Category Archives: Uncategorized

Good Things Still Happen!

The news isn’t all terrible. (Okay, mostly it is. But not all.) The GOP’s latest effort to strip healthcare from millions of Americans appears to be dead, and Patheos has reported on a rare and welcome bit of bipartisanship:

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved three amendments late Tuesday that would defund a notorious federal forfeiture program that was recently restored by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions…

Sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash, Tim Walberg, and Jamie Raskin and co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Mark Sanford, the amendments address so-called “adoptive” seizures and forfeitures. Under the federal adoption program, state and local law enforcement can seize property without filing criminal charges, and then transfer the seized property to federal prosecutors for forfeiture under federal law. Local and state agencies can collect up to 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds.

This pernicious practice had been curtailed under former AG Holder, it has been reinstated by Sessions. The amendments cut off funding for the reinstated program. Political sentiment across the spectrum has shifted strongly against asset forfeiture; more than a dozen states have moved to restrict the practice over the past few years.

For those who may not be familiar with civil forfeiture, it is a practice that allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners of the property need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or real property to be confiscated by the government.

 

As the ACLU has explained,

Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.

 

After Sessions moved to restore the program, The Atlantic looked at the numbers, which are staggering:

Civil forfeiture has existed in some form since the colonial era, although most of the current laws date to the War on Drugs’ heyday in the 1980s. Law-enforcement officials like Sessions defend modern civil forfeiture as a way to limit the resources of drug cartels and organized-crime groups. It’s also a lucrative tactic for law-enforcement agencies in an era of tight budgets: A Justice Department inspector general’s report in April found that federal forfeiture programs had taken in almost $28 billion over the past decade, and The Washington Post reported that civil-forfeiture seizures nationwide in 2015 surpassed the collective losses from all burglaries that same year.

 

Civil forfeiture has always been problematic, even in theory. As practiced, it makes a joke of the rule of law, not to mention constitutional values like fundamental fairness and limited governmental authority.

 

Let’s hope the Senate follows the example set by the House, and tells Jeff Sessions there are limits to his regressive efforts.

From Your Mouth To God’s Ears…

When I was a girl, if someone made a rosy prediction, my grandmother would respond with “From your mouth to God’s ears!” It was her way of saying, “I hope you are right!”

That phrase came immediately to mind when I saw this Washington Post headline –“How Trump is Helping to Save Democracy.”

Ordinarily, seeing  a headline like that would signal that the piece was written by a pro-Trump apologist, but the co-authors of the column were Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann and E.J. Dionne, all of whom I respect immensely, and the column itself made an argument that I have actually made myself, at least in my more Pollyanna moments.

The election of Donald Trump could be one of the best things that ever happened to American democracy.

We say this even though we believe that Trump poses a genuine danger to our republican institutions and has done enormous damage to our country. He has violated political norms, weakened our standing in the world and deepened the divisions of an already sharply torn nation.

But precisely because the Trump threat is so profound, he has jolted much of the country to face problems that have been slowly eroding our democracy. And he has aroused a popular mobilization that may far outlast him.

The article went on to enumerate the multiple points of resistance to the Trump Administration, and the recognition by previously apolitical Americans that apathy is no longer an option.

The election has also highlighted the importance of democratic norms of behavior.

Trump’s sheer disregard for the normal practices and principles of presidential behavior has cast a spotlight on the vital role that norms play in regulating and protecting our democracy. Only when norms disappear are we reminded of how important they were in the first place.

Trump has also brought the simmering divisions within the GOP to the fore; the defections from the party line from principled conservatives make it more likely that the party will have to face up to the reality that white supremacists and outright racists have become an important segment of its base.

A large group of influential conservative thinkers — Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, Max Boot, George F. Will, Peter Wehner, William Kristol and Tom Nichols, to name just a few — has spoken out against the nativist and xenophobic strain in the Republican Party that gave rise to Trump and against his manifest disrespect for our institutions. They want a problem-solving Republican Party, a necessity for our political system to operate. Only a handful of Republican politicians have joined them, but their ranks are growing and include Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Meanwhile, Republicans’ failure to pass any major piece of their legislative agenda, despite their control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, is a sign that tea partyism provides no plausible path to governing.

The column approvingly notes the pushback Trump has received from corporate America and the press, especially (but certainly not exclusively) his refusal to condemn the Nazis and Klansmen who marched in Charlottesville, and his rescinding of DACA protections for undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents. And it applauds renewed civic activism.

The Trump jolt has done more than force the country to a necessary reckoning. It has also called forth a wave of activism, organizing and, perhaps most important, a new engagement by millions of Americans in politics at all levels.

The entire column is worth reading.

It’s probably true that, had Hillary won, the U.S. would have experienced four or eight more years of what we had under Obama–a Republican-dominated Congress determined to block any and all Administration initiatives, no matter the common good or national interest.  Trump’s election has made the increasing evidence of the dysfunction of our government impossible to ignore.

I just wish I could be confident that the resistance these scholars describe will ultimately succeed in correcting our downward spiral–preferably, before the maniac in the White House triggers a nuclear war.

From their mouths and God’s ears…..

If You’ve Been Missing This Blog….

My apologies, but today I’m taking a “time out” from substantive matters to address an irritating housekeeping issue.

Over the past several weeks, I have been getting messages from people who generally access this blog on Facebook, saying that they no longer see it in their feeds, and asking what happened.

I investigated, and discovered that I am not the only blogger, or manager of a Facebook page, who has been having this problem; Facebook has changed its algorithm, and the various efforts made by bloggers and others to “fix” the issue and regain the previous level of visibility have had very spotty results.

My webmaster (aka my son) has been working on the problem, and will probably continue tinkering with solutions for awhile, so I’m asking for your patience if glitches arise due to changes/experiments he’s trying. But this is important: he tells me that the only way to ensure receipt of my daily posts is by subscribing to the site. The process is very simple, and there is a “subscribe” button on the front page. Subscribers get a daily email with a link to that day’s post. People who rely on their Facebook feed remain at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithms, which (as we’ve seen) change periodically.

Of course, those of you reading this message aren’t the ones having the problem–which leaves me with a dilemma: how do I reach the people who are no longer getting these posts?

Since the latest Facebook change (which appears calculated to “encourage” paid advertising, a tactic I am loathe to reward), my readership has fallen significantly. Google Analytics confirms that I was getting nearly half of my readership through Facebook. So here’s my request to those of you who agree with my  often-snarky and sometimes convoluted musings –or at least find them worth discussing/considering: if you have a Facebook or other social media account, please share these posts there. Or forward them on to friends.

And if you are a Facebook reader who is still seeing this blog in your feed, or in posts by your friends, please consider subscribing to ensure that you will continue to get it.

Okay–enough shameless promotion. Tomorrow, this site returns to its regularly scheduled content….

 

Automation and Education

Posted in error. Consider this tomorrow’s post–sorry to clutter your inboxes!

 

I  think there was a movie titled “While You Were Sleeping.” I feel as though that would be an excellent title for America right now.

While we are being governed by ideologues and fools intent upon destruction of our already inadequate social safety net, our most pressing problems go unaddressed–and in a number of cases, unidentified.

Unlike Congress and the Trump Administration, most Americans are concerned about climate change, and with good reason. Far fewer of us recognize that we are about to experience vast changes to our economic landscape. Automation and the Internet are already profoundly changing the way America does business.

A study from the Brookings Institution notes that prior automation has not eliminated the need for human work.

The Luddites in 19th Century Britain were convinced that machines would largely eliminate human work over time. Much more recently and in the U.S., anxiety appeared in the “automation scare” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when many Americans first became aware of computers and their potential to displace workers. And, even in the previous decade, fears that technology would enable employers to “offshore” vast quantities of US jobs to China or India have also been common at certain points in time.[1]

In each of these cases, the worst fears expressed by critics of automation have never come true; indeed, there has been no long-term trend whatsoever towards higher unemployment over time as automation has increased. As economists frequently explain, automation creates new jobs while eliminating older ones, in patterns that have held up again and again over time.

But is this time different?

The article concludes that many workers whose tasks can be automated will be displaced, but that demand for skilled employees—technicians or engineers and other tasks that the machines cannot perform, will increase.

The question is: will that increase be enough to offset the jobs lost? and what about older workers and those that lack the capacity to be retrained for more intellectually-demanding jobs? And what is our obligation to those who are permanently displaced?

One thing that is very different this time around is the ubiquity of the Internet and its effect upon retailing. Brick and mortar stores are closing at an alarming rate, displacing sales personnel, managers and others employed by those retail outlets, and reducing the need for property managers, realtors and others involved in the construction, maintenance and leasing of stores

What if this time is different? What if advances in automation and e-tailing reduce employment significantly, leaving millions of Americans permanently unemployed?

If we do nothing, we invite riots and a degree of social unrest previously unseen. Policymakers will have to consider social supports far more robust than any America has previously offered–most likely, something like a UBI, or Universal Basic Income stipend.

Mass unemployment would also require significant changes in education policy. The short-sighted emphasis on job training rather than actual education would be shown to be unwise; the jobs that remain, should this scenario become real, would require critical thinking and a broad liberal arts education.

Whether the worst-case scenario comes to pass or not, we know that the not-so-distant future is likely to bring massive change: as previously fertile parts of the globe are no longer arable, we can expect migration on a scale we’ve never before seen. Terrorism is likely to increase.

Meanwhile, as Americans are sleeping….the EPA is firing scientists, Congress is attacking healthcare and both state and local legislatures are making it harder to get birth control.

Dirty Harry, Mitch McConnell and the Rule of Law

A former student recently asked for my opinion on Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the current Supreme Court vacancy. As I told him, my concerns about Gorsuch pale in comparison to my deep disquiet over the Senate’s refusal to “advise and consent” with respect to President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

Let me be very clear: Had Mitch McConnell and the GOP conducted hearings on Garland’s nomination, and then voted against confirmation, I would have disagreed with the result. But I wouldn’t have been appalled. I wouldn’t have seen a rejection that emerged from the proper process as a dangerous affront to democratic norms and the rule of law.

McConnell’s refusal to follow the standard procedure contemplated by the Constitution and traditionally adhered to by the Senate was a worrisome and unprecedented assault on governmental legitimacy.

If there is one clear distinction between western constitutional systems and the various dictatorships and theocracies around the globe, it is the formers’ emphasis on the importance of fair procedures that everyone, even government, must follow. As I’ve previously argued, the Bill of Rights might justifiably be characterized as a restatement of your mother’s admonition that how you do something can often be more important than what you choose to do.

“The ends do not justify the means” is a fundamental principle of American law.

Adherence to objective and uniform procedures–the institutional means through which governments achieve their ends—is at the core of the rule of law. For ideologues and theocrats, however, achieving the “right” outcome, managing to win one’s preferred outcomes even if that requires ignoring or circumventing accepted rules, is what is important. It’s the age-old conflict between the rule of law and the “rule of men” (aka the exercise of raw power).

I’ve always hated those “Dirty Harry” type movies, where the purported “good guy” foils the villain by breaking the rules. Those movies elevate the ends over the means–just as Mitch McConnell did when he exercised arbitrary power, in defiance of accepted democratic norms, simply because he could.

In an article about Gorsuch, Dahlia Lithwick recently argued that

the nomination is wholly illegitimate. Gorsuch may or may not be a good judge, but there is no principled reason for him to have a hearing when Merrick Garland did not. This is a problem of power, not legal qualifications.

The Democrats have an unpleasant choice to make. They can refuse to participate in Gorsuch’s hearings, implicitly normalizing this sort of thuggish behavior and doing further damage to American law and institutions, or they can participate in the hearings and demonstrate fidelity to the Constitutional process, recognizing that they are thereby tacitly condoning McConnell’s unconscionable breach and arguably encouraging more and further departures from government legitimacy and the rule of law.

Thanks to Mitch McConnell and his desire to flex his legislative muscle, to display to his base and his political opponents alike his power to “steal” a Supreme Court seat, either option will further erode American democracy and diminish respect for American political institutions.