Texas Needs UN Observers

A newly released UN report expresses concern over the high number of executions being carried out in Iraq. The report found implementation of the death penalty in Iraq to be particularly problematic because “many… convictions are based on questionable evidence and systemic failures in the administration of justice.”

You must be thinking – wow, the Iraqi Government must be offing folks left and right to be the target of this kind of UN criticism. After all, conditions in Iraq are dire. There’s a civil war, headed by an armed insurgency, now ongoing across much of the country. Terrorist bombings in Baghdad have become so commonplace that they frequently go unreported. So how many people has Iraq put to death so far in 2014? Answer: 60.

Hmmm. Iraq has a population of 33 million. Assuming Iraq continues on its execution-rampage, they will have put 80 people to death by year’s end, making for an execution rate of 2.4 per million. Texas, by comparison, has a population of 26 million, and has put 39 people to death so far this year, putting them on track for about 42 by year’s end. That gives Texas an execution rate of 1.6 per million. Not sure whether congratulations are due – Texas has managed to be only two-thirds as brutal to its peacetime population compared to wartime Iraq.

Iraq may be bad now, but it’s much improved much since when Saddam Hussein was in power. However you can say the same about Texas, which has also come a long way since the dark days of Governor Bush Duh, who in 1999 oversaw 98 executions for a population of 20 million, for an execution rate of nearly 5 per million, double that of present day Iraq. Bush Duh’s Texas had no civil war and no terrorist bombings – it was just folks killin’ folks, Texas style – with nary a UN monitor in sight.

As the UN report points out, the problem in Iraq isnt just the sheer number of executions – it’s the shoddy system of justice that produces them. The Texas comparison is here, again, unavoidable, where people are put to death without competent legal representation, and where many have been found to be innocent while on death row – others, after their execution has been carried out.

All modern, civilized people should oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. In fact, the reason why it’s virtually disappeared in the West is that it is inconsistent with all modern political ideologies – except fascism. The comparison with war-torn Iraq serves to show just how backwards are certain parts of the US, where an extraordinary degree of barbarism is brought into higher relief when it occurs in a relatively affluent, peacetime population – without enough of an outcry from human rights organizations, foreign or domestic.

 

 

 

 

Kansas Voodoo

Perhaps even conservatives can only be fooled so many times before they get wise. In Kansas, Democrat Paul Davis has pulled even with Republican incumbent Sam Brownback in the race for governor. Davis has even received the endorsement of numerous Republican officials across Kansas, who find Brownback’s dalliance with Voodoo Economics too spooky for their taste.

Credit for the term “Voodoo Economics” goes to George Bush. While he was competing for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, he applied it to describe Ronald Reagan’s economic proposals, which relied on the notion that tax cuts pay for themselves. To George Bush, and to most of us, Reagan’s policies seemed like a crackpot idea at the time. Our experience over the past 30 years have borne out Bush’s skepticism.

Fiscally, the US never recovered from Reagan’s tax cuts. Deficits remained sky high for twelve years, right through the departure of his successor from the White House in 1993. That not-so-grand experiment only ended with Clinton’s tax increases, which, instead of bringing the disasters predicted by conservatives, delivered the longest economic expansion in US history, and replaced Reagan and Bush’s deficits with surpluses projected far into the future.

Under Bush Duh, the US again endured the folly of Voodoo Economics. His tax cuts gave away the surplus to the very rich, and left the country’s fiscal health permanently compromised. The cure only came via Obama’s tax increases on the wealthy – and the sustained economic recovery that’s (again) happened with conservatives (again) predicting gloom and doom.

But these experiences werent enough to deter Kansas from embarking on the very same, failed supply-side Voodoo. Conservative Sam Brownback was elected governor in 2011, and in 2012 pushed through a massive tax cut, slashing the top income tax rate by 25%, and eliminating income taxes on small businesses entirely. Brownback was hoping for a little of that ol’ black magic: to see state tax revenue grow, even though almost all Kansans were going to be paying a lower tax rate.

For all its voodoo, Kansas is now in deep budgetary doo-doo – because Voodoo Economics has failed Kansas too. With tax receipts falling short of expenses by hundreds of millions of dollars, education, along with other government services have been slashed, and the state’s credit rating has been downgraded. And in addition to all that red ink, Kansas is adding jobs at a slower pace than the national average. With inept governance, deficits, and weak job growth, one might regard today’s Kansas as a time capsule of the Bush Duh years – from which even Kansas Republicans seem eager to escape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voter ID Laws: More Conservative Shenanigans

No sooner do conservatives come to power, but they begin chipping away at voting rights. What choice do they have, after all, given their lack of electoral support. Democrats consistently win more votes than Republicans in congressional elections – the Republican House majority is a creature of gerrymandered districts, and nothing more – it is not the result of greater popularity.

Preventing votes has long been a favorite conservative pastime, going back to Reconstruction, when black men had only recently secured the right to vote through the 15th amendment. The US South had a 100 year tradition of denying suffrage to blacks when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. That law created a special class of states, which were to be subject to special scrutiny because of their poor record of voting rights abuses.

In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court’s four other conservatives decided that the South had grown up, and no longer needed special oversight to ensure that they would not mistreat minorities. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg predicted that abuses would immediately resume. She thought the majority’s reasoning was foolish, and asserted that close scrutiny was precisely what kept miscreant states in line – that getting rid of “preclearance” (their special statutory regime) was akin to throwing away an umbrella in a thunderstorm because you werent getting wet.

As if it were a scripted comedy routine, Texas and Mississippi responded within hours by implementing voter ID laws that adversely impacted minority voting. In the year since that decision, voter ID laws have multiplied. And the Supreme Court has decided to leave the Texas law in place for the coming election.

Voter ID laws invariably function as a poll tax. Such laws take away your constitutional right to vote, and substitute it with a limited right, conditioned upon obtaining particular documents – a process that’s never free, and whose costs tend to be greater for the young, poor, elderly and minorities because they are less likely to have the needed documents readily at hand, and because they are more burdened by efforts to obtain them.

These laws are offered as a means of protecting society from the crime of voter impersonation. However numerous investigations have found that crime to occur so infrequently that it has virtually no chance of impacting an election, even if it were to somehow spike in frequency by a factor of one hundred! On the other hand, voter ID laws powerfully reduce the turnout of legitimate voters. It’s sort of like adopting a new police procedure to reduce homicides – which has the side-effect of killing one thousand people for every homicide it prevents.

And that is precisely why these laws exist, and why they are almost always passed by Republican legislatures and signed into effect by Republican governors. Voter ID laws serve no purpose other than to prevent the young, poor, elderly and minorities from voting – all of whom are more likely to vote democratic. You’d think these laws might set off conservative alarm bells, because they require ordinary citizens to obtain government-issued ID cards as a prerequisite to voting – conservatives, after all, are prone to whining and complaining about the threat posed by Big Government. But lacking any principles whatsoever, conservatives are content to expand government power whenever its convenient.

 

 

 

 

How Jim Crow Holds Florida

In denying the right to vote to criminals, even after they have been released from prison, the US is an outlier with respect to much of the world. Let alone allowing ex-cons to vote, numerous countries permit inmates to vote from prison, including Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Sweden. Among US states, only Maine and Vermont let everyone vote, including prisoners.

With America’s skyrocketing prison population, felony disenfranchisement affects an increasing fraction of the US population. While it denied suffrage to about 1 million Americans the in the early 70s, 3 million were disenfranchised by the mid-90s, and nearly 6 million are disenfranchised today. Across much of the south, upwards of 7% of the adult population cannot vote because of past convictions.

Relative to the irrevocable, lifetime disenfranchisement that the Constitution permits (for the moment), states are generally much more liberal about allowing convicted criminals to vote after they’ve completed their sentences, if not parole or probation. As usual, it’s regressive southern states who are the most unforgiving, with a few effectively disenfranchising convicted criminals forever.

Disenfranchisement disproportionately affects blacks. Across the country, about 8% of blacks, and some 13% of black men cannot vote – compared to about 2% of all other adults. Florida is the worst case of all. In 2011, its GOP governor gave the state the most extreme felony disenfranchisement law in the country. With just 6% of the US population, Florida is home to 25% of all of America’s disenfranchised. 20% of all blacks in Florida – and about 35% of all black men – cannot vote. One neednt wonder at the GOP’s zeal for felony disenfranchisement. In its absence, Florida would not be a swing state – it would be solidly democratic.

US AG Eric Holder has been pressing states to reform these outmoded laws – many of which date back to Reconstruction, a living remnant of the Jim Crow south, whose purpose was, then and now, to suppress the black vote. Felony disenfranchisement is an ugly anachronism, with no place in a modern law or governance.

 

Refs:

https://www.aclu.org/maps/map-state-criminal-disfranchisement-laws

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/eric-holder-makes-case-for-felons-to-get-voting-rights-back/2014/02/11/b0556492-932b-11e3-84e1-27626c5ef5fb_story.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felony_disenfranchisement#Other_European_countries

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/02/12/how-felon-voting-policies-restrict-the-black-vote/

http://www.fairvote.org/research-and-analysis/voting-rights/felon-disenfranchisement/

http://www.demos.org/blog/2/13/14/racist-history-behind-felony-disenfranchisement-laws

http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/07/black-vote-felon-disenfranchisement-laws-florida

http://truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/felon-disenfranchisement-the-new-jim-crow/17952-felon-disenfranchisement-the-new-jim-crow

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reconstruction_Acts

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reconstruction_Amendments

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution

The Constitutionality of Felony Disenfranchisement:

In the aftermath of the US Civil War, with southern states excluded from Congress and yet subject to military rule, northern states changed the Constitution to protect its citizens’ voting rights – somewhat. The 15th amendment, which became law in 1870, is short and simple:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

18 months previously, northern states had ratified the 14th amendment. Section 2 is a fine bit of 19th century prose:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

It sprawlingly ties together many areas of law, including apportionment, the legal status of “Indians”, federal and state elections, voting rights and criminal disenfranchisement. That’s a good thing, because it mutually binds, one to another, numerous rights, capacities and effects, forcing courts to interpret them with respect to one another. The bad of it is that it implicitly allows for the unfettered disenfranchisement of convicted criminals. The 15th amendment meanwhile only prevents states from denying the right to vote for 3 specific reasons – leaving other bases for disenfranchisement valid, including not just crime, but gender.

There is hope. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richardson_v._Ramirez

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_v._Underwood

n.b. The Reconstruction amendments were drafted, voted up by 2/3 majorities in both houses, and passed on to the states for ratification while southern states had no representation in Congress, were yet subject to military rule, and were effectively territories – not states – governed from Washington, D.C. Their readmission to the Union – and with it, the restoration of their Congressional delegations – was conditioned on their ratification of the these amendments.

Ukraine, Perspectivized II

In November 2013, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was weighing competing aid and affiliation packages from the EU and Russia. The total value of the Russian package was over 20 times more generous: $15 to 20 billion in loans, aid, and discounted fuel, all largely unconditional. The EU package contained fewer than $1 billion in loans, conditioned on extraordinary government reforms and, onerously, a promise to reject a partnership with Russia.

Yanukovych’s decision to choose the Russian deal and spurn the EU – which set off the Euromaidan protests, and led ultimately to his ouster – was entirely reasonable. The EU has been miserly in its policies toward poorer member countries, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. It’s lack of generosity toward Ukraine was typical. And countries like Ukraine – lacking established state or private institutions, and with economies rife with corruption and inefficiency – would do better over the short- and medium-term with closer economic ties to Russia instead. (Ukrainian exports are not likely to thrive on EU markets compared to the Russian market; EU capital is less likely to be invested in Ukraine than is Russian capital.)

The legality of Yanukovych’s removal from office is also fairly questioned. At a minimum, Russia’s refusal to recognize the newly constituted Ukrainian government is reasonable, self-serving though it may be. And compared to 20th century US dealings in Latin America, Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been restrained. Within its own hemisphere, the US has overthrown numerous governments – directly or through proxies – simply because the “wrong” leadership came to power. The US only came to tolerate the likes of Chavez after the USSR was vanquished. Recent US restraint is not well attributed to a newfound pluralism – rather, antagonistic governments in the Americas no longer threaten US security. Russia, by comparison, fairly perceives its own security to be worse now than it has been for more than 20 years.

These observations are not offered to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine, but rather to show how it fits into a larger pattern, common to both Russia and the US. During the Cold War, the US was careful not to push its sphere too far east – Austria and Finland didnt even join the EU until after the USSR broke up; and neither have joined NATO. Undeniably, the Cold War reduced Russia to a regional power – however Russia and the US differ on the extent of Russia’s sphere today. The US, by its actions, would seem to regard Russia’s sphere as extending no farther than its own borders – particularly after Russia remained (weirdly) quiet through the accession into NATO of the Baltics, which were once part of the USSR.

There is, however, a big difference between the Baltics and Ukraine, and the conflict today is in part attributable to a US failure to recognize as much. Not only is Ukraine seven times more populous, but its economy is far more integrated with Russia’s, and their histories are much more closely intertwined.

From the standpoint of liberalism, people have a right to choose their government, and so Russia can fairly question the legality of Yanukyovich’s removal from office, and the legitimacy of his successor. However borders must be respected, and thus Russia’s incursion into Ukraine cannot be tolerated by the West, particularly under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum (excerpted below). Unfortunately, the US lacks the moral standing to make this argument, because, by its own actions, it has legitimized subversion and outright invasion of nearby states to advance its own security.

 

Appendix

After the USSR broke up, its nuclear weapons apparatus was strewn across several of the newly independent states that emerged. Ukraine, which declared independence in 1989, “inherited” perhaps one-third of the arsenal, including warheads and ICBMs, as well as development and assembly plants. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to transfer all nuclear weapons and technology to Russia, and joined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, in exchange for the certain security assurances. Here’s an excerpt from that agreement (emphasis supplied):

1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

 

Beg, Borrow and Sue

Some beggars wouldnt merely be choosers – they would be plaintiffs. In 2008, AIG was flat on its back, about to take its last breath before going into the corporate afterlife. (The Supreme Court tells us that corporations can hold religious beliefs – so who’s to say their souls dont live on beyond Chapter 11….) AIG’s liabilities outstripped its assets by tens of billions of dollars. Insolvent, AIG would have had little choice but to be dissolved via bankruptcy, its assets liquidated to pay creditors, who would have received pennies on each dollar of debt. Despite AIG’s thousand-dollar share price on the eve of the financial meltdown, its shareholders would have lost their entire investment, their shares zeroed out, without a cent left over.

You’d think those shareholders would be mighty grateful to the US government, which bailed out AIG to the tune of $182 billion. Though AIG’s share-price was pummeled, it’s still around fifty bucks today, which is fifty bucks more than it’d be without the bailout. But some of those shareholders are not grateful – and they are suing the US government because, in their opinion, the bailout AIG received wasnt generous enough.

It’s true that while AIG’s creditors got a sweetheart deal, AIG itself did not. But it wasnt left to die, as was Lehman Brothers, which on September 15th, 2008 departed this world for the dark night of Chapter 11, never to return. Lehman had been the nation’s 4th largest investment bank, and its destruction was a body blow to an already-teetering US economy. The federal government learned its lesson, and resolved to save AIG – the world’s largest insurance company – but it would do so on terms onerous enough to serve as fair warning to other financial firms. The fear was that if AIG’s deal was too good, others might be tempted to make similarly risky bets, with the expectation that the government would bail them out if things didnt pan out. Instead of a golden parachute, AIG got a no-frills heimlich maneuver – but it’s not like the US government owed it to AIG to do anything at all.

AIG itself is not a party to the lawsuit. As AIG CEO Robert Benmosche said in an interview, “It’s not acceptable socially for AIG to have taken this money and think that we could come back and sue the government because [they] made too much money on the deal.” But not all AIG shareholders share Benmosche’s qualms. The suit is led by former AIG CEO Maurice Greenberg, a one-time billionaire, now scraping by on assets worth a paltry $300 million. For Greenberg and his co-plaintiffs, the $182 billion bailout they received from US taxpayers wasnt charity enough – they have demanded that US taxpayers cough up an additional $50 billion.

To grasp the enormity of AIG’s bailout, it helps to compare it to other government spending programs. For example, AIG’s bailout is enough to cover all US government expenditures on welfare (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP) – combinedfor two years! The $50 billion that AIG shareholders are suing for would by itself nearly cover the annual cost of the EITC program (a subsidy for the working poor).

Beyond the inanity of conservative talking points, these figures reveal America’s true takers. While millions of working American families receive a pittance in public support, wealthy AIG investors have had their trough filled by US taxpayers – which wont stop them from suing till that trough overflows.

 

Refs:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/26/us-aig-bailout-lawsuit-idUSBRE95P1G120130626

http://www.cnbc.com/id/100544872

http://www.cnbc.com/id/100367504

http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2011/11/21/224905.htm

 

The Field Guide is off Monday for Columbus Day – we’ll be back with new material on Wednesday, October 15th.

A Supreme Punt

The US Supreme Court kicked the can down the road on Monday, refusing to hear appeals on overturned gay marriage bans from no fewer than five states. In the short term, that’s good news for the people of Virginia, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Indiana and, with delicious irony, Utah (which, through the Mormon Church, has become an exporter of anti-gay bigotry to the country and the world), where gay marriage has resumed. And it’s good news for people in 11 other states under the jurisdiction of US Circuit Courts of Appeal that have struck gay marriage bans down. All told, the Court’s denial should make gay marriage legal in 30 of 50 US states, plus DC. But one should be careful in interpreting the significance of the Court’s (non)move.

Imminently and ominously, a decision on another gay marriage ban is expected from the 6th Circuit. In Cincinnati, a three judge panel comprised by two Republican appointees and one Democrat may be the first to uphold such a ban. It’s possible that the Supreme Court’s conservatives are waiting on such a decision before taking up the issue.

CJ Roberts has been occasionally cautious in his activism. Though his Court issued extremist decisions on the Second Amendment and campaign finance, its decision upholding the ACA, which Roberts himself penned, suggests an upper limit to his audacity. If every US Circuit Court strikes down bans on gay marriage – and to date, every Circuit Court faced with the issue has done so – a Supreme Court decision going the other way would be conspicuously activist. But if just one Circuit Court upholds a ban, the Supreme Court would be expected to step in, in its traditional role of resolving differences among the Circuits.

Given that it takes four votes for the Supreme Court to take a case, it’s reasonable to speculate that at least two of the Court’s five conservatives would prefer to postpone their decision for the time being – perhaps until one Circuit Court provides them with a fig leaf for their activism. As for the Court’s four liberals, while they might relish the opportunity to strike down gay marriage bans nationwide, once and for all, they may be concerned about securing a fifth vote (which would come most likely from Justice Kennedy), and in the meantime can watch and wait as gay marriage spreads across the US without their assistance.

Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey, the sole Democratic appointee on the the three-judge panel hearing the Cincinnati case, alluded to the women’s suffrage movement during oral argument. Responding to the suggestion of Ohio’s solicitor general that gay marriage activists should focus their efforts on the political process and state legislatures, instead of on federal courts, Judge Daughtrey noted that nearly a century of politicking failed to secure the right to vote to all women; that in the end, via the 19th amendment, three-fourths of the states forced a recalcitrant one-fourth who remained opposed. Daughtrey might also have pointed out that 45 years elapsed between the Supreme Court’s 1875 rejection of a woman’s Constitutional right to vote, and the19th amendment’s 1920 ratification. To gain some insight on the pace of progress across the nation’s backwards belt, consider that Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana didnt ratify till after 1970; and Mississippi, in Orwellian fashion, only did so in 1984.

Unfortunately, the time for gay marriage in all 50 states may not be now. It may not even be soon. Though a string of recent court victories are cause for hope – and over the long haul its coming seems inexorable – this issue will only be resolved at the highest level. One hopes that this Supreme Court will delay justice no longer, and put an end to these unjust, unconscionable, indefensible bans.