Ohio on the same day Republican Governor John Kasich was being inaugurated for a second term and, for football fans, arguably an even bigger event, as Ohio State University’s beloved Buckeyes were about to face Oregon in the college playoff championship.

Despite this, we still found people across the political spectrum who were willing to talk to us.

INDIA - Police Inaction on Human Trafficking

"Police inaction hampers human trafficking crackdown in India" PBS NewsHour 1/12/2015

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  In India, outrage over a fatal gang rape of a college student two years ago has helped bring about some protections for women who are the victims of sex trafficking, but getting police to enforce the law is still a challenge.  In the first report in a two-part series, special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro follows a human rights group that’s working to crack down on human trafficking and find victims.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO (NewsHour):  There was an unusual demonstration recently in this small town near India’s border of India, Nepal, unusual because these women, most with backgrounds in prostitution, are rarely seen in public.  They protested social evils, from gender bias to the caste system, India’s age-old social ladder in which they’re at the very bottom.

RUCHIRA GUPTA, Apne Aap Women Worldwide:  In Bombay, in Delhi, in Calcutta, whichever red light area you go to, the girls and women are all low caste.  Prostitution is passed on from mother to daughter and pimping from father to son.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Ruchira Gupta is a former journalist who started a group called Apne Aap, or On Our Own, which organized the rally.  The group has rescued many of these women, found them new work in crafts and micro-enterprises, and put their daughters in school.

Apne Aap was also part of a protest movement that followed the fatal gang rape of a Delhi college student two years ago, a campaign that got lawmakers to act against what many called a culture of rape and misogyny.

WOMAN:  I am not going to allow this incident to become another statistic.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  The law was changed to penalize traffickers, instead of the women they traffic, recognizing the women as victims.