Thursday, May 28, 2015

Irish Eyes Are Smilin’ ?

My lineage goes back to Ireland. My name usually gives that away, but if ever there was a doubt my physical traits are a dead giveaway to familial roots in the land of lepercons and potatoes. I haven’t spent a whole lot effort on a genealogical analysis, but through the generations there’s been a dilution; I’m by no means a purebred. The prejudices heaped upon my ancestors in the “new” land of America are well documented. Through the years the discrimination migrated against 'my people' to Italians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and many other groups. The world took notice May 23, 2015 when thousands of Irish returned to their homeland to vote on a referendum. 62+% of them voted for LGBT Equality. And that’s a problem.

The “Yes” campaign has been credited with an effective social media and advertising effort – telling personal stories and  mitigating the concerns that the “No” side had. If that political analysis is to be believed the merits of the argument aren't why it passed - just good adverts. 

The Good Friday Accord in 1998 moved beyond a many decades dispute whether the Protestants would get their way by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the U.K. or whether the Catholics would align for a United Ireland. In the end a hybrid was agreed to by all major political parties and voters. That was a conflict that dated back to 1602 with lots of battles and bloodshed. While rights have been equalized  for gay people since the 1990’s, it was in 2004 that same-sex marriage was determined to remain outlawed - making the recent election results a fairly fast transition. It’s a particularly supportive and powerful message the people of Ireland sent to the world for a Roman Catholic country to embrace marriage equality for LGBT people. The Vatican response: "defeat for humanity."

There lies the rub. Thanks to people being out, changing social mores in the media and other factors Marriage Equality is currently “popular.” For supporters, that’s great. But the premise is very disturbing. A right is granted only when it’s popular? So if fewer people came back to the homeland to vote, or the campaign had a misstep (like the Proposition 8 team did in California some years back) that would have changed the result? How can a human right – a civil right – be up for a popular vote?

Ireland is a Parliamentary Democracy where the “sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is vested in Parliament.” The Constitution “declares that all citizens are equal before the law; it guarantees to defend and vindicate the personal rights of citizens in its laws.” So why was a referendum needed to grant rights that are empowered to Parliament? In 2004 (ten years after LGBT rights were opened up) the Civil Registration Act re-stated the common law definition of marriage, specifically stating “a marriage would be invalid if both parties to a marriage are of the same sex.” In 2010 Civil partnership legislation passed but did not provide the same protections as marriage does.

By having a majority of the country vote to grant this right, members of Parliament can now change the law and are protected from any potential back-lash. A win-win? Was it a win when the Italians or the Jews or the Blacks were discriminated against instead of the Irish?

In 1999 I produced a documentary of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles as they toured Moscow, St. Petersberg and Tallin. At that time the rights granted to LGBT people in the Russian Constitution far exceeded the rights permitted under the U.S. Constitution as sodomy was illegal at that time. People were accepting and it was a refreshing place to be. 15 years later as the economy had collapsed and people were no longer free to be out, the leaders and people of Russia have regressed and are no longer as open and welcoming of LGBT people. The result of the change in opinion is an amendment to the constitution plus new laws have been put in place. Today Russia is one of the most dangerous places to be out as a LGBT person. 

Will this happen in Ireland? Doubtful, but it could. Repercussions and blame are part of human history. In America we see a spate of “religious freedom” laws sprouting up that undermine decades worth of work. When we as the LGBT community accept the premise that it’s okay for another group of people to judge us and accept us by giving them permission to vote on what rights we are entitled to – that’s when we have not fully come of age or fully embraced our own equality. “When Irish hearts are happy, all the world seems bright and gay, And When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, sure, they steal your heart away.” 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Finders Keepers

I remember trying to balance my Church’s budget one year and somebody on the committee said “Oh stop worrying, money will appear We’re a Church after all!” Money doesn’t usually magically appear, no matter how faithful you are. It happened in Maryland Halloween 2014 when a money bag fell out of an armored vehicle, broke open and bills were swirling about in the air. People stopped to pick up the money for themselves, some helped collect it for the driver. I’d like to think that I’d help pick it up and return it. I do remember finding a $20 bill on the street and there was nobody to be found. Finding one $20 on the street versus an armored car’s worth of cash is different, at least in scope. So what happens when it’s not a $20 or an armored car? We learned this week that the CIA gave millions of dollars to Al Qaeda…the same people the CIA is supposed to be protecting Americans from because they are evil incarnate.

The New York Times reported recently (3/15/15) that the CIA regularly delivered “bags of cash” to the Presidential palace in Afghanistan. This was new information. The CIA also made a series of payments totaling $5 million directly to Al Qaeda as ransom for a kidnap victim. Osama Bin Laden was so surprised by the funds and that the U.S. Government was paying for a hostage that he warned his people that the bills might be laced with poison. They weren’t. They were just delivered in error due to “lax accounting controls.”

The few million that went to Bin Laden is nothing compared to the $12 billion that disappeared in Iraq. The Guardian reported  on the 2007 findings where the U.S. sent 383 tons of cash to Iraq only to watch it disappear. “The minutes from a May 2004 [Coalition Provisional Authority] meeting reveal a single disbursement of $500m in security funding labelled merely 'TBD', meaning 'to be determined' … The memorandum concludes: "Many of the funds appear to have been lost to corruption and waste ... thousands of 'ghost employees' were receiving pay cheques from Iraqi ministries under the CPA's control. Some of the funds could have enriched both criminals and insurgents fighting the United States."

The Iraq War cost $1.8 trillion according to Brown University. $12 billion represents 0.067% of that. In money that’s more tangible, that would be $66.67 out of a $1,000 item or 6 cents out of a dollar. It’s essentially a rounding error. That’s not to mitigate that $12 billion isn’t a lot of money, but compared to $1.8 trillion, it really isn’t.

The FY16 budget request for the Pentagon is $585 billion - well ahead of the “caps” agreed to in 2011. $51 billion is the cost of the conflict in Afghanistan. Based on the track record of .067% before, that’d be about $39 billion that will go missing. Of course we don’t know how much will actually be lost because the Pentagon, as I’ve previously blogged about, is unable to pass an audit.

There’s understandable and appropriate outrage that U.S. taxpayer funds (or borrowed funds) are used to support the “enemy.” It’d be nice to have that same outrage in place before the U.S. commits its citizens and its treasury to perpetual war. In this game of Finders Keepers, we're the losers who are weeping. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Deflated Consequences

I played football in 8th grade. For a week. It was a rather humiliating introduction to how little of an athlete I was as a teenager. Boston’s a pretty big sports town. You’ve got the Bruins, the Celtics and the Red Sox along with the Patriots. I don’t follow the teams at any level of detail but living here you tend to keep up via osmosis – it’s that prevalent in the culture. When championships come around its especially true, and this winter’s Super Bowl provided a much needed respite from the never ending snow, ice and cold. There were accusations that the balls in the payoff game were not inflated to the correct pressure, providing the Patriots with an advantage that theoretically helped them win the playoff game. Many months and investigations later, this week the league suspended Quarter Back Tom Brady over the entire situation and fined the team $1 million. Since it’s the NFL no trial, just punishment. Appeals are in process that could ultimately lead to the matter coming into the legal system. During this same week the NSA snooping program was found to be illegal and there’s no effort to appeal or change the law.

A Federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency program that systematically collects American’s phone records is illegal. The USA Patriot Act is the basis that the NSA used to justify the program. The court didn’t rule on the Act, but instead determined that Section 215 of the Act did not permit the wholesale collection of data on American Citizens without justification.

Coincidently the Act is due to expire in June 2015, so the Senate and House are busy determining what changes, if any, need to happen. The problems of the misnamed Patriot Act is something I’ve addressed in prior blogs and is an important issue. What’s important now is not whether the Act is renewed or not – but what’s going to be done about the illegal action.

The court didn’t find anything wrong with the law – not because there isn’t a problem with the law, but because the case was about the records collection. The court found the collecting of those records were not permitted or authorized under the law. So Congress can try to create a law that permits it or re-write the section. The House has passed the U.S. Freedom Act which creates new a law allowing American’s private phone and internet records to be collected without a warrant.

The Boston Globe reports about the ruling: “It did not come with any injunction ordering the program to cease, and it is not clear that anything else will happen in the judicial system before Congress has to make a decision about the expiring law. The data collection had repeatedly been approved in secret by judges serving on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees national security surveillance.”

The law was broken. Repeatedly. There is not an injunction to stop the law from continuing to be broken. Nobody is being fined. Nobody is being arrested. The massive invasion of privacy into the citizenry of the United States is found to be illegal and nobody is held accountable or responsible. If somebody walked into your house and stole your property and the court found them to have broken the law, there’s a consequence. If companies break the law there are fines and jail sentences. If government breaks the law it’s business as usual?

Tom Brady’s being vilified and punished for something where there is not definitive proof of his involvement. It’s not fair and inconsistent with our sense of justice. That’s nothing compared to deflated consequences when the Government breaks the law and keeps on operating as if nothing can stop it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Avenge Violence

I went out and saw “The Avengers…Age of Ultron” like tens of millions of others. I’m not much of a fan-boy, but there’s always something satisfying about watching things blow up, good guys winning over bad guys, etc. I’m a non-violent person, a pacifist in many ways, and passionately anti-war. Experiencing superheroes fighting evil and the inevitable over-the-top explosions and destruction that doesn’t seem contradictory to my real-world philosophies, just one of the ironies of being human. There’s something fantastical about the white hats beating the black hats that just feels good. That simple narrative frames many movies, television shows along with books and even journalistic story telling through the ages. The blur between heightened conflict as a tool for storytelling and actual violence is especially present today.

The eruptions of protests and the deterioration into rioting in many urban environments is troubling. There are deep socio-economic and class issues at play. Looking at the most recent example, Baltimore, it is not enough to point to a community in distress. The issue of violence has been in the news there for many years, perhaps generations. In September 2014 the Baltimore Sun investigated and published a powerful series of stories about how millions of dollars were paid by the city in settlements where the police were found to have used excessive force with residents. Police and community issues are longstanding.

It is also true that Baltimore has had economic challenges for decades and the unemployment rate in the city is disproportionate based on race. Tens of millions of dollars –local, state and federal, have gone into various programs to address those issues over the past 50 years. Statistically there’s been little change in poverty rates or unemployment. It’s also true that one party has dominated the policies of the city for 40 years. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are to blame for the violence (as some have claimed), but it does indicate that political will, economic incentives and good intentions have not actually changed life for the citizens of Baltimore. The people pushed back at authority in a most dramatic way after the problems simmered for a long time. I’m not justifying the riots – but there is a rationale.

More bloodshed and more victims isn’t the answer: instead that becomes a never-ending and circular situation. Addressing the long standing issues is one thing, but how does society stem the violence? Banning guns is problematic given that the 2nd thing that the Founders wanted protected (via the Second Amendment) is people’s right to “keep and bear” arms. Some clever politicians have said – ok, keep your guns but let’s ban ammunition. The constitution doesn’t say anything about protecting or providing a right to ammunition! Innovative as that thinking is, it’s like saying that you can have freedom of religion so long as you don’t use The Bible or Quran or Torah, etc.

In 2007 then U.S. Senator John Kerry was giving a speech at the University of Florida on Constitution Day when Andrew Meyer was waiting to ask a question and was then forcibly removed from the line and ultimately the room. As officers tried to subdue him he cried out “Don’t tase me, bro!” asking officers not to use taser him to subdue him. The incident “went viral” and more than 7 million people viewed the video. While there were many things wrong with this situation at least the police were able to subdue him without having to shoot him dead. Progress.

Rubber bullets have been long used as a non-lethal way to manage crowds. Injuries and occasionally death does result from the use of rubber bullets, but far less so than if live ammunition was used.

The major incidents that have been precursors to the recent spate of protests, riots and further damage seem to be when a police officer fatally shoots a black citizen. The issues of race, economics, and justice are all elements of the problem and the solutions will be as complicated as the causes. If we can put people on the moon, run a multi-trillion dollar economy based on 1’s and 0’s, then certainly there’s a way to maintain order without killing each other. We can start to avenge the violence by having the police use non-lethal weapons

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Practicing the Theory of Equality

My daily commute is usually 45 minutes each way. I cross over three towns each time I go to or from work. Having spent more than half of my adult life in Los Angeles this is not an unusual or odd pattern for me. For many Bostonians whom I interact with it’s a very odd way to choose to live. Like clockwork at the end of each month I see a high visibility of police on the streets – strategically positioned to capture anybody who deviates from one of a myriad of rules of the road. My libertarian philosophy usually kicks into annoyance for the effort seems to be less about maintaining a strict adherence to the laws and more about a quota or generating fines. I haven’t been a victim of such calibrated enforcement here (yet) so my feelings are theoretical and not practical. (If it’s about safety then why wouldn't they be there 24/7, not just the last few days of the month?) It’s a nice position to be in – thinking about and commenting on a police matter when one doesn’t have any direct experience...then it's theoretical. People in Baltimore, Ferguson and many other places don’t have that same luxury.

I’m a white man, educated, older person who is able to make ends meet. Those adjectives make me privileged though I don’t think of myself that way. When I see the riots and violence in Baltimore, Ferguson … even New York … I can’t identify with why somebody would do that. What does torching a police car, or looting a business do to tackle racism? Why does damaging property somehow equate to acceptable discord? Intellectually I can absolutely understand that years of oppression, discrimination, abuse and unequal treatment boils over and it’s a way of acting out in response to events. My own community (LGBT) was largely born from its own demonstrations, so it's not that I can't comprehend, I just can't personally identify. The events that have caused such actions recently have been when a black person has died at the hands of a non-black police officer.

There are no official statistics available by state or nationally about how many people die at the hands of police officers. The U.K.’s Guardian published a 2-part story in March 2015 which found that “citizen activists keep the best national counts.” The story reported that an African American is killed by a police or security guard “at least every 28 hours.”

The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson determined that the police were issuing 28 tickets a month to citizens where 80% of the residents are African American. CNN’s report summarizes a number of cases where the ticketing was so much a part of the culture that the entire city budget was framed around increasing fines to its citizens.

My smaller-government philosophy would love to grab onto these facts as evidence that there are too many laws on the books, too many fines, too much government intrusion! An example from the CNN story: A woman received tickets because her car was not parked in her own driveway in accordance with the city’s rules. The fines added up. She fought them. Was arrested. Then lost because she couldn’t contest the ruling because she was in jail. In theory streamlining the laws and fine structure would mitigate this situation, but the larger issues aren’t actually about the law. It’s about how Americans interact with each other.

There is a pervasive unresolved issue in America around race. It divides our communities and infects our politics. I am a white person of privilege and absolutely the wrong person to be pontificating about race. I loathe drawing summary conclusions from bits of data and applying it. Those cautionary statements aside: I’m confident that if somebody like me was being killed virtually every single day by the police there would be a lot more fuss about it. If a community had 80% of people who were like me and were being harassed and fined like in Ferguson that it wouldn’t be tolerated.

I have no answers. I don't have daily interactions that require me to have answers, or even suggestions. I pray for understanding, I pray for healing and I pray that we practice the theory of equality a lot better than we do.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rebel without a Cause

Patriots’ Day was celebrated this week in Massachusetts. It wasn’t another parade for the Superbowl champs, it’s a holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775. Each year there is a reenactment of the battles including mounted re-enactors who retrace the midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes. The biggest part of the celebration is the Boston Marathon which has been run every Patriots’ Day since 1897 (to mark the then-recently established holiday linking the Athenian and American struggles for liberty since marathons were named after the Greek Battle of Marathon. The thirteen colonies rebelled against King George, ultimately establishing the new nation with a new way of doing business. It’s served the country well for nearly 240 years.

Not everybody agrees. 41% of the population have confidence in government according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, published annually from one of the leading research and communications firms in the world. More interestingly in 19 of the 27 countries studied there is more distrust than trust. The annual survey shows that media isn't believed and that search engines are now the most trusted way for the general population to get its news and that family and friends are more reliable than traditional reporting. (A subject for a whole other blog!)

The popular thinking is that the U.S. political system is broken. Realclearpolitics has a combination of surveys which show that 71% disapprove of Congress. Regardless of which party has a majority, Congress has been ineffective at passing significant legislation. Pundits have used the lack of laws being passed as the determining factor of whether Congress has done its job or not. While it’s an important metric, it forgets that the Founders set up the system as Representative government  (where people are elected to office to represent a group of people). It’s not direct democracy where individuals vote on every issue directly.

As of October 2014 Gallup polling found that 43% of Americans identified as Democrats and 39% as Republicans, when party "leaners" were included; those figures changed to 41% Democratic and 42% Republican after the November 2014 elections. The 114th Congress currently has 56% Republicans in the House and 54% in the Senate with Democrats representing 43% of the House and 44% of the Senate. In other words: Congress pretty accurately reflects the people it represents.

After the 2014 mid-term elections I wrote a blog that showed after including eligible voters into the calculation, just 13% of the population was actually determining who would be elected. When a majority of voices are silent – either by their own choice or defacto by onerous voting procedures – then the disconnect that exists today can occur. An overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of the job its government is doing, yet consistently re-elects those leaders at a rate in excess of 90%. This occurs because a huge majority of people do not participate in the process, but do have an opinion. So comparing voting results with polling results is comparing apples and oranges (or Republicans and Democrats). By opting out of the established process of voicing one’s opinion, this silent majority are rebels without a cause.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Which type of person are you? The one who filed their taxes in January, got the refund by President’s Day and remind everybody of how nice it is to have it done? Or the one who scrambles in the days before April 15 to get everything together and hit “send” just in the nick of time? Perhaps you’re the one who knows that October 15 is the final, final date when all extensions expire and aim to file by then. I’m a bit of a hybrid, filing my and my family’s returns usually in the February / March time frame. Even utilizing software and being organized, the process is laborious, intrusive and confusing. And that’s what makes this the most wonderful time of the year!

Tax Time is when Americans of all stripes most directly interact with the government. 136,887,000 returns were filed in 2014 with 86% being done so electronically. According to a 2012 Fox News poll 79% of Americans support requiring everyone to pay something in taxes. In 2014 USA Today reported an AP poll that found 58% of Americans describe the filing of taxes as easy and only 38% say it’s hard. When broken down by economic group those making $100,000 or more had a higher percentage who found it difficult – 45%. The U.S. tax code started with 400 pages in 1913 and a century later in 2013 was 73,954 pages. According to the IRS 90% of taxpayers use a tax professional or software to complete their return.

Tax Day for LGBT Americans is particularly challenging. APReports that for those people who live in states that do not recognize their marriage that the couples have to complete 5 tax returns – one federal as married, one federal for each person as a template to then file one each at the state level for each person. Divvying up costs and deductions is not only a complicated mathematical process, it’s emotionally disruptive to have to divide your married life up because your state doesn’t recognize your relationship.

The U.S. tax code includes a “marriage penalty.” In the progressive rates that are the basis of the U.S. tax philosophy and code, the more one earns, the more one pays in taxes. So if two people come together and file jointly, their incomes are combined and they move into a higher bracket. The code also includes many incentives and deductions to encourage (or discourage) certain behavior. Politicians want Americans to buy houses (borrowing money, paying interest, etc.) so there is a large financial benefit for home ownership. Buy too many houses though – and have them as vacation getaways or rental properties and that is discouraged with limitations on deductions and even increased rates.

The priorities of encouraging or discouraging behavior of the citizenry have been a core function of the tax code and the primary argument that the political parties have. One wants to raise taxes on one group of people and redistribute it to others while another wants to reduced taxes to one group of people and redistribute it to others. It’s in this area where the divisive political discourse has festered for most of the past several decades. 1986 was the last time the code was “reformed.”

Election Day is held on the first Tuesday in November under a 1792 Federal law. The reasons included issues of the completion of the harvest and before the harsh winter weather allowing for most who needed to travel to vote to do so. Most of the considerations for choosing early November no longer apply, but it’s unlikely that Election Day will change.

Tax Day hasn’t always been April 15.This date became effective in 1955 Tech Times reports why: “"According to an IRS spokesman, the move 'spread out the peak workload,' but there's another explanation. Turns out that as the income tax applied to more of the middle class, the government had to issue more refunds. 'Pushing the deadline back gives the government more time to hold on to the money,' says Ed McCaffery, a University of Southern California law professor and tax guru."

No matter when Tax Day falls, how government spends taxes is one of the most contentious issues of our time and politicians have been unable (or unwilling) to find compromises. Perhaps the easiest way to see how Americans really feel about paying and filing taxes would be to move Tax Day to the first Monday in November. The day before Election Day. This Most Wonderful Time of the Year would be more so when electoral decisions would be directly related to the one thing that nearly Americans do to interact with the Government they elect. And let’s make it easy: let’s have the Presidential, Congressional and Senatorial candidates be the last question of the tax software before hitting “submit”?