Thursday, July 25, 2013

Profiling Justice

I enjoy people watching.  I’ll make up an entire back story about somebody based totally on how they look, walk, interact with others.  Then they’ll do something that is ‘out-of-character’ with the person I’ve made up and I’ll revise their entire history.  It’s an amusing and harmless way to while away time.  Perhaps I’m wistful for my days working in entertainment, or perhaps I’m a profiler.  And if I’m a profiler – then it’s a good thing I live in a state with a stand your ground law – I can be a total help to law enforcement.
The Castle Doctrine permits somebody to use deadly force in protecting their ‘castle.’  There’s a unique variation on each of the states that it’s on the books for – but the essential philosophy is an extension of the mountain of constitutional self-defense law.  The principle now extends to one’s personal space, not just possessions.
These sorts of laws are quite popular – with property-owning constituents and their elected representatives.  In fact, then State Senator Barak Obama co-sponsored legislation in Illinois that strengthened their stand-your-ground  bill that passed unanimously with no debate. 
The acquittal of George Zimmerman  erupted a tsunami of outrage across the political spectrum.  Now President Obama took to the White House podium for an unscheduled 20-minute monologue.  He took the opportunity to speak personally about race which is very helpful for our nation’s discourse.  In his way, though, he was expressing support for those who were upset at the acquittal.  The chant has been “Justice for Trayvon” – the young man who Zimmerman shot. 
While I did not follow the ins and outs of the sensationalized trial, from what I understand a trial was held.  A jury was chosen.  The judge largely ruled against defense motions – as most judges do.  The prosecution had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman intended to kill Martin.  The jury was sequestered from the hyperventilating coverage.  (This trial was so important that CNN chose to cover it instead of the overthrow of the Egyptian President.)  The jurors deliberated and came to a unanimous conclusion.  That is how the U.S. justice system is designed to work.  So by pure definition Trayvon got justice.  Zimmerman did not get punished…and that’s the missing ingredient that has people upset.  The chant should be “Punish Zimmerman.” 
The American judicial system is a collection of arcane rules of evidence and strict procedures.  The jury has to be “instructed” on how to deliberate.  Watching from the comfort of our homes and accustomed to Law & Order style justice – most people consider everything when making a determination about somebody’s guilt or innocence.  The justice system doesn’t actually work that way – it’s very exclusive about what it allows.  Its fundamental principal is “innocent until proven guilty.” 
The prosecutions job is hard – because it’s supposed to be.   English jurist William Blackstone set the standard in the 1760’s when he said:  "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."
The principle still applies to state crimes like murder that are governed by state legislatures and state laws, like the ones Mr. Obama supported and co-sponsored when he was a state legislator.   The principle is less secure at the federal level where an entirely separate and secret justice system has been established.  Secret courts make secret rulings.  President Obama has his own Kill list of people who he personally chooses should die based on his own secret criteria.  People (including Americans) who haven’t been accused of, tried or convicted of any crime are killed on the say so of one person.  Where’s the cry for justice in these instances?
The taking of another human life is the most heinous crime against society that we have.  That somebody could do that and be found “not guilty” shows that the system works as William Blackstone intended but doesn’t help the emotional desire for revenge.  It also shows that Mr. Obama is actually using the same standard as President as he used as a State Senator…standing his ground to defend what he has determined needs protecting. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Food for Dummies

The classic metaphor “food for thought” is another way of saying “something to ponder; provocative.”  I wish that Congress’ latest fiasco had undergone a little consideration.  It didn’t and 45 million Americans could pay the price. 
Earlier this week Congress passed the Farm Bill.  This is a bill that traditionally has included the funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program more commonly known as Food Stamps.  It’s a bill that traditionally also pays farmers not to grow certain crops.  While the political parties have tussled over it regularly – ultimately the politicians who support the one program and not the other are willing to allow the other program to be funded in order to maintain the program they care about.  Some call it compromise, others call it political reality.  It’s how government has functioned (and grown) for decades.
Providing financial assistance to farmers has been a staple of American politics nearly since the founding.  According to the EPA 8% of farmers (family or corporate) generate 67% of all agricultural products.  With the minority generating the majority of products, it’s hard to see how a $500 billion subsidy to the industry makes fiscal sense.
The SNAP program (food Stamps) has more than doubled under the Obama administration.  According to the USDA in 2008 28 million Americans utilized the program at a cost of $34.6 billion.  In 2012 46.6 million Americans (nearly 15% of the population) utilized the program at a cost of $74.6 billion.  That’s a monumental increase in size and dollars in just 4 years.
Republicans are flummoxed by the increase and in the bill they passed this week Congress defunded the SNAP Program, yet kept the funding in place for the farmers.
On a purely philosophical level, neither program should be funded.  In a purely capitalistic economy it’s not the role of Government to incentivize farmers to grow one crop versus not growing another.  For people who aren’t able to earn enough money family, friends and charitable support structures should be the social safety net.
That philosophy if fully and resolutely applied would work.  We don’t, however, have any examples of it, so it’s purely an intellectual theoretical exercise.  Any implementation of such a policy wouldn’t be limited to these two programs - it’d be systemic throughout the entire economy.  And it would require comprehensive transition to support the change...and the U.S. is nowhere near even having the conversation about budgetary funding, let alone applying the principals.
Republicans defunding food stamps are, however, applying just part of the principal.  It’s just stupid and short sighted and hurts the overall message and movement of liberty and fiscal responsibility.  Paying farmers not to grow crops is bad policy.  The politics is even dumber – as there’s no way the Senate or President Obama will ever approve a bill that literally takes the food off of the plates of 46.6 million American households.
The exponential increase in the SNAP program is largely the result of the economic meltdown more than the changes in eligibility.  I have friends who would be hungry if not for this program.  I have friends who are still alive only because of the program.  I am all for minimizing government and bringing some fiscal sanity to Washington D.C.  Eliminating the Food Stamp program is not the place to start.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

You’ve Got Mail

Every now and again a story pops up that somebody had received a letter or a postcard that took decades to deliver.    It’s a relatively innocuous story that reinforces the popular conception of the incompetency of the U.S. Postal system while delivering a warm-fuzzy story of a long lost message finally finding its home.  I’ve advocated that as a quasi-private organization the USPS needs to be unshackled from the constraints that Congress puts on it and be allowed to operate as a stand-alone entity.  I learned this week that it’s not at all private.  The Post Office logs every single letter and package sent.  And they’ve been doing it for years.
The New York Times reported last week that the United States Postal Service takes a photo of the exterior every single piece of mail that goes through its system, 160 billion pieces last year.  The information is sent to any law enforcement agency that asks for it.  Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny.  Using this system the FBI was able to successfully track down the sender of the ricin letters.
The story was published on July 3rd and has not received much attention.  At least the PRISM/NSA surveillance got wide attention.  Given that a majority of people polled are OK with the Government gathering information on emails and phone calls, it is likely that an even greater percentage will shrug their collective shoulders over the USPS program.
Does it matter much if the government logs the envelopes of holiday or birthday cards that I send?  Just like the details of whom I call and whom I email with is far from scintillating – the answer is a simple and resounding no.  That’s not the point.
As an American I am protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Looking and tracking my communications without any reason or provocation seems the essence of unreasonable.  As an American I’m afforded free speech.  It just seems wrong to have the Government track what I say and to whom I say it to.  It’s not like things could ever go wrong, right?
Case in point:  the teenager who was in an argument on Facebook with a friend about a videogame.  He posted a stupid and sarcastic comment followed by LOL and J/K (Laugh out Loud and Just Kidding for the non-acronym readers) indicating that the comment  was a joke.  He’s been in jail for over 5 months charged as a terrorist.  There’s no other evidence than his exercise of free speech.  He's not the only one jailed for their status updates.  Bill Cosby once hosted a TV show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  I wonder how many of those kids would be arrested and jailed today for being stupid.

I’m not afraid of the Government finding anything out about me.  But they should have to work hard and have a really good reason to find out how boring my life is.  Having every form of communication monitored is not what our Founders envisioned.  I used to enjoy the AOL  “you’ve got mail” announcement – never thought that I'd be hearing it from the Obama administration.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Vanishing Voter

I remember voting for Teddy Kennedy for President in a mock election in high school.  (It’s the only time I ever voted for a liberal…good thing it didn’t count!)  Voting is the most concrete expression of democracy.  It’s what Americans celebrate on July 4th,, Independence Day.  People across time and across the globe have shed blood for the right.  In the same week that emerging Democracies in the Middle East struggle to make it work – the pillar of freedom – shows how little it values this bedrock principal. 
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the nullifies Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been blasted as allowing racism back into the voting process.  The Voting Rights Act came of age after generations of discrimination, primarily against people of color.  (The U.S. also has an embarrassment of how long it took for women to get the vote.)   For my lifetime, then, certain geographic locations would have to petition the federal government if they wanted to change the rules on how people could register and then actually vote.  Many local jurisdictions resisted this level of oversight, especially when so much time between the discrimination occurred and current experiences.  So they sued to have the ability to change the rules without approval.  The U.S. Supreme Court said yes, you do.
The fear is that without the oversight that more restrictive rules will be put into place, making it harder to areas with minorities to get a fair shake – hence the racism charge.  Texas immediately announced new rules for voting.  They’re not alone and it’s not new.  I wrote about these concerns in November 2011:
A recent New York University School of Law analysis by the Brennan School for Justice found that new voting restrictions may impact more than 5 million votes.  63% of the electoral votes in 2012 (191 out of 270) are impacted by a change in the voting rules since the 2008. 
From the Brennan study:
·         34 states introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote.  Eleven percent of American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID.
·         At least 13 states introduced bills to end highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, limit voter registration efforts, and reduce other registration opportunities.
·         At least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods, and four tried to reduce absentee voting opportunities.
The inevitable frustration that results in society is a further decline in participation.  In 2010 the voting-eligible population in the U.S. was 41.6%.  Elections are usually pretty evenly split between the major parties so some 21-22% of us actually elected leaders.   

Let’s look at current events as proof:  A few weeks ago Massachusetts elected Ed Markey to complete John Kerry’s senate term.  31% of registered voters participated.  Based on the eligible population, that means that about 18% of the people who could have voted, did. Markey won with 55% of the vote.  In real terms, then, he won 9.9% of the population he’ll be representing.   More to the point:  90% of the people voted (directly and indirectly) against Ed Markey and he's the victor. 
He’s not alone.  A minority of people have been electing political leaders for many election cycles now, including Presidents.  It’s why the impact of politics is so far removed from most people’s day to day lives – making it a vicious cycle for participation. 
Voters are vanishing not because of discrimination, but because of all the restrictions that are in place (which in some cases does also include racism and other isms).  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again:  If we can run a trillion dollar global economy electronically, surely there’s a way to conduct an election electronically.  The easier it is for people to participate – the higher the likelihood that freedom loving, privacy hoarding independent thinking citizens might just choose their own leaders.  Then it'd be the status quo that would vanish. 
Happy Independence Day.