Thursday, November 20, 2014

Civil Shopping

I’m not much of a shopper – I’m more of a buyer. The hunting and pecking for items bores me to no end. When I find something I like and it’s in the price range that works, I buy it. This is true for big and small purchases. My Realtor was annoyed because I could walk through houses and in moments know if it would work for me or not. So he stopped coming along. 10 minutes after my first walk-thru of the one I knew would work I put an offer in. The sale closed 3 weeks later which felt like an eternity. As we move into the lucrative holiday shopping season, people are making their lists and checking them twice. It’s all part of the ritual of the season. So much so that local government have shopping lists too - of your stuff.

The Week summarized an in-depth The New York Times  article: “Civil asset forfeiture is a little-known practice that allows police or other government agencies to confiscate citizens' money or property without charging them with any crime. Because it is technically the seized asset — not the person who owned it — which is under suspicion, it is typically extremely difficult for people to get their stuff back.”

  • In Philadelphia a family had their home taken away because their son sold $40 of drugs from the front porch. (According to the CNN story, in Philadelphia alone more than 1,000 homes have been seized, 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash have been grabbed in the past decade.)
  • Individuals who have been stopped for suspicion of drunk driving have had the cars they were driving seized and kept by authorities even though the individual didn’t own the car may have just borrowed it (in many cases without permission). Women have been stopped, warned by the cops - not charged - and left standing at the side of the road as officer then drive off in their car.

Innocent victims whose property is confiscated because of an alleged crime somebody else commits can try and get it back. They have to go to court, pay court costs upfront and hire an attorney to advocate for them. Per the Times report: “Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car.”

Let’s reiterate: the property is taken BEFORE there’s an arrest, and BEFORE there’s a conviction. This isn’t a drug kingpin living high on the hog who’s been sentenced and is having their toys taken away which was the original origin and intent of the law. Victims are every day people who have not committed any crime, have not been accused of any crime who lose huge amounts of their own property...often in disproportion to the value of the crime. (A six-figure house is taken over a $40 drug sale.)

The Times article continues: “Mr. McMurtry (chief of the forfeiture unit in the Mercer County, N.J) said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. 'If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,' Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. 'If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.'”

Somebody accused of drunk driving could lose a Ferrari while somebody else could lose a Yugo. It’s all at the discretion of the officers…and what car the local officials may be in the market for. So much for the punishment fitting the (alleged) crime.

A founding principle of the United States was the presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to due process. Civil forfeiture laws – which accounted for $4.2 billion in seized assets in 2012 – have gutted this presumption and thousands of innocent people are hugely impacted. The outrage is that it's not accidental or happenstance. Seminars and trainings are held for law enforcement to show them how to target particular items, which assets yield the best results and provide step by step instructions for dealing with “outraged innocents.” Local agencies seek out certain items (flat screens, vehicles, houses) and avoid others (jewelry and furniture).

This gift giving season be careful what you wish for. Uncle Sam, his cousins and their offspring may want it too. And they can just take it. Civil Forfeiture is really Civil Shopping. And it's wrong.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

No Signal

In my personal life I’m pretty lame at reading signals…especially in the romance department. I remember once I was sitting in a car with a potential mate and we spent over an hour talking...the kiss that happened totally surprised me...though it was the natural evolution in the mating ritual. There’s some sort of obtuseness around me in that arena that keeps my therapist on her toes. As much as there’s an opportunity for improvement personally, in work situations it’s nearly the opposite – I’m pretty astute in reading the signals and maneuvering the nuances of various situations. I wish that our political leaders could say the same.

The 2014 mid-term elections have provided plenty of fodder for the simple conclusions that most pundits provide these days. “Crushing defeat,” and “Devastating loss” are how some of the headlines have read. Even the generally impartial Wikipedia describes the “sweeping gains” of the GOP. While some races are still being counted and runoffs are happening, as of 11/13/14 there was a net gain of 6 seats in the Senate (16% of the seats up for election, 6% of the total) and 13 seats in the House (3%). Most of the ‘contested’ races were close – all within 10% margin of victory. Crushing? Not quite.

Some analysts have stumbled upon the more important statistic: turnout. “Nationwide voter turnout was just 36.4%, down from 40.9% in the 2010 midterms and the lowest since the 1942 elections.” Turnout is calculated based on registered voters, not eligible. 30% of people eligible to vote are not even registered – that's 59,761,000 people.

Applying the eligible voter calculation against the actual turnout (i.e. reducing it by the 30% of the population who isn’t registered) 25.48% of the public voted in 2014. To win an election requires just a majority of votes, so just 13% of the eligible voters make the decision. Given that most of the contested races were within 10% of each other – the mandate is thanks to some 15% of the population. Not quite sweeping.

Both Republicans & Democrats look to the top line numbers, not the bottom line. They see more victors from one party than the other. In the thrill of victory House and Senate leaders renewed their commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act – President Obama’s signature (and sole?) legislative accomplishment. He would no doubt veto any such legislation if it reached his desk. There aren't enough votes to override a veto. The President has indicated he will use Executive Action on immigration which promptly resulted in the GOP wagging their fingers and saying “don’t you dare!”

President Obama spoke to the nation on Nov. 5  saying "To those of you who voted, I hear you," Obama said in his first public remarks since the election. "To those who didn't vote, I hear you too."

In 1969 newly elected President Richard Nixon spoke to the nation regarding the War in Vietnam. He summed up his pitch: “And so tonight-to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans-I ask for your support.”

75% of American’s opted out of this election – despite (or perhaps because of) the $3.7 billion spent to “sway” them. It averages out to some $25 per vote. The President has determined that this means that folks are happy with him and his policies because they didn’t come out to vote for change. The GOP claims that people are so disgusted that they didn’t bother to come out. Somebody's not getting the signal: 92% disapprove of Congress and three-quarters of American’s opted out of the process. Something's gotta change.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


I work hard. Probably too hard. I average between 55 and 60 hours a week, with the busy season hitting it’s closer to 75 to 80. Earlier in my career I went seven years without a vacation. After flaming out I found a nice balance and actually took the time off I earned each year and ultimately was a happier and more productive person. All along it’s been my choice – while I can always come up with reasonable and strong justifications for my addictive habit, I have been fortunate in that the pressure to work and deliver results has been largely driven by me, making modifications somewhat easier. As somebody who is intimately familiar with the push and pull of “work” “life” balances, I’m particularly sensitized to others who claim to be burdened. I was amused by the recent study that members of Congress are considered workaholics as well, putting in 70 hours a week.

Roll Call reports that the average member of congress works 70 hours a week. The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) report was compiled from 200 interviews of congress people and their senior staff. The claim isn’t based on hours that they’re awake – it is based on labor. One of the reports researchers made the understatement of the year: “Perceptions are very different.”

Just about a year ago, in Dec. 2013, an America’s Voice (AV) issued a study came showing that Congress worked only 942 hours all year.  The difference between working 3640 hours a year and 942 is not one of just perception, but of methodology. (The average worker on a 40 hours week works 2080 per year, right in between the two studies.)  The CMF report includes the hours that a congress person spends working on constituent affairs, fundraising and all the things to keep their office going. The AV report only looked at the hours that Congress was officially in session and assumes that member of Congress are working only when in session.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Members of Congress do have work to do to respond to constituent requests, study issues, fund raise, etc. Just showing up and voting is not the sum total of the job.

97% of Congress was re-elected this week. 10 seats changed from one party to the other in the House – 3%.  6 seats changed in the Senate, 6% of the total or 16% of the seats that were up open. The media and political elite are beside themselves that “control” of the Senate has switched from Democrats to Republicans. While it’s true that a narrow majority of Republicans will now mean that committees and procedures will be run by a different party – the reality is very little will change. The Republicans controlled the agenda for the past 6 years by voting “no” on everything – by using everything they could to block legislation, appointments, etc. 

The paralysis that has defined Washington politics for the past decade plus will continue, the leadership will just be slightly different. The various political analysts will bloviate and the ‘differences’ between the parties will be hyped as if it was something discernable. As the hamster-wheel of America’s political establishment spins away, it’s comforting to know that they’re all working as hard as I am.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shipping Activism

I work as the Executive Director of a gay specific organization, so in a culture like ours where you are what you do – virtually every social interaction is a coming out opportunity. Back in the mid-90’s when I was the Executive Director of a gay specific social services organization – it became so tiresome that on airplanes and in some general conversation I found it easier to say that I ran a social services group rather than give the full name. It only happened a handful of times, but it was telling how bad I felt whenever I didn't fully disclose. Twenty years later I no longer self-censor, which is a liberating experience even when people have issues. Last week I was on vacation and part of me didn’t want to be the activist for those who displayed ignorance or discomfort about me and my work. I was on holiday, but being who you are doesn't take a vacation. 

It was my 18th cruise. Floating from Point A to Point B ... watching the horizon go by is one of the things I find most spiritually, physically and emotionally restoring. I like the whole experience of unpacking once and every day or every few days popping into another port to explore. It’s not the best way to immerse into another culture, it’s the American way of tourism – skimming! The food is usually excellent and plentiful – with many healthier options available. Cruises are a great way to meet different people – and connect with them as much or as little as you want. Some days I’m happiest sitting on the balcony staring off and occasionally reading through the latest mystery. Other days I enjoy wandering the decks and getting into chats with people. Not once on this trip did anybody ask me what I did for a living. Nirvana!

There are shows at night – lowest common denominator selections of popular music, movie music and show music. The live band and singers are supported by tracks and the dancers work themselves into an aerobic sweat. For me it’s pretty cheesy but many other cruisers find it the height of culture. That’s what’s great about a cruise ship – it’s Las Vegas on the sea.

The whole enterprise is run by the Captain and the various social events are cheer lead by the Cruise Director. It’s not quite Captain Stubing and Julie McCoy from The 1970’s classic “The Love Boat” – but it’s not that far off either. When the Captain and then the Cruise Director made insensitive gay remarks, I was surprised, startled and taken aback. In 18 cruises I had certainly heard a few cracks and inappropriate comments along the way – from staff, even from officers. Never from the visible leadership of the ship.

What do I do? People in Dallas tackled a man who yelled anti-gay obscenities at a man wearing a pink shirt the other day. Not my style. I am a pacifist after all! I also believe (and blog) about people's right to be stupid, say dumb things and be insensitive. We must tolerate intolerance - except in instances where harm is done to people. Defining harm is where it gets tricky. Educating and training about how remarks or actions are problematic is a good step forward. Boycotts and shaming people and companies can be effective - but should be done in proportion to the offense. In this case it wasn't a systemic problem, so I'm not calling out the company.

As I pondered (a) whether I had lost my sense of humor and (b) whether I had become too sensitized to any potential infraction the overhead speaker crackled to life with the twice-daily rah-rah from the Cruise Director. The “gag” continued. Maybe I should watch some television and distract my reaction. The daily video from the Cruise Director was there with yet another variation of the same series of insults and stereotypes. 

I touched based with my traveling companions and others in our gay group – all agreed it was inappropriate. None agreed as to what to do about it. We were, after all, on holiday…and it could just as easily be considered sophomoric humor as homophobic.

I wrote to the parent company and my travel agent who then shared it with his corporate group sales rep. On the end-of-cruise survey I reiterated the points as did my traveling companions and others. I don’t ever expect to hear from the company – and my next cruise or two won’t be with them, but I may well travel with them again as I think the incidents were individual rather than institutional.

Will my correspondence and communications change anything? Maybe not. If one person sees it and realizes that words and deeds have impact and consequences, then the shipboard activism will have been worth it. 

Every little pebble thrown into the ocean may not make a splash, but a bunch of them cause a ripple. Next Tuesday, November 4 2014 is Election Day. Throw your pebble into the ocean and vote. 13% of the American public approve of Congress. Over 90% of Congress is re-elected cycle after cycle. These statistics are ad total odds with each other - and that's because the people who disapprove of Congress are not actually voting. It's time for a ripple or two - for all of us to have ship board activism.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Living like a King

I read nearly two dozen books a year. I was an early adopter of the Kindle because my reading isn’t evenly spread throughout the year – I tend to binge read while traveling or on holiday. Schlepping 10 books in a bag became old very quickly…especially since I’m a light packer otherwise. Now I download books to the iPhone and use the Kindle app – much more convenient! In today’s social media technology environment – being able to travel, vacation and have electronic gadgets to read books is a whole series of luxuries known as #firstworldissues. Traveling has its own array of #firstworldproblems.

In a post 9/11 world where all but one major airline company went through bankruptcy, fees have become the solution for balancing the books. CNN/Money reports that $31.5 billion was earned by airlines in 2013 – up from $2.8 5 six years earlier. Annoying as those fees are – they are democratic. If you want more legroom – pay the fee. If you want to bring a lot of stuff, pay a fee. If you don’t want to pay a fee – choose an airline that doesn’t charge fees.

The monetization of every element of airline travel began with the 1978 ‘deregulation’ of the industry. Before then the Government assigned prices and managed schedules. While the industry remains highly regulated, the ‘deregulation’ allowed airlines to introduce the hub-and-spoke system, mange its own pricing and have increased competition. Government still controls routes, security and a slew of other components. Business Class travel was introduced in 1978 – allowing those who were willing to pay for the privilege of having more space.

Companies pay for executives to fly in Business Class for a variety of reasons. Keeping key staff comfortable and happy is certainly part of it, but it's also making sure that their time is productive in the air and on the ground is cost-effective. A well rested sales person/executive is more effective than somebody who needs a day to recover from traveling. Financially the cost of business travel is deductible.

Companies pay federal taxes. For shareholders the goal is to be as profitable as possible – but for tax reporting the goal is to maximize deductions to reduce the tax liability. Travel is a true cost of business and should offset revenue. Does it make sense, though, for first-class and business-class travel to be fully deductible? By allowing a deduction for a luxury item means that the taxpayer is essentially underwriting the premium service. A deduction of the base cost of the fare would be more in the spirit of Government’s desire to incentivize commerce which would then eliminate the taxpayers role in subsidizing luxury travel.

U.S. companies pay one of the highest tax rates in the world – 35%. They pay this rate on revenue earned anywhere. So a U.S. company that earns money in France has to pay whatever tax it owes to the French Government but in addition must pay 35% to the U.S. on those monies as well. A Corporate Inversion is the process where businesses relocate their main offices outside of the United States. These companies still pay 35% tax on all income earned in the U.S. – they just don’t pay a tax on money earned in another country. President Obama has called this “un-American” and shames the businesses for “not paying their fair share.” Taxing money earned outside of the country isn’t fair. No wonder businesses take full advantage of all of the legal options to reduce their tax obligation.

Theoretically taxes are levied against revenue earned in a jurisdiction to offset the costs of services provided by government for that jurisdiction. Local sales tax, then, helps pay for local police to keep the community safe. Federal taxes help pay military costs, etc. Charging a levy against money earned outside that jurisdiction makes it hard to justify the applicability. Why would Boston need to charge a tax on money earned by its residents in New York? It doesn’t. In corporate taxes, though, the U.S. charges 35% to Burger King on money it earns everywhere in the world.

The U.S. tax code is currently 73,954 pages. The code is full of incentives for individuals and business to behave and conform in a manner that Government wants. (Home ownership only became a standard when the Government tax code made it financially beneficial for the majority by having the cost of mortgage interest reduce their tax liability.) One of the consequences is that some companies then don’t pay any tax, and the overall percentage of taxes paid by business have declined. The problem lies in the tax code – not in those who take advantage of what the code allows.

The desire for the State to manage every element of its citizens behavior has resulted in the world’s greatest Democracy to move further towards Imperialism. It applies both to the people who fly in Business and First Class which is subsidized by taxpayers through a tax deduction and to politicians who have created a system that penalize companies for earning money outside the borders. It’s time to do away with the monarchy…again.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mad as Hell

I am a little bit spoiled. I have expectations that things will work a certain way – and when they don’t, I have less patience than I wish I did. This is especially true with technology. I’m of an age where I know the complexities it takes to make things happen, but am so accustomed to having it that I have little patience when there’s an interruption in the Cable TV, the high-speed wifi Internet, etc. I have to remind myself of the progress in my own lifetime – the computer on Apollo 11 that took the first men to the Moon is less powerful than what I carry around in my shirt pocket every day.  Frustrated as I may get when tech doesn’t work as I think it should, nothing compares to the angst that the American political system can generate.

I don’t think of myself as one of those Angry Tea Baggers fuming against the government. The Government has a role to play in our lives. The Founders pretty clearly laid out in the Constitution how intrusive it should be. Over the history of the U.S. there’s been an ongoing debate about the tension between those who see a more activist role for the State and those who prefer less of one. That’s a good thing, and something to celebrate. Whatever size and role you think the Government should play in all of our lives - the one thing we should all be able to agree on is that it should be done properly. There should be no room for incompetence. That's not the case and I'm Mad as Hell about it!

Let’s look at some of the top issues facing Americans today. Regardless of your political persuasion – whether you think that what the government is doing is good or bad – we can all be mad about how it’s being done.
  •  The U.S. Government spends $1.20 for every $1 it brings in. Total debt is nearly $18 trillion with each person owing about $55,000.  
  •  The military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, with over 160,000 of its active-duty personnel serving outside the U.S. and an additional 110,000 deployed in various contingency operations. 
  •  The President of the United States, a former Constitutional Law Professor, maintains a kill list and decides whom to eliminate without the benefit of a trial, evidence or a defense.
  •  Congress worked 107 days in 2012 and 113 in 2013. 
  •  The largest agencies of the Federal Government – including the IRS itself - can’t be audited because their books and records are in such bad shape. It's been this way for decades now.
  •  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave the “least untruthful” answer to Congress about gathering data on millions of Americans. That was after he initially said he didn’t lie. Most recently he claims it was a “mistake.”
  •  The Secret Service not only allowed breaches of security and its own policies, it didn’t disclose them until under oath. 
  • The Veterans Administration and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act show that despite best intentions, government's management of health care has a long way to go. 
  •  The head of the Centers for Disease Control and the Administration have minimized the outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. as a paranoid fantasy. Meanwhile cases are popping up and people are dying in the U.S. The Director of the NIH said this week that the Republicans have caused the problem because of “budget cuts” making a medical catastrophe-in-the-making political.

There’s plenty to be frustrated about. Is the Government – whether Legislative or Executive – lying to the public on purpose? Or are they just incompetent? Probably a little of both.

Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie “Network” is largely famous for its character Howard Beale who persuades viewers to shout out of their windows "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" It's time to start yelling once again.

The time has long passed for Americans to hold its leaders accountable for the inept handling of its affairs.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Multiplying Dead

Zombies are in. Or so I’m told. They’re not just for Halloween anymore either. Hollywood has perpetrated a fascination with the dead and un-dead with TV shows like The Walking Dead, Supernatural and Game of Thrones. There are plenty of movies too. It’s a genre that isn’t a favorite of mine, though I will admit to enjoying TNT’s The Last Ship this summer which was less about zombies and more about a disease killing people mysteriously with one ship of people left to save the world. The Michael Bay series set a dark scenario where an unknown illness killed people indiscriminately. Almost on a parallel timeline news from Africa emerged about the current Ebola outbreak. It seems that fiction is stranger than truth.

Thousands of people in West Africa have died from Ebola. Sierra Leone had 121 deaths in one day. The disease is no longer confined cases and deaths are now reported in several countries, including the United States.

In August (2014) an American missionary was airlifted to a hospital in Texas. Local television news, the Internet, and the community went into full scale panic. The supervisor for the Texas hospital “repeatedly downplayed the risk” as a way to calm the community, according to CNN.  He died this week.

Fox News may be stoking paranoia on its airwaves, but its website has bypassed the hyperbole to provide the facts:
Ebola doesn't spread easily like the flu, a cold or measles. The virus isn't airborne. Instead, it's in a sick person's bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit, urine, semen or saliva. Another person can catch the disease by getting those germs into his own body, perhaps by wiping his eyes or through a cut in the skin.
Bodily fluids aren't contagious until the infected person begins to feel sick. The initial symptoms are easily confused with other illnesses, however: fever, headaches, flu-like body aches and abdominal pain. Vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes bleeding follow as the disease progresses, increasing the risk to others.
In West Africa, the disease has spread quickly to family members who tended the sick or handled their bodies after death, and infected doctors and nurses working under punishing conditions, without proper equipment. Bed sheets or clothing contaminated by bodily fluids also spread the disease.

Americans are still wound up and worried. Is this because of the disconnect between breathless television coverage and facts? Or are people just stupid? People are reacting emotionally and skeptically. In late July and early August this year the U.S. Government sought to downplay the African outbreak by categorically stating that there was no way a case could get into the U.S. Less than a month later there are multiple cases in the news (the CDC has investigated hundreds of cases that hospitals have reported). The President sent 3,000 troops to the region, committed $750 million to the cause and is making speeches about how the world must step-up and play its part in this outbreak.

Officials can’t have it both ways. They can’t try to pacify the public with statements that there is little to no risk and then launch a war (with ‘boots on the ground’ no less). Then weeks later patients start dying – when medical and political officials said that was unlikely to happen in the U.S. because of its advanced medical facilities. No wonder the public’s ability to trust and believe its elected officials is at epidemic lows.

Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men famously said “You can’t handle the truth.” With Ebola, that seems quite a fitting description of where American’s are feeling. Without knowing the real impact of this disease, however, the dead are multiplying and the panic is reasonable. Alien as it may be for this Administration, better to say “We don’t know yet” rather than more obfuscation and in short order reveals itself as uninformed or lies.