Ferguson, The “What If” Questions, and What Happens Next

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

I’ve been painting the house of late, and have had little spare time to blog. This is my first attempt to get my thoughts down in writing for several months. But, with Ferguson MO in an uproar around the Michael Brown shooting, it seemed like a good time to get back in.

First, the obvious – this is bad. An unarmed kid was shot dead by a police officer. That’s just not a good situation. Forget for a moment the riots, property destruction, police crowd control tactics and tear-gassing of protesters and journalists (and the intentional dismantling of journalist equipment). Eighteen year-old Michael Brown’s life has ended. That’s horrific.

Something of the sadness of this has been lost in the back & forth about what actually happened that day.

Then there is the “what happened” question. Were Brown and Dorian Johnson running away from officer Darren Wilson or was Brown charging Wilson? I don’t know, and accounts differ. Did Wilson confront Brown and Johnson for walking in the middle of the street, and then return after hearing an APB regarding the convenience store robbery, or did he get confrontational because he felt disrespected by the teens? I don’t know, and accounts differ. Was Wilson so amped up after the initial confrontation that he fired his weapon without cause? I don’t know.

In some regards we’ll never know the thoughts and intents of the heart. The police department as well as the Department of Justice will do an investigation. Without knowing the information they’ve already collected, I have to say that the eventual results seem to be trending in a clear way. To date, the physical evidence (as I understand it) is consistent with officer Wilson’s account. This doesn’t mean he’s telling the whole truth, it simply means that the physical evidence doesn’t contradict his story. Such a contradiction would be quite useful in a legal proceeding. (The same was true in the George Zimmerman trial – whether Zimmerman was lying or telling the truth, neither the evidence nor the witnesses could contradict him; which is why there were no charges initially.) I expect no charges from the local municipality or from the state.

The DoJ investigation is another issue altogether. Back in the Zimmerman trial, folks were fairly certain that violation-of-civil-rights charges would come from the  DoJ, but it never happened. Perhaps they couldn’t build the case, who knows? In this case my understanding is that the Federal government has 90 days from charges to trial, by law, so one shouldn’t expect charges soon as it starts the clock.

As a mental exercise, without knowing the actual events, it is useful to consider the “what if” – what if either side is telling the truth. If Dorian Johnson is correct in his description of officer Wilson’s behavior and engagement of Brown, well, it is appalling and nobody should feel safe in Ferguson. If Darren Wilson is correct in his description of  the events, the confrontation, being punched, Brown grabbing for his gun, Brown turning and charging him – then one has to suspect that he acted reasonably in opening fire. I point this out because so many people on the TV these days claim to “know” exactly what happened, even though they know exactly as much as I do, which is not much.

So what happens next? Without any evidence to support my claims, I will add that I think the “no charges” result is already baked in. The National Guard has been deployed well ahead of time to be on station in case of riots. And, I suspect there will be riots. (Of course, I suspected the same thing after the Zimmerman verdict, and was proven wrong.)

It’s also fairly clear that the Ferguson PD has lost the ability to “serve and protect” in the community. There is zero trust. That will take a major overhaul of the department and I suspect a long period of state and county jurisdiction over the policing functions.

Tomorrow we’ll try to take up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s oped on the “coming race war [which isn’t about race]“. He makes some interesting points. For now though, we’ll continue to watch events unfold and see what the night brings.

Be safe out there.

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Roberts Defends Religious Freedom … Just Not Regular Freedom

“If children do not understand the Constitution, they cannot understand how our government functions, or what their rights and responsibilities are as citizens of the United States” – Chief Justice John Roberts

When I was a kid I wondered what stopped a man, any man, from starting his own “religion” – and then demanding that he could do anything he wanted under the pretense of religious freedom. It sounds silly, I know, but I actually did think about these things when I was a kid.

It seems like a legitimate question though. If we have religious freedom, how does one go about deciding what does and doesn’t qualify as an actual religion? (I think I’ll start a cult of monetary freedom tomorrow and see how it goes.)

Earlier today the Supreme Court struck down the “contraception mandate” of Obamacare. The ruling stated that corporations (which are fundamentally aggregations of individuals, presumably with rights of their own) can hold religious objections to providing contraception in their insurance benefits package. The logic seems to be (i) people have religious freedom, (ii) a religious expression of conscience can lead one to be morally opposed to contraception and (iii) corporations are people too.

I don’t disagree with the ruling. In fact, I don’t think it goes far enough.

How is it that the Supreme Court can distinguish between religious freedom and plain, old, run-of-the-mill freedom? Is it that we only have freedom, no-kidding freedom, if we are scared that God will “get us” if we do something the law mandates? (One suspects this puts those poor atheists at a significant disadvantage. Having no fear of eternal retribution they can hardly claim “religious freedom” when protesting a government mandate like the one in Obamacare.)

I contend that the reasons are actually unimportant from the standpoint of the law. What business is it of our neighbors what our reasons are for behaving in this way or that?  Why should it matter that Hobby Lobby protests contraception on religious grounds? Why can they just not be free … like all the other “free” people here in the land of the free?

I will admit though, it is comforting to see the Supreme Court, and Justice Roberts in particular, struggle with the gray areas they have constructed over the years.

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Father’s Day 2014, Remembering that Ideas and Ideals Still Matter

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.” – Isaiah 44:3-4

Yesterday my eight-year-old had his first ever competitive swim meet. Swimming is apparently a big deal here in Maryland and I certainly want to encourage him to be a good swimmer (it can be a life-saving skill). The meet was a mad-house (though apparently well-organized underneath the chaos), and I set about getting him to the right places at the right times for his events.

His first event was the 25m free style, finishing 2nd in his heat. While there were four heats total and only four swimmers in his heat, he took it as a minor victory. He finished 2nd after all. Then came the 25m backstroke. Not so good. He finished sixth out of eight in his heat and came unglued. He had it in his head that he would win one of the races and be able to tell his entire Cub Scout troop about it later in the day at the picnic. Dreams dashed I tried calm him down by taking a walk away from the pool.

Somewhere along the way I decided that it would be a good idea to share the story of my high school basketball career. My father (my hero) had been a college basketball player at Shorter College in Rome, GA. While I was partial to the calm, lazy feel of golf in middle school, it seemed like basketball was the right route to take. Not that my father pushed me, he didn’t. It’s just that he was a basketball player, there were no fans (or, more importantly, cheerleaders) at the golf matches, and my lanky frame hardly seemed right for football.

So, when the 7th grade tryouts came about I went out and did my best … and got cut. I figured I needed to work harder. So, I practiced continually. Ball-handing drills, shooting, running, lifting weights. At the 8th grade tryouts I was much better … and got cut. No worries, I had this hard-work thing down, so I pressed on. Then the 9th grade tryouts (the JV squad!) … I got cut. I worked harder still until the 10th grade tryouts. I made the team! … and never played. So I worked even harder. Eleventh grade tryouts. I made the varsity team this time … and never played. Well, not “never” – when we were up 30 I’d be in the game.

Undaunted I pressed on, and poured everything into being a starter my senior year … and it happened. I started every game that year for the Newton-Conover High School Red Devils. We went 23-3 and were at one time ranked #1 in the state (though we did not win the state title). We won the Catawba Valley Classic, the Christmas tournament with all of the local schools. We tied for the regular season conference title and then won the conference tournament convincingly. Great days.

Was it time well spent? I think so. I mean, I could have been learning a computer language or studying investing books … or I could have been playing video games. In the end, I poured a ton of time into something that I really wanted – and got it.

(Side note: my father was always my biggest fan. He never missed a single game, ever. Even when I was a bench-warmer on the JV squad, he made every single game.)

The story didn’t really mollify my eight-year-old after his apparent “failure” in his first-ever swim meet. The concepts of “six years of hard work before glory” (and I use “glory” loosely) didn’t really appeal to him. Still, the time walking and talking did settle him down. We collected our things and headed home, then off to the picnic where burgers, chips, cake, kickball, and rocket launching made the day a hit.

A few days back I was having a conversation with a friend about politics, economics, world affairs, and the state of things in the United States. We discussed how the Right (at least Christians on the Right) has been co-opted by this need to enforce morality on their neighbors (ostensibly out of fear of reprisal from the Lord for allowing immorality to persist in the nation). We discussed how the Left (at least Christians on the Left) has become enthralled with the notion of setting every social ill right by forcibly taking the production of hard-working people and using it for themselves … and how they plan on sealing the deal by importing another 10-20 million votes from south of the border.

There was a palpable sense of despair. Is there hope that freedom could come back? Is there hope that this nation could throw off the “I’m on ‘team God’ and I’m here to make sure you live your life the right way” philosophy that is so pervasive, and actually let “free” people be free?

I really don’t know – but I certainly have hope. Hope that we’ll see a throwing-off of the current, broken system? Perhaps not anytime soon. But hope that years from now, perhaps for my kids or their kids, there will be freedom again.

And so we press on, hoping that in some small way continuing to press the message of freedom will make a difference. It is Father’s Day after all – and we all want a better world for our children.

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Down Goes Cantor!

Just a quick note today. I’m sure most will have seen the headline today that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (2nd in leadership behind John Boehner) has LOST his primary to a Tea Party challenger.

While I have noted in the past that the Tea Party may have lost its freedom-loving way, falling in with any number of Christian dominionist groups, at least there is still a push by libertarian-minded conservatives to oust Republican insiders. If only there were such a movement by freedom-minded liberals …

Until then, let us at least rejoice that the civil war within the Republican party continues, and the big-government, big-brother insiders are still taking it on the chin.

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Optimally Compact (Non-Gerrymandered) Congressional Districts

“Republicans have been accused of abandoning the poor. It’s the other way around. They never vote for us.” – Dan Quayle

A good friend BLW passed along an article on a computer program that draws optimally compact congressional districts. The main point is this: it is not all that difficult to gin up a computer algorithm that draws optimally compact (and non-gerrymandered) districts. Perhaps we should demand that all congressional districts be drawn this way … but that seems like a big leap.

The dreaded gerrymander has become a rather ubiquitous tool used to sway Congressional control. Every 10 years there’s a new census. The outcome of that census determines the distribution of congressional seats. If a state gains or loses seats it must redraw its districts (to account for the change in total seats). That redistricting process is largely at the discretion of the state legislature, and gerrymandering is an amazingly effective tool at rigging seat distributions. Thus, whoever wins the biggest in local elections on years ending in zero can expect a boost.

So it was in 2010, when the national backlash against president Obama was in full force and Republicans cleaned up in local and state elections. After the census results were in, a number of states (now with Republican dominated legislatures) had to redistrict. Boy did they. This Mother Jones article and this NYT Article from 2012 rail against the injustices of Republican-dominated gerrymandering, noting that Democrats actually won the popular congressional vote, but still had a 33 seat deficit in the new House. (To be fair, the articles also noted that Democrat-run states do exactly the same thing … state’s like Maryland, my home state.)

The problem with mandating optimally compact districts is the same as self-enforced term limits or “popular vote winner take all” stipulations for the electoral college: nobody can do it unless everybody does, and not everybody will.

For those who don’t recall, there was a big kerfuffle after the 2000 election, where Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the electoral college. At the time, a number of left-leaning states sought to amend their constitutions to mandate that their state’s votes always went to the popular vote winner. The problem is that this only makes sense if everybody does it. But what happens if a Republican wins the popular vote but a Democrat wins the electoral college? Any idea how quickly the legislatures would overturn the amendment to prevent the Republican from winning?

Same for self-enforced term limits. If one side puts term limits on themselves and the other doesn’t, it puts them at a meaningful disadvantage. (Fundraising, power of incumbency, understanding the inner workings of the congress.)

Unless there is a constitutional amendment mandating that all states adopt an optimally compact framework (or that all congressmen and senators have term limits) you can forget about it ever coming to pass.

There’s also another mild problem, as the article notes: the Voting Rights Act. The act actually mandates majority-minority districts in some cases. This helps to make sure that minorities get elected to congress, but it also helps to make sure that “the other party” has a general seat advantage. Gerrymandering a district of 95% African Americans (who vote 93% Democrat) is a great way for Republicans to maintain a majority. This pits two Democrat priorities against one another.

Now, I haven’t done any research, but my guess is that the vast majority of Americans would prefer non-gerrymandered districts, just as the vast majority would likely prefer term limits for Congress. It is curious how something that almost everybody supports just doesn’t come to pass. Perhaps we lack the willingness to vote the bums out (even “our” bums) when they don’t do what we want.


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Where Does the Money Go in New Orleans and Delaware?

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please” – Mark Twain

Does anybody remember hurricane Katrina, the massive storm that destroyed much of Mississippi’s gulf coast … oh, and also flooded New Orleans? (Don’t kid yourself – Mississippi took the brunt of the storm, but it’s coastal cities were not below sea level.) In the aftermath charges flew that Republicans had left New Orleans defenseless.  Alas, it came out afterwards that plenty of money had been sent by the Republican congress to strengthen the levees, but local politicians and bureaucrats diverted the funds to projects with better political payouts.

Why bring Katrina up now? I just came across an article over at yahoo titled “Crucial East Coast Highway Bridge Closed.” The bridge in question is on I-495 in Wilmington Delaware. Now, I have a question for the reader: have you ever traveled up I-95 from Maryland through Delaware on to New Jersey? The Delaware tolls are usurious. In a 15 mile stretch you’ll pay something like $11 (that’s round trip, if I recall). Where does all that money go?

One would presume that the money goes to maintaining the roadways … apparently not though. Apparently bridges can have support structures start “leaning” without any prior maintenance or warning from the presumably well-heeled state highway commission. Wonder just how big of a traffic headache this will be – and whether any Delawareans will start asking where all that toll money went?

Now, I grant you that preventative maintenance can’t catch any and every issue. Still, there is a rather interesting story somewhere in here when the most egregious toll-taking state has roadways that start to crumble.

It’s always the same story. “We need this new revenue stream to fund this important thing.” But the money never really goes to where it’s supposed to. Lotteries are always built on the basis of “education funding” – but they don’t seem to increase education funding at all. Sure, the lottery money all goes to education, but the general revenue money that had gone to education gets diverted to other, more politically-connected projects and programs. (Don’t take that as opposition to lotteries or support for more education funding. Those are arguments for a different post. What I care about here is simply truth in advertising from those lying politicians.)

And so the game goes on. Here’s hoping some over-eager investigative journalist picks up the story and runs with it.

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Jelani Cobb’s Odd Prediction and Rose Colored Glasses

“We must reinforce argument with results” – Booker T. Washington

I read an article earlier today by one Jelani Cobb titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations.” As you can guess from the title, the article discusses the notion of reparations for slavery, specifically enslavement of Africans by white Americans in the early years of the country. Now, I have a number of thoughts about the reparations discussion (particularly after reading parts of Ta Nehisis Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” linked in the previous article) – but this post is not about reparations.

Instead, this post is about what can only be seen as a prediction by Cobb regarding the economic outcomes of the next 2.5 years:

We are discussing reparations at this moment because in two years Barack Obama will leave the White House, having repaired the economic collapse that greeted his inauguration, but with African-Americans still unemployed at a rate twice that of whites, and struggling to see how this world differs from the status quo ante.

That, my friends, is a prediction. Cobb is predicting that in a little over two years, when Barack Obama leaves the White House (a proposition certainly disputed by the tinfoil hatters, who expect him to set up martial law) that the economic collapse that greeted his inauguration will have been “repaired”.

Well, I suppose it’s possible. I suppose that the unrecovery of the past 5 years, that has seen a drop in unemployment rate attributable solely to people leaving the workforce and/or taking part time menial labor jobs will hold up for another 2.5 years and provide Obama “cover” to leave town as an economic success. I suppose the unrecovery that has been prodded along due to untold printing by the Federal Reserve, the consequences of which are so far outside of the normal operating space of monetary policy that we don’t even know how to measure their extent, will limp along for another 2.5 years (and perhaps another $2,000,000,000,000 or so in printed vapor) and leave Obama with an out. I suppose it’s possible.

Don’t misunderstand. This is not a defense of Bush-era economic policies. My question is simply back to Cobb and other traditional Obama supporters and acolytes: what if it all unwinds before then? What if the bubble in the bond market and bubble in the stock market don’t hold together, and we see another major “correction” in both, resulting in a collapse of baby-boomer retirement plans, collapse of home prices (again), and collapse of consumer confidence that effects a generation. What if the veil is lifted and we find out that nothing has actually been fixed, but troubles were papered over long enough for the wealthy elites to get their stolen goods together and make for the exits? What if? Will that be enough to say that Obama’s policies are not good? Will that be enough to say that Obama’s policies are no better than Bush’s? Will that be enough to abandon their defense? (Not defense of Obama in general, but just defense of his economic record.)

(Sidebar: Bush’s “problem” wasn’t bad economic policy. Sure, his policies were bad, but that was a given – he didn’t introduce massive structural reforms to unrig the game, so his policies were naturally going to be bad. The problem he faced was that he left office too late. Had he left a year sooner he could have pinned the collapse on someone after him … like Clinton did. I suspect Obama faces the same challenge. He won’t be out of office before the next unravel.)

And what about that unemployment rate, Dr. Cobb?  Why is it that unemployment amongst African Americans is twice that amongst whites (no better than it was when Obama took office … and had 2 years of filibuster proof majorities in both houses of congress).

OK. I’m rambling. You get the picture. It is presumptuous to think that the next 2.5 years will be on economic cruise control and that we will have “fixed” the misallocation of capital from the last bubble. Will it be Obama’s fault if things sour from here? No more or less than the “Great Recession” was Bush’s fault. The president has certain authority, certain ability to make changes to the system. If he chooses to take on the entrenched interests, then he can likely make a better place for you and me (yes, that’s a Michael Jackson lyric). If he stays true to his Wall Street benefactors (and all indications are that Obama has done just that), well, you can guess how it will end for the rest of us.

More on reparations as time allows.

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