Saturday, August 23, 2014

California Democrats Pass Open-Campaign Bills

The California Legislature passed two bills this week designed to promote campaign transparency.  The bills have passed both houses and will now go to Governor Brown's desk, where he is expected to sign them into law.  Both are welcome, particularly considering what is happening on the federal level.  As usual when it comes to open campaign legislation, Democrats sponsored and voted for open processes while Republicans voted to keep pertinent information from the electorate.

Assemblyman Paul Fong of Cupertino introduced Assembly Bill 400.  It requires any initiative, referendum and recall petitions being circulated among the voters for signatures "to clearly state the top five donors who contributed more than $10,000 to fund the campaign."  The final version passed Thursday by a vote of 53-24, with 24 Republicans in opposition.  One of voters' best tools for sniffing out whose special interest is being served by prospective initiatives is if they know who is paying for them.  That's the main reason two recent self-serving insurance initiatives sponsored by Mercury Insurance have gone down to defeat.  People are savvy enough to be suspicious when an insurance company wants to directly write legislation, claiming it is only in the general public interest.  It's understandable why such interests and the politicians whose campaigns they fund would not want this information public.  But that's about to become a bit harder for them now, at least in California.  Thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, most federal backing from "independent groups" will still be able to be concealed form the public.     

Assemblyman Tom Amiano of San Francisco sponsored AB 510.  It mandates campaign commercials "to disclose when paid actors appear in ads as doctors, teachers or other professionals."  The assembly passed this bill 54-17, again with only Republicans voting to keep the electorate in the dark.  It's certainly an advantage to have authoritative and official looking people to pitch your candidate or issue to the voters on television, implying that a respected and trusted institution favors you.  But if if they are just actors playing that role, from now on that will have to be announced.      


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri Bottom Line

The bottom line issue in Ferguson, Missouri is the way black people are treated by law enforcement agencies in America.  The killing of black citizen Michael Brown by white officer Darren Wilson is simply the latest installment in a tragic, long-running national serial.  As the video released by the Ferguson Police shows, Michael Brown appears to be an unsympathetic character.  In it he is seen stealing cigars and shoving a store employee out of his way in an intimidating fashion.  Watch the video here.  No doubt that was the reason the Ferguson police released it, to try to get public opinion on their side.  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who criticized the local officials for releasing the video, has given his view that that was precisely why it was made public.  See the Newsweek story and video of his remarks here.

But as the black citizens of Ferguson ask, how is that relevant?  They don't mean it is insignificant that Brown may have committed a crime.  What they mean is why did the police officer, who may have been unaware that Brown was wanted in that robbery (that's what Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said, that the officer initially spoke to Brown simply because he was walking in the street and not on the sidewalk) have to resort to lethal force against a person who was unarmed?  See Jackson's remarks here.

We have a police academy where I teach at College of the Sequoias, and training in the non-lethal arrest and physical control of citizens when necessary is part and parcel of every cadet's required curriculum.  It is also considered a "perishable skill" that must be re-certified for active law enforcement personnel on a regular basis.  Even veteran cops have to undergo intensive training and must demonstrate their proficiency in realistic action scenarios to be awarded re-certification.  So it is almost beyond comprehension that a trained and competent policeman would need to pull a gun and fire multiple rounds into an unarmed and untrained civilian in order to subdue him.

Let me qualify my remarks by saying it is possible that evidence may arise that Brown may have presented a life and death threat to Wilson that could excuse the use of lethal force, for example that he was going for the officer's gun.  But that's not what the initial eyewitnesses have said.  They describe Brown with his hands in the air and a good distance from the police officer and refer to the confrontation as an "execution."  The sad and disgusting truth is that these incidents keep happening, and that they almost invariably involve people of color being treated with a callousness and ruthlessness that rarely seems to happen in other circumstances.  The black community is well aware of the phenomenon, and is frankly fed up with it.  It needs to end. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Business Analysis: Income Inequality Holding Back Recovery

It's nice to see that after 33 years in the making and plenty of research and warnings by Nobel Prize winning economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, business analysts are finally beginning to appreciate the pernicious effects of rising economic inequality.  The Standard & Poor's rating agency has released a new report, How Increasing Income Inequality is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, And Possible Ways to Change the Tide.  It says the "widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has made the economy more prone to boom-bust cycles and slowed the 5-year-old recovery from the recession."  They have revised their forecast of U.S. economic growth over the next ten years downward from 2.8% per year to 2.5% as a result.  S& P chief economist Beth Ann Bovino said that economic disparities have reached extremes that "need to be watched because they're damaging to growth."

The breakthrough in analysis is important because it indicates how the economic discussion may be changing.  For years liberals have been calling attention to this very phenomenon, while conservatives and the business community either rejected the reality of growing income inequality or downplayed its negative effect on the economy as a whole.  So the fact that a major business organ is now coming to a similar conclusion as the liberal economists is highly significant.  The first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists.  S & P is a numbers-heavy service, and the analytics are simply getting too obvious to ignore.  People without sufficient disposable income to spend are not spending it, especially after the credit crash.

If a greater share of national income were going to the working and middle classes their spending would be able to drive a more robust recovery.  Since 96% of national income gains since the recovery began have gone to the top 1%, there are not enough of them to translate those gains into major GDP growth.  A low percentage of 1% income gains go into extra spending; most goes into savings or investments, often overseas.

The S & P report recommends increasing educational achievement as a means to boost working and middle class income growth, since additional years of higher or vocational ed are associated with higher income.  That would certainly be a good idea, but more direct means, such as increasing the minimum wage, revamping the tax code and bolstering union organizing rights in the retail, service and fast food sectors would also pay more immediate dividends.  One can hardly expect a business publication to advocate such steps, at least yet, but now that the discussion is open and on the table and we have some states like Washington and California taking such steps, the experiential data will be coming.  And if the numbers confirm the thesis, as the Krugmans and Stiglitzes have been predicting, the S & P's of the world may eventually have to admit the handwriting on the wall on solutions as they now have on income inequality itself.       

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ginsberg Explains Hobby Lobby Dissent

Joan and I have been on vacation in the San Diego area, and that's the reason it's been awhile since I last posted on Brave Gnu Whirled.  I'm now back in Visalia and getting ready for a new semester of History classes at College of the Sequoias.

I have a special item for you today, an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  In it she discusses the recent and famous Hobby Lobby decision.  That's the one in which the 5-4 conservative majority ruled that a "closely-held for-profit corporation" can have a religious view and can enforce that view with respect to their employees' access to birth control coverage.

Ginsberg's 35-page dissent against that opinion has been described as "scathing."  It's actually legalistic and circumspect, arguing from constitutional and legal principles rather than simply mouthing religious or political opinion.  Click on this link to read for yourself.

Just as interesting in summation is this interview with Katie Couric.  I know, it can be hard to decide what to make of Couric.  The onetime CBS News anchor later went back to doing celebrity fluff journalism.  Lately hired by Yahoo, this piece certainly shows Couric at her best with respect to substance.  She's serious and prepared.

As for Justice Ginsberg, she touches on her principal objection, that religious freedom does not convey the right to impose one's religious views on others, employees in this case.  She also agrees that the men on the court have a "blind spot" when it comes to the concerns of women.  Ginsberg and the other two women justices, not surprisingly, were all in dissent in this case.  Readers of this blog will not be surprised to note that my views are in complete accord with Justice Ginsberg's.   

And finally, Ginsberg  is ultimately hopeful that her dissent will one day be adopted as the proper constitutional interpretation.  She cites as an example Justice John Harlan's dissent against the Court's infamous 1896 Plessy v Ferguson ruling as a case in point.  In that case the Court ruled in favor of the constitutionality of racial segregation under the doctrine of "separate but equal."  A later Court reversed that decision, something she expects to happen again in the Hobby Lobby case, though the 80-year-old jurist says she may not be around to personally see it.

Click on this link to watch the five-minute interview segment featuring Ginsberg's thought processes.