Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Evil Fuckers

I wrote about tobacco companies and their efforts to keep their products on the market after they tried unsuccessfully to cast doubt on the science showing the disastrous effects of smoking on health. Tobacco companies, led by Phillip Morris International (PMI) are fighting to keep their deadly product in the limelight around the globe, where even small, relatively backwards countries have recognized the evils of smoking and tried to discourage the addictive and deadly habit. PMI has even pressed the U.S. Government for language that would make it tougher for countries in a proposed Pacific Rim trade pact to require plain packaging or other limits on company logos. Australia’s packaging law is being challenged at the World Trade Organization, and U.S. senators from tobacco-growing states, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently warned the European Union that smoking controls it’s considering could endanger a U.S. trade deal.Listen to John Oliver's amusing, but nevertheless, distressing take on this.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Money in American Politics: Its Effect on How We View One Another

In his commencement address at Syracuse University on May 13, 2012, Aaron Sorkin said.

"Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You're too good for schadenfreude, you're too good for gossip and snark, you're too good for intolerance—and since you're walking into the middle of a presidential election, it's worth mentioning that you're too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy."

Unfortunately, the direction of American political dialogue in the age of the Internet is towards more schadenfreude, gossip, snark, and intolerance, not less. The question is, "why?"

Much has written about the corrupting effect of money on democracy in America. Less is written about how all this money effects the way we Americans view one another. Foreigners seem to come away from a visit to America with the view that Americans are a friendly bunch, quick to say thank you, hold the door open, and prone to say, "Have a nice day," to just about anyone. But how friendly are we to one another? And has that changed?
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dramatically increased spending on campaigns and spawned a new wave of political organizations funded by wealthy individuals. Then, in 2014, SCOTUS struck down the limit on the total amount of money wealthy donors could contribute to candidates and political committees. The result of these decisions should be no surprise. According to the Brookings Institute, “When candidate and independent spending are combined, 2014 ranks among the most expensive, if not the most expensive, in history.” And recently the Koch Brothers announced that they plan to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 election. A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money!

Because of all this money flowing into the coffers of congressmen, and candidates, there is a growing sense among everyday Americans that their government does not truly represent their needs, values, nor aspirations, but rather the special interests of those who contribute the most money. Naturally, views differ on whether the result is a government that interferes too readily in the affairs of the public -- is too intrusive, too protective, too burdensome -- or a government that is too permissive of corporate practices that harm people and the environment.
The political parties and their supporters exploit this dichotomy of views in an attempt to wring more money out of contributors like you and I; everyday Americans, who can't compete with the Koch Brothers and their ilk, but feel we have a dog in the fight.

Using TV ads, direct mail, email, social media, and townhall meetings and the like, we are bombarded with the stock and trade of campaign fund raising memes: anger and fear. We are told by the Right that the president is a socialist hell bent on "redistributing wealth" and turning America into a communist state. The Left rails against Republican efforts to turn back the clock on civil liberties, the social safety net, and women's reproductive rights. The campaigns orchestrate outrage over this or that congressman's hypocrisy when their infidelity or insobriety surfaces. If real failings fail to be real enough, elaboration is used, with just enough ambiguity to make allegations juicy without being libelous.

To make matters worse, campaigns and their associated PACs and Super PACs have been collecting massive amounts of data on voters and crafting their messages to push the hot buttons of the demographic most likely to be convinced and to contribute. Workers in the oil and gas industry are told that Al Gore has a huge house, drives an SUV, and flies in his private jet to speaking engagements where he laments global warming. Women collecting food stamps are told that the congressman who demanded they be drug tested was arraigned for possessing cocaine. PETA members see "Sponsored Ads" show up on their Facebook page showing pigs confined to cages, with a link to an article on a Republican-sponsored bill to remove "burdensome regulations" on the treatment of livestock, while ranchers get push notifications about Democratic sponsored legislation that would require eggs be from free range chickens. It's all carefully choreographed to raise your ire and their coffers.
 Campaigns spend a good chunk of the money they collect from donors on "Big Data" and the algorithms that turn it into big propaganda. Frank Pasquale, in his recently published book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, has written that,

"Every day, corporations are connecting the dots about our personal behavior—silently scrutinizing clues left behind by our work habits and Internet use. The data compiled and portraits created are incredibly detailed, to the point of being invasive."

But more than invading our privacy, an invasion made easier by how wide we fling open the pages of our digital books, these corporations, PACs, Super PACs, campaigns, and candidates are invading our psyche. By telling us that our political opposites are bent on wresting from us no less than our, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," they are setting us one against the other as not just as political adversaries, but as sworn enemies.
Among the more strident agitators, the National Rifle Association stands out as the best organized, most effective in their narrow issue area -- gun rights -- and most divisive, with their inflammatory rhetoric and wide-ranging attacks on "jack-booted government thugs," and "anti-gun, left-wing activists." As much as anything, the NRA has promoted a 'fear thy neighbor' mentality, and a shoot first, "stand your ground" ethos. But they aren't alone, polemicists on both sides of aisle use hyperbole like a magic wand, turning Americans against each other for the simple purpose of extracting contributions for campaigns. And it never ends.

The enormous amounts of money flowing into the political coffers of campaigns, candidates, PACs, and Super PACs generates a whirlwind that swoops down on Americans, wrests ever more money from them to 'offset the other sides money,' and leaves them twisted against each other.

Mao Zedong (it may have been Sun Yat-sen originally) is credited with saying, "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed."One wonders how long the distinction will hold.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Extreme Risk Protection Order

A university psychiatrist was so worried about James Holmes' behavior that in early June she began the process of getting the school's "threat assessment" team involved in his case. Holmes, charged with killing 12 people and wounding 58 others at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater on July 20, threatened a university psychiatrist about six weeks before the massacre and was barred from campus as a result.

Elliot Rodger’s parents battled in court over what sort of treatment their son should receive. Antipsychotic medication? More psychiatric treatment? In May 2014, Rodger used firearms as part of a mass killing near the University of California Santa Barbara campus.

In December 2014, Marcus Dee shot Nadia Ezaldein to death in a Nordstrom store then put the gun to his head and killed himself. Seven months earlier, a petition for a protection order against Dee stated that he physically abused Ezaldein; cracked her ribs, fractured her jaw, slashed her clothing, and shoved a gun in her mouth.

Virtually without exception, individuals who act out with a gun, either against others or themselves, exhibit signs that alert family or community members to the potential for violence. Under a new law introduced in the Washington State legislature, family members and law enforcement would be able to petition a court to temporarily suspend someone’s access to firearms based on documented, sworn evidence that they pose a threat to themselves or others.

Contact Sen Sharon Brown and Rep Dan Newhouse and ask that they support the “Extreme Risk Protection Order” legislation.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Senator Elizabeth Warren on Dodd-Frank Provision Recently Repealed by Congress

Hear Sen. Warren explain why repealing this provision of the Dodd-Frank Rule is a terrible idea. Republicans threatened to shut down government, if they didn't get their way on this. They won. We lost.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

When it comes to torture, consider the source

by Mark Shields,
December 2014
On election night in 1986, when John McCain won the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona long held by Republican incumbent and 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who had served as McCain's campaign chairman, the two men had a private chat. Goldwater, McCain recalled, got "a little nostalgic" and said: "You know, John, if I had beaten Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and been elected president, you would not have spent all those years in that North Vietnamese prison camp." McCain, mindful of Goldwater's hawkish positions, answered: "You're right, Barry. If you had been elected president in 1964, I wouldn't have spent all those years in a prison camp in Hanoi. I would have spent them in a prison camp in China."

It was in the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary when McCain's campaign taught this occasionally cynical observer what an American political campaign at its best might be. Vastly outspent by the money machine of the prohibitive Republican favorite, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, underdog McCain responded by holding 114 town hall meetings in the Granite State, in which he would stand alone and answer, with rare candor and humor, voters' questions. For example, asked when the Senate might pass a so-called "patient's bill of rights" bill, McCain bluntly explained: "We won't. Not as long as the insurance companies control my party and the trial lawyers control the Democratic Party. Next question." It worked. While advocating campaign finance reform, McCain, in a major upset, defeated Bush in New Hampshire by 18 percent.

But what impressed me most about that New Hampshire campaign was the willingness of the men who, as prisoners of war, had for years endured with McCain unspeakable brutality at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors to work in his behalf.

McCain's Hanoi cellmate — when the Arizonan wasn't in solitary — Medal of Honor recipient and Air Force pilot Bud Day, Marine aviator Orson Swindle, who was held prisoner for six years, and Navy aviator Everett Alvarez, the longest-held U.S. prisoner of the Vietnam War, were willing to come to New Hampshire, knock on doors and testify to voters about the courage and character of their comrade John McCain.

At the same time U.S. Navy pilot McCain was being abused in Hanoi, back in Wyoming young Dick Cheney was petitioning for another of his five deferments to avoid the draft call to serve, which the law then required all able-bodied men to do, in the U.S. military and, possibly, to face combat. Thirty years later, Cheney would publicly explain his conduct: "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service." It's probably a good bet McCain in that same decade had "other priorities" than being starved, being beaten, having his teeth and bones broken, and being offered food contaminated with human feces.
Cheney, who went on to become one of the nation's toughest-talking draft-evading armchair warriors, has called the Senate Intelligence Committee's report of the CIA's disregard of the rule of law and its endorsement of torture as a legitimate policy option "full of crap."

The United States of America John McCain knows, loves and has served so generously does not chain half-naked prisoners to the floor and then let them freeze to death. To rationalize or excuse the torture documented in the report is, McCain rightly charges, "an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners." The ex-POW and American hero provides true moral clarity: "This question isn't about our enemies. It's about us. It's about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be."

Cheney or McCain? Consider the source. I'll take the fellow who holds us to a higher standard, thank you.

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Exceptions Proposed for Washington's Background Check Law (I-594)

I have followed with interest the expressions of angst, confusion, frustration, and yes, even rage, from gun enthusiasts over the background check legislation (I-594) passed by an overwhelming percentage of Washington voters during the 2014 midterm elections. In the hopes of preventing someone from getting shot over the contentious debate, I am offering a proposed rewrite of the section of the law addressing exceptions, to wit:

(A) This measure extends criminal and public safety background checks to all gun sales or transfers except [add the following exceptions to the 20 or more exceptions already covered by I-594]:
  1. If a gun owner has a gun in his glove compartment and his passenger takes the gun out just to look at it and returns the gun to the glove compartment at some point. Ditto for guns kept in the trunk of the car.
  2. If a bunch a guys want to go out and shoot up the desert and only one of them has a gun and the gun owner loans it to each of his buddies in turn, then they don’t need background checks, because that’s a lot of background checks and anyway, they’re his buddies.
  3. If a woman loans her gun to her boyfriend so he can get used to handling it in case he needs to protect her (as long as he promises not to shoot her).
  4. If a gun owner leaves their loaded gun on the kitchen counter and a juvenile takes it and accidentally shoots another juvenile with it, the first juvenile does not require a background check. The second juvenile requires emergency surgery, and the original gun owner requires a good talking to.
  5. A gun owner with multiple guns doesn't own a gun safe so he asks his good buddy to store them in his safe, while the gun owner goes on vacation. The good buddy doesn't require a background check unless he goes on a ‘shooting vacation’ with the guns, and then he needs an ex post facto background check.
  6. A police officer wants a cooler sidearm than what his department issues so he buys a personal sidearm as a backup. He doesn't require a background check because after all, he's a cop and the new sidearm is really cool.
  7. If a gun owner has already acquired a ton of guns without undergoing a background check; why should he have to do so just to buy a few more?
  8. If a gun collector has a wide variety of guns that may or may not be antiques, then he shouldn’t have to undergo a background check just in case.
  9. If a gun seller and buyer have to take a ferry to get to a licensed dealer, then they can forego the background check, because hey, that’s a lot of trouble.
    Cliven Bundy with a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his shirt pocket

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Charitable Giving: Tis the Season to be Generous & Wise

From Charity Navigator

Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors

  1. Be Proactive In Your Giving
    Smart givers generally don't give reactively in a knee-jerk fashion. They don't respond to the first organization that appeals for help. They take the time to identify which causes are most important to their families and they are specific about the change they want to affect. For example, they don't just support generic cancer charities, but instead have targeted goals for their giving, such as providing mammograms to at-risk women in their community.
  2. Hang Up The Phone / Eliminate The Middleman
    Informed donors recognize that for-profit fundraisers, those often used in charitable telemarketing campaigns, keep a large portion (in some cases all) of each dollar they collect (read our report about  telemarketing for more specifics on the costs affiliated with this form of fundraising). Wise donors never give out their personal information – like credit card accounts, social security numbers – over the phone. If they like what they hear in the pitch, they'll hang up, investigate the charity on-line and send their contribution directly to the charity, thereby cutting out the middleman and ensuring 100% of their donation reaches the charity. Taking it a step further, donors may want to reconsider supporting a charity that uses an inefficient telemarketing approach and instead identify a charity that does not use telemarketing to raise funds.
  3. Be Careful Of Sound-Alike Names
    Uninformed donors are easily confused by charities that have strikingly similar names to others. How many of us could tell the difference between an appeal from the Children's Charity Fund and the Children's Defense Fund? Their names sound the same, but their performances are vastly different. Would you be surprised to learn that the Children's Charity Fund is a 0-star charity while the Children's Defense Fund is a 3-star charity? Informed donors take the time to uncover the difference.
  4. Confirm 501(c) (3) Status
    Wise donors don't drop money into canisters at the checkout counter or hand over cash to solicitors outside the supermarket. Situations like these are irresistible to scam artists who wish to take advantage of your goodwill. Smart givers only support groups granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All of the charities evaluated by Charity Navigator meet this basic requirement.
  5. Check The Charity's Commitment To Accountability & Transparency
    In 2011, Charity Navigator added an Accountability & Transparency dimension to its rating system. It tracks metrics such as whether the charity used an objective process to determine their CEO’s salary, whether it has an effective governance structure, and whether it has a whistleblower policy. This data is critical because charities that follow good governance and transparency practices are less likely to engage in unethical or irresponsible activities. So, the risk that such charities would misuse donations is lower than for charities that don't adopt such practices.
  6. Obtain Copies Of Its Financial Records
    Savvy donors know that the financial health of a charity is a strong indicator of the charity's programmatic performance. They know that in most cause areas, the most efficient charities spend 75% or more of their budget on their programs and services and less than 25% on fundraising and administrative fees. However, they also understand that mid-to-large sized charities do require a strong infrastructure therefore a claim of zero fundraising and/or administrative fees is unlikely at best. They understand that a charity's ability to sustain its programs over time is just as important as its short-term day-to-day spending practices. Therefore, savvy donors also seek out charities that are able to grow their revenue at least at the rate of inflation, that continue to invest in their programs and that have some money saved for a rainy day. All of this analysis is provided on Charity Navigator's website for free, but when considering groups not found here, savvy donors ask the charity for copies of its three most recent Forms 990. Not only can the donor examine the charity's finances, but the charity's willingness to send the documents is a good way to assess its commitment to transparency.
  7. Review Executive Compensation
    Sophisticated donors realize that charities need to pay their top leaders a competitive salary in order to attract and retain the kind of talent needed to run a multi-million dollar organization and produce results. But they also don't just take the CEO's compensation at face value; they benchmark it against similar-sized organizations engaged in similar work and located in the same region of the country. To help you make your own decision, Charity Navigator's analysis reveals that the average CEO's compensation of the charities we evaluate is almost $150,000. In general, salaries tend to be higher in the northeast and at arts and education charities. Sophisticated donors also put the CEO's salary into context by examining the overall performance of the organization. They know it is better to contribute to a charity with a well-paid CEO that is meeting its goals than to support a charity with an underpaid CEO that fails to deliver on its promises. (Check out our CEO Compensation Study for more benchmarking data.)
  8. Start A Dialogue To Investigate Its Programmatic Results
    Although it takes some effort on their part to assess a charity's programmatic impact, donors who are committed to advancing real change believe that it is worth their time. Before they make a contribution, they talk with the charity to learn about its accomplishments, goals and challenges. These donors are prepared to walk away from any charity that is unable or unwilling to participate in this type of conversation.
  9. Concentrate Your Giving
    When it comes to financial investments, diversification is the key to reducing risk. The opposite is true for philanthropic investments. If you've really taken the time to identify a well-run charity that is engaged in a cause that you are passionate about, you should then feel confident in giving it a donation. Spreading your money among multiple organizations not only results in your mail box filling up with more appeals, it also diminishes the possibility of any of those groups bringing about substantive change as each charity is wasting part of your gift on processing expenses for that gift.
  10. Share Your Intentions And Make A Long-Term Commitment
    Smart donors support their favorite charities for the long haul. They see themselves as a partner in the charity's efforts to bring about change. They know that only with long-term, committed supporters can a charity be successful. And they don't hesitate to tell the charity of their giving plans so that the organization knows it can rely on the donor and the charity doesn't have to waste resources and harass the donor by sending numerous solicitations.