• I Don’t Like Trump or Racism

    December 2, 2016 // 23 Comments »

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    (Please relax; some of this is satire. I don’t like Trump or racism.)

    I was talking to the African-American guy at one of the places I work. He’s about my age, and a janitor. He makes minimum wage, I make double that, but neither of us get any benefits and the only paid sick days either of us have are the few mandated by state law. We talk.

    He seems less worried than I am about what will happen under the Trump administration to people of color. I’ve been reading Huffington Post and watching SNL, and there’s a lot to be worried about. I mean, Twitter much? It’s happening.

    My janitor says I should be OK, but he’s “been f*cked for a long time.” While I was in college, he was in the Army, where the job skill he acquired was to drive a truck. Still, after the Army, he worked for Ford as a welder, the only job he ever had where he made more than minimum wage, at least until the factory closed down, sending him into a janitorial career. He can’t remember how many times he’s been hassled by the cops walking to and from work during the last eight years alone.


    Anyway, we talk like this because I am a woke person (I studied that in grad school instead of working at Ford.) Some things we don’t have time to talk about because, well, he’s pretty busy cleaning up after all of us at work include, as the new administration takes office:

    — From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled, from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million. The U.S. is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners. One in every 31 adults in America is under some form of correctional control.

    — African-Americans constitute nearly one million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, locked up at nearly six times the rate of whites. African American and Hispanics comprise 58% of all prisoners, though only about one quarter of the U.S. population.

    — One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. About 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons are Black.

    We also didn’t have time to discuss that the reason Black Lives Matter exists right now is because unarmed Black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015. On average, two unarmed Black people a week are killed by police. Only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only two of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved. In only a small handful of those killings did the current administration order the Justice Department to look into federal civil rights charges.

    I had to get going (birthday party in the breakroom, but none of my millennial colleagues remembered to invite the cleaning staff, except maybe to sweep up afterwards), so we didn’t talk about African-American voter suppression in elections from 1869-2016, or mention that those Black people in jail, the ones inside the wall for felonies, are by and large denied the right to vote even after they get out.

    He shared some thoughts as the term of America’s first black president ends.

    He said he kinda wished Obama had worked harder to raise the minimum wage (last time on the federal level was 2009, but it was voted on by Congress in 2007 under Bush) and made available health insurance that had a deductible he could afford, but I quickly explained that that was all the Republicans’ fault, and pointed out the number of people of color Obama had appointed in his administration, as well as his many inspiring and heartfelt speeches after each mass shooting in America.

    Anyway, there’s a lot of worry about come January, we agreed. He thanked me for standing with him in solidarity, changing my Facebook photo to reflect awareness, and asked that I pass along to the others at work that they please make sure their used paper towels end up in the trash can instead of next to it.


    BONUS THE POINT: The setting is made up. So’s the janitor. That is satire, sarcasm, a fictional construct to say the problems of people of color will have under Trump are sadly nothing new. They are institutional — American — to our nation’s racist core. If anyone who cares tries to say the real issues are all part of one guy, Trump, they will imagine everything will be better when Trump goes away (Recount!) Well, Trump has “been away” for a very long time and look what’s happened. We have to fix a system now hundreds of years old in the U.S., fix ourselves, or nothing good will come of a Trump presidency, or any other.



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    Sesame Street: Video Tells Kids How to Deal with a Parent in Prison

    May 7, 2016 // 4 Comments »

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    Incarceration of Americans has reached a point of commonality such that the children’s educational program Sesame Street has made a video telling kids about it, and offering some ideas on how to deal with it.

    The video shows the host making the sad Muppet feel better by explaining that her father also went to jail, and teaches kids words like “incarcerate” and “law” that they may hear around the house when dad’s not around. The full video talks about writing letters, dealing with absence, seeing other children with both parents, and making prison visits and the rules for doing that. The broad message is classic Sesame Street: you are not alone in your problems, so reach out.

    The whole thing is part of Sesame Street’s new initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges, aiming at talking about the grownup issues of a tough world that can’t help but find their way into children’s lives. Other videos touch on divorce, death, hospitalization and issues affecting military families. You can see clips from most of them on YouTube.

    Maybe one day they can do one about living under constant government surveillance, or being denied healthcare. What are a world we are making for our children to deal with.





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    Thousands of Americans Are Hungry Because of Post-Prison Release Laws

    April 21, 2016 // 6 Comments »

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    Food stamps are for hungry people, which we should not have in America. There are of course cheaters, just like there are wealthy people who cheat on their taxes. The tax cheats won’t starve to death, or see their children go hungry, but released drug felons in many states will.

    It used to be that when you served your time for a crime, your “debt to society” was considered paid, and you were ready to re-enter society. But for many released drug felons, the punishment continues long after they leave jail.


    The felony drug ban is a Congressional-mandated lifetime restriction on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF; note the word family there) and food stamps (SNAP) for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony, unless states opt out. In states where the ban applies, a person released from a prison sentence are denied basic assistance at a time of extreme vulnerability.

    A study by The Sentencing Project found that in the 12 states that impose the lifetime ban, an estimated 180,000 women alone are impacted. If you include the other 24 states that impose a partial ban, the number of people affected is significantly higher. And since law enforcement is happily conducted with racial bias, people of color are disproportionately denied assistance.


    The felony drug ban can be traced back to the 1990s, when politicians of both parties sought political gain by getting “tough on crime.” Senator Phil Gramm , the sponsor of the ban, argued that “we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the nation’s drug laws.” After just two minutes of floor debate, the measure was adopted by unanimous consent as part of the 1996 welfare “reform” legislation.

    Of course there are other post-prison punishments on felons. The most significant is that few employers will hire an ex-felon, and more employers than ever now run mandatory background checks even for lousy minimum wage jobs.  Pell grants are not available for felons, and most schools will deny them financial aid, ensuring most can’t receive the education they need to get back on their feet. Men and women with prior drug convictions are also typically denied public housing and other benefits. A lot of banks won’t deal with a felon.


    Now, let’s see a show of hands out there.

    Who thinks making a man or woman unemployed, hungry, potentially homeless and without a chance at education is going to reduce the chances s/he won’t recommit a crime? Nope, it’s just damn mean and stupid.



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    Fact-Checking North Korea Propaganda about America (They’re Right)

    October 14, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.

    The Korean Central News Agency Schools You

    North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.

    So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:

    Model for Human Rights
    As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See “a shining city on a hill” claims by presidents from Obama back]

    Racism
    Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]

    Unemployment
    At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]

    Housing Prices
    The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]

    Poverty
    The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low– the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]

    Crime
    All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here’s a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]

    Surveillance
    The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don’t make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]

    Murder
    Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here’s the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here’s one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]

    Prisoners
    The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]

    Hail to the Chief
    Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.

    About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.

    Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.

    (Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)



    (North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)




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    U.S. States Revive Debtors’ Prisons

    July 31, 2014 // 13 Comments »

    A sordid feature of 19th century Victorian life was the debtor’s prison.

    People who could not pay their financial debt simply went to prison, punishment for not being wealthy. The point was often muddied, as from inside jail a person could most certainly not earn any money to pay off the debt, though one supposes the rich chortled knowing those who stiffed them suffered for the act. It was kind of a thing to do back then. The prisons, chronicled most famously by Charles Dickens among other Victorian crimes against a just society, were a step from Roman and Greek days when debtors could become the actual bonded slaves of the people to whom they owed money.

    Debtor’s prisons were from Colonial days through the early 1800s a feature of American life, until enlightened societal views (yeah, slavery took a bit longer to sort out) and new bankruptcy laws pushed them from the scene. State-by-state the practice of locking people up to punish them for owing money generally faded; Kentucky did away with it in 1821, still-business friendly Virginia dragged its feet until 1849. Between 1970 and 1982, in a series of cases, the Supremes did away with the practice once and for all as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Until now of course.

    Until Now of Course

    More and more states have revived the debtors prison, albeit in a specific form, locking people up for failure to pay court costs and fees. Like so many other things in America, shortfalls in budgets are made up not by raising taxes (or heaven forbid, fiscal prudence) but by new arrays of costs and fees paid by people in the criminal justice system. We are not referring to fine or penalty (ex. speeding ticket=$250) here, but to that thing the judges say on TV– “Guilty, with a fine of $300 and court costs. Next case please.”

    The new costs can be dizzying. The Brennan Center at New York University reports:

    Some jurisdictions have haphazardly created an interlocking system of fees that can combine to create insurmountable debt burdens. Florida has added more than 20 new fees since 1996. In 2009, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that a “sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package. In 2009, North Carolina instituted late fees for failure to pay a fine, and added a surcharge for being placed on a payment plan. Jurisdictions in at least nine states charge people extra fees for entering into payment plans, which are purportedly designed to make payments easier.


    The Problem(s)

    Leaving aside the not insignificant question of the morality of imprisoning people for debt (an issue that was supposedly resolved years ago), we note that no country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. At 716 per 100,000 people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. tops every other nation in the world (insert “American Exceptionalism” comment). The United States has about five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Prisons are already overcrowded in most places, so on the face, creating new reasons to put people in jail seems a bad idea.

    Of course the idea of debtor’s prison also impacts more exactly the people who need more impacting less, the poor. People with money pay the fees and go home. People without money go to jail. In hard-hit Huron County, Ohio in 2012, twenty percent of all arrests were for failure to pay fines. By coincidence, Huron County has a poverty rate above twenty-six percent.

    But Shouldn’t People Pay Their Debts?

    The governments’ case is as predicted. “When, and only when, an individual is convicted of a crime, there are required fees and court costs,” said Pamela Dembe, of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. “If the defendant doesn’t pay, law-abiding taxpayers must pay these costs.”

    She’s right of course. When people don’t pay their fees and court costs, it is indeed the taxpayer who ends up paying. But not in the way you might think. Locking up debtors costs money. The U.S. as a whole spends some $39 billion a year on locking people up. There are also incalculable collateral costs, such as families left without a parent. But really, it is about money. The costs to states of locking people up are significant– it costs an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate someone in California.

    Now sure, Charlie Manson in Super Max and Poor Old Joe in the county lockup do not cost the same, but then again, logic isn’t always the winner: The Brennan Center reports that there are inmates in Pennsylvania who are eligible for release but are kept in prison based on their inability to pay a $60 fee. The daily cost of confinement is nearly $100 per day. In 2009, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina jailed 246 debtors who did not pay for an average of four days. The county collected $33,476 while the jail terms cost $40,000 — a loss for the county.

    Stop Making Sense

    So we are left with the question of why. Debtors’ prisons in the U.S. were declared unconstitutional, but states have re-implemented them anyway. A person locked up can’t earn money to pay the debt. And most significantly, it ends up costing many jurisdictions more money to punish someone for not paying than they would have “spent” just forgetting the debt. So why do states do this? To be fair, many states do not, and some that do often try and work out some sort of payment plan first. OK, good enough.

    Now this may all be for the best. On the streets, nobody is overly concerned about providing food, medical care and shelter to poor people; outside they’re lazy, don’t want to work, nip at the public tit and all. Why, it would be socialism to help them after all. However, inside the prison system they all get food, medical and dental care, all tucked in a warm bed. Our society is apparently more ready to care for a criminal than for a citizen down on his luck.

    The reality in America is that far too many people go to jail as punishment for not paying the fees and court costs incurred finding them already guilty of something else. One is left with a tough conclusion: we are more and more a crude, course society on path towards some sort of feudalism, where the rich (if ever brought to court at all) pay their money and walk out, while poor people are punished for no valid reason. We as a society want to set examples, clear the streets of our lowers, punish those who aren’t able to pay the government for giving them their day in court. That’s who we are now. And you better pay your bills.



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