The Midas Touch – Late Capitalism

One day, some of King Midas’ men brought him a satyr they had captured in one of the king’s fields.  Midas recognized Silenus, the god Dionysus’ favorite satyr and ordered him set free.  Dionysus so appreciated Midas’ gesture that he offered to grant any wish the king might have.  Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold.

Dionysus frowned and asked Midas if he was sure that that was what he wanted.  Midas agreed that it was and so the wish was granted.  Midas, wanting to verify that his wish had been granted, laid his hand upon a bowl of fruit.  The fruit turned to gold.  He touched on thing and another and became giddy at the proliferation of gold objects in the room.

He grabbed his daughter by the hand to show her what he had done and what he could do. He was horrified to see a gold statue where his daughter had been.  He soon came to realize why Dionysus had hesitated in the granting of this wish.  He hungered and thirsted and whatever he tried to consume, of course, became unswallowable gold.

In early 21st century America, a nation that has embraced “free trade” economics for decades and whose devotion to that mythology has increased greatly over the last 30 or more years, a phenomenon similar to the Midas Touch has come to pass.  We have become a nation loathe to tax the wealthy because we believe that the wealthy are the “job creators” and that investments in private enterprise are superior to taxation.  Moreover, we must allow free enterprise to do what the market wishes and not thwart businesses’ desires with regulations.  Doing so could interfere with the “job creation” processes and harm our economy.

It may seem like I’m attacking the rich.  I’m not really.  The rich (I mean the really rich — if you’re thinking of the people who live in big houses in the nicest neighborhood you know, that’s not who I’m talking about), have perspectives and interests that influence their desires and their ideas of good policy.  The problem isn’t per se that they have so much money, it’s that the money is tantamount to political power.  Although no gods are around, they have gained the power to turn anything they touch into gold.  Our political system has evolved into an oligarchic charade in which 95% of the people are marginalized and their wishes and desires ignored.  The 1% can donate huge (to us) sums of money to candidates who will effect their wishes as policy.  Those huge donations have no effect on their day to day lives, they exist solely as lines in a ledger book.

In 2002, New York City was in perilous economic straits.  It’s deficit for that fiscal year was estimated at about $5 billion.  Michael Bloomberg, the city’s mayor at the time and a very wealthy man, could have written a check to cover the deficit and still control a $30 billion fortune.  I’m not attacking Michael Bloomberg or saying that he should have written such a check.  Undoubtedly, said check would have been a temporary solution and the fiscal problems, with causes unaddressed, would have returned.  Rather think about this:  one man, had the resources to cover the debts of one of the largest cities in the world and still remain one of the richest men in the world.  It would have been a significant chunk of the wealth he had accumulated but he still would have been fantastically wealthy!

Marx predicted that, in late stage capitalism, capital would begin devouring its own institutions in order to sate its requirement for growth and profits when the economy slowed to the extent that it wasn’t generating sufficient new wealth.  We can see evidence of this in the various investment inventions and derivatives that, seemingly, produce no objective goods, but generate profits.  If our current economic management persists we will see more and more cannibalism like this.  Corporate profits are soaring, job and wage growth are stagnant or falling and the great majority of us have little disposable income.  Without the economic engine of a prosperous middle class, capital looks elsewhere for its sustenance.  And it’s unsustainable.

We can’t expect the rich to come quickly to Midas’ realization that his power was unexpectedly crippling and harmful — to himself as well as to those around him.  Midas’ story, being a moral parable, comes with unmistakable signs of what has gone wrong and Midas’ awareness is inevitable and quick.  And power is intoxicating — one only willingly cedes it if it is causing harm.  And remember, for the most part, the rich are acting, as we all do, in their own interests, without malice and without gluttonous greed.

Nick Hannauer has realized that there’s a problem.  He is worth about $1 billion – a fortune he made in the late 20th century dot com boom.  In a Ted Talk, he points out that he’s not a job creator, that none of the vastly wealthy people can be a job creator.  He knows that consumer spending drives the economy.  He notes that his wealth allows him to purchase pretty much anything he wants.  This is true of all of the wealthy.  But even if every wealthy person went out and purchased everything he or she wanted, it would still not be enough to drive the US economy.  Policies that squeeze the vast majority of the people economically, even though they further enrich the wealthy, eventually create a world in which the rich cannot eat or drink.  Of course, long before that happens, as Hannauer says, the rich will look out of their mansions and see huge crowds with torches and pitchforks.

In our current oligarchic situation, it will be difficult — perhaps impossible — to reverse the ridiculous level of wealth inequality (a term, it seems to me, designed to sound absurd, as though the goal was for everyone to have equal wealth).  But it has to happen.  And the rich won’t realize that their power, their wealth, is causing the problem even when they begin to notice that there is a problem.  Only government can ameliorate the situation and government will be powerless to do so until the wealthy lose their grip on the reins of power.

Midas appealed to Dionysus to reverse the power to turn everything he touched to gold. The god instructed him to wash his hands in the Pactolus River and the power would leave him.  Before the rich go looking for such a river, a great deal of harm will occur.

 

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Charity and Capitalism

Back when I used to answer the telephone and occasionally had to suffer calls exhorting me to purchase something or donate money to some cause, there was one call that prompted a bit of thought.  The caller was soliciting money to create a fund for the widows and families of fallen police officers and fire fighters.  Certainly, this seems like a good cause.  But, I wondered immediately:  is it?

Assuming that the situation was as dire as the person soliciting funds described — widows and families destitute and needing to sell their late bread earner’s medal to fend off starvation — it immediately occurred to me:  why is it this way?

In the abstract, I think we can all agree that public servants whose jobs put them in peril should have the benefit of sufficient life insurance or a special pension so that, should disaster occur, their survivors are not wanting for food or shelter.  In more practical, immediate terms, comes the question:  “How are you going to pay for that?”  In a culture where taxes are anathema, even essential services are run on tight budgets with analysts ever on the lookout for a way to cut costs.

Yet even those of us who’d grumble about increased taxes are likely to feel at least a little compulsion to contribute to a fund to protect the families of policemen and fire fighters if they die in the line of duty.  I felt that compulsion when I got that call.  I also wondered, contrarily, whether the existence of such a fund, sustained by contributions (and sapped to some extent by overhead), prevents the governments that employ police and firemen from doing the right thing and providing a benefit for the families of the fallen.

I was reminded of this as I read this article this morning.  It’s called “Against Charity” and its thesis is that making charitable contributions sustains the adverse effects of capitalism. Since capital insists on the commodification of everything — including necessities like water, food, shelter — the deprivation that occurs is an inevitable result of capitalist logic.  Moreover, capital sets the terms for the cost of pulling a child back from starvation or funding a desalination plant so some village can have water again.

On the one hand, if we can ease suffering we should surely do so.  On the other hand, what if our efforts to ease that suffering obscure the causes of the suffering and so sustain the conditions that make the suffering inevitable?  It’s very easy to consider abstract suffering — homeless people we don’t know on street corners, poverty and starvation in countries around the globe — and then adopt a “that’s just the way it is” attitude.  After all, there’s little most of us can do individually to make things better.

Charity makes us feel better and so enforces this sort of hopeless complacency that we use to blunt the sight of the suffering in the world.

In fact, capitalism has managed, to an extent, to commodify acts of giving themselves.  Slavoj Žižek has written about coffee shops that tout “fair trade coffee” giving the indication that the coffee they serve has been procured in less exploitative ways than other coffees.  Consequently, we don’t mind paying an extra dollar or so for this cup of comfort because it has been produced in a nicer way than other cups.  Charity and profit — merged. Capitalist logic.

It’s a complicated issue.  If we see no way to replace capitalism with an economic political system that operates more equitably for us all, shouldn’t we at least assuage the suffering that is capitalism’s inevitable result (capitalism serves capital, not people)?  Even if such kindness perpetuates the problem.

 

 

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As Privilege Erodes, Bigotry Flourishes

Because I am often critical of President Obama when I write, whether here or elsewhere, I sometimes get friend requests from right wing people on Facebook.  In general, I ignore those requests (although, now that I’m trying to write more and to promote what I write on social media, I’ve become much more open to friend requests).  In one case, however, the friend request came from someone in Ocean City, MD, where I lived a few decades ago.  I thought that, although I didn’t recognize the name or the face, marriage and time may have made those factors illegible to me.  So, I accepted.

It turns out that she was a friend of a friend so she occasionally saw the sorts of things I write on Facebook.  She soon unfriended me.  There’s a curious quirk around how “friending” works in Facebook:  I still see what she writes and posts although, presumably, my stuff never shows up on her newsfeed.  I haven’t bothered to unfriend her because I find the sort of right wing news and opinion she shares to be mildly interesting and somewhat amusing.

As an aside, while we were still ‘friends’, I had a few interactions with her.  Often, I tried to point out that many of the incidents involving Obama that were producing froth on the right, hadn’t happened.  I provided links to Snopes.com as evidence.  Her response:  “It’s my understanding that George Soros owns Snopes.”  My unspoken response, “if that’s so, why doesn’t he spend some money on the damned thing; the interface has 1992 written all over it!”  Anyway, you can see how pervasively the “echo chamber” blots out contradiction of the outrage machine.

Recently, I read a Facebook post from her in which she recounted the story of how she had applied for a driver’s license in a new state (she had moved from Ocean City some time ago).  Although she was armed with what seemed like an overkill of paperwork, she failed to secure the license because her documentation was insufficient.  I’m sympathetic, because, as we are all aware, bureaucracy can be maddening, turning necessary and seemingly routine transactions into trials designed by Kafka.

She then opined that the hispanic men in line behind her probably would have no problem getting whatever they wanted at the agency.  She wondered if she would have been more successful if she’d been wearing a burka and flashing a green card.  Sigh.

She then noted that, based on information she got during the visit, she was able to go online and secure the documentation she needed for about $50.  So, presumably, a subsequent visit would result in issuance of a driver’s license even if she left her burka behind.  She wondered why this additional documentation was necessary since it was so easy, anyone could do it.  Interestingly, she is someone who complains bitterly about taxes (she is, after all, a tea party type).  The fact that she was being taxed $50 in order to execute a simple but necessary transaction was lost on her.  Rather, she focused on the notion that if she was a foreigner, whether legal or illegal, she would have been treated better.

As time goes on, life becomes more complicated.  In the not very distant past, if you were a white citizen of the US, while you expected visits to the DMV or other state agencies to be annoying and time consuming, you also expected to accomplish what you’d set out to do. For a number of reasons, now, this is not necessarily the case.  One of my assumptions is that, in the past, if something about your request was not routine, you could explain, be believed (assuming whiteness and citizenship), and the bureaucrat was empowered to make the transaction happen.  Now anomalies seemingly need to be handled by a special agent who is invariably at lunch or out of the office until next week; individuals on the front line can only routinely process what is routine.

Of course, my assumption above is merely speculation, based on my observation of business and life over 5 decades and more.  Her speculation, that immigrants would be treated better than she is based on xenophobia and the right wing news trope that immigrants are the cause of every ill in the country.  There is no reason, except her frustration that the transaction was not to be accomplished in a single visit, for her to assume that foreigners would fare better; that her white citizenship worked against her when she tried to conduct necessary business within the government bureaucracy.

Life gets more complicated.  Clerks on the front lines of government agencies, and department stores, and wherever, typically cannot do anything but process a routine transaction.  If the requests deviate from routine, a manager or supervisor is required, which itself demands more time, more annoyance, more frustration.  There are any number of forces that shape modern bureaucracy and they may not be all bad.  But frustration is frustration and we all have to deal with it.

Privilege has been ubiquitous for white men like me — so much so, that until it began eroding, it was invisible.  While it’s annoying to notice that privilege is eroding, it’s best to understand this as a result of increased recognition of the rights of all of us.  Privilege goes away because it was always inappropriate and now is beginning to be understood that way.

One of my observations of the ideology of the right is that, “if everyone was like us, things would be fine, but there’s always those ‘others'”.  When life is frustrating it’s because, directly or indirectly, of the ‘others’.  Bigotry’s seeds are always there and too many people are all too willing to fertilize and cultivate them.

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Guilty . . . But Acquitted

I live in Baltimore City.  As all residents of Baltimore understand, I am summoned to jury duty at least yearly (it’s supposed to be yearly but I’m not the only one who believes the summons comes more frequently than it ought).  Moreover, living in a city that calls about 800 potential jurors every day, more often than not, I need to show up at the courthouse with a book or two to wait around all day.

Last Tuesday, for the first time, after perhaps a dozen voir dires over the years, I was impaneled on a jury.  There was a time when I thought I would like to serve on a jury if I could reasonably bear the time off from work (I’ve always worked for organizations that could and would pay me for time spent in jury service but deadlines don’t change just because you’re in court).  I’ve been unemployed for a few years now and time is not really an issue.  On the other hand, I’ve come to the opinion that our justice system is far from fair, that sentences are grossly long and that, overall, the system is in great need of reform.  To make things more stressful, the charges were serious:  3 counts of 1st degree attempted murder, 3 counts of 2nd degree attempted murder, various assault charges, and firearm charges including possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.  I decided that ridiculously long prison terms were something I could do little about and that I would try to serve in a fair and honest capacity despite my objections to the system itself (there was also not much I could do about it).

The basic facts of the case seem to be these:  in the spring of last year, in a south Baltimore neighborhood, two men argued in an alley.  Apparently, one pulled out a gun and started shooting hitting the other man in the hip and hand and also wounding two women that were also in the alley.  The two women ran and took refuge in an auto repair garage; the man ran into his house from the alley.

The State called three eyewitnesses.  One was one of the female victims.  She is a former “I’m in a program, now” heroin addict.  On the day of the crime, while at the hospital, she picked the shooter out of a photo array.  In order to assure her appearance in court, the prosecutor had her arrested the previous night and she spent the night in jail before being brought to court.  She was in her mid forties or so and weighed perhaps 85 lbs.  She was disheveled and twitching and thoroughly pissed that she’d spent the night in jail.  In court, she recounted the story and identified the defendant as the man who shot her.

The defense attorney tried to impugn her credibility by pointing to her drug addiction, the fact that one of the other victims was known to be a drug dealer and in a truly disgusting side note opined that her injury was entirely “predictable” because of her involvement in the drug trade.  At the hospital, she was found to have a small bag of heroin (about $10 worth).  The defense attorney surmised that since she was not arrested for possession (the heroin was confiscated and logged as evidence) she perhaps cut a deal with police to identify the man the police wanted to arrest.  The attorney also pointed to the fact that she’d been arrested to ensure her appearance in court as a strike against her credibility.  I know that it’s the defense attorney’s job to undermine testimony for the prosecution but I found his approach disgusting and rather patronizing.

The two other eyewitnesses lived in a house in the neighborhood.  Their bedroom window faces the alley.  Hearing gunshots rather close, they went to the window to look out and see what was going on.  They both identified the defendant as the gunman and each picked the defendant’s picture from a photo array at the police station on the day of the incident.  Their house is an old Baltimore row house with a backyard that is perhaps 7 feet deep and a fence separating it from the alley.  From their upstairs window, the gunman was about 15 feet from them.  They both testified that he had a gun in his hand and was yelling “You’ll get it, motherfucker” at a man running into a house on the other side of the alley.

The defense attorney’s tactic was to underscore the differences between the statements they made to police on the day of the crime and their testimony in court (some 14 months later).  In their statements at the time, they both said they saw 2 men running into the house — one being a person they knew to live there.  In their testimony, each remembered only one man running into the house (the one they knew lived there).  These discrepancies didn’t bother me too much — the identity — existence? — of the mystery man is intriguing but not particularly germane.  Over 14 months, particularly if one has told the story numerous times (I assume they had, I would’ve), it’s not surprising to have some details change in memory.  I put more weight in the statements they made on the same day, and that they identified the defendant in a photo array on the same day, than their testimony more than a year later.

So, three eyewitnesses put the defendant at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand and one actually saw him shoot her.  The other female victim couldn’t be located and the male victim, the one seen running into his house, was polite but refused to cooperate with police in any way.

Other witnesses included a ballistics expert from the Baltimore Police Department.  He testified that the shell casings found in the alley were all fired from the same gun.  One of the detectives assigned to the case (the lead detective was unavailable having resigned from the police department and moved to Massachusetts to attend school).  He recounted his involvement at the scene and, at the prosecutor’s urging, described the methods by which the photo arrays are prepared and presented to witnesses.  The one female witness, because she was shown the photos in the hospital, was shown a photo array using a “shuffle” method.  Six photos are put in front of her face down.  They ask her to rearrange the pictures without looking at them so that they are in a more or less random order when she looks at them.

The other two witnesses, because they were shown the photo arrays at the police station, were shown photos prepared in a “double blind” method.  The detectives prepare the array and give them to a person not associated with the investigation to present them to the witnesses.  In this way, the person presenting the array is unaware which picture(s) represent suspects and so, can’t possibly lead the witness to pick a particular suspect.

The defense attorney lightly cross examined the police witnesses and then both prosecution and defense rested.  The defense called not one witness of their own.

After closing arguments, we jurors repaired to the jury room to deliberate.  It was obvious to me that some of the charges were absurd.  As one might imagine, first degree attempted murder requires premeditation.  The only attempt the prosecutor made to secure that charge was to point out during closing arguments that while premeditation is required it was sufficient if that premeditation was momentary.  My assumption is that the 1st degree attempted murder charges were logged in hopes of persuading the defendant to make a plea agreement.

It was late in the day when we got to the jury room and I already knew that we’d have to come back for a 6th day of service the next day.  But I said, “Can we at least agree that they’ve put the defendant at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand?”  Because, if we couldn’t agree on that there was no need to even consider the other charges.  I was dismayed when 2 of the jurors could not agree on that.  It was depressing as hell.  We had taken an informal poll on just that question.  Ten of us agreed that the evidence put the defendant at the scene with a gun in his hand.  Two did not.

Their reasoning?  The police could have done this and they could have done that.  That, of course, is always true.  The police always “could have” done anything.  However, there was no evidence presented that the police “did” do something.  It was depressing as hell because I could see no other outcome but a hung jury.  I was wondering how long the judge — a woman who’d impressed me with her friendly yet formal handling of the courtroom — would make us ‘deliberate’ before giving up.

The next morning, we reconvened.  In hopes that things had changed during a night’s reflection, the foreperson asked for another poll on the fundamental question.  Still the same:  ten believed the defendant was present and in possession of a gun, two were not convinced.  The two found the heroin addict victim to be totally unreliable and, while they believed the other two witnesses were telling the truth, they weren’t sure that the police didn’t commit some malfeasance in their handling of the witnesses and the evidence.

Some of us began looking at the documents about the photo arrays and the identifications therein.  One the first page of each of the “double blind” photo array documents, there is a script that the presenter reads before handing the array to the witness.  Among other things, the presenter says that “I am not associated with this investigation in any way except that I am showing you these photographs.”  The presenter’s name, badge number and signature are on the document as well.

One of us recognized the presenter’s name and we found that she was present at the crime scene that morning according to the crime scene log.  To me, that certainly associates her with the investigation!  We asked the judge for clarification:  “Could ‘not associated with this investigation in any way’ be interpreted to mean ‘not assigned to the case’ or some other explanation that would permit her to be present at the crime scene?”  Unfortunately, no clarification could be given.

In addition, the presenter and the witnesses signed the photo array documents between 2 pm and 2:30 pm.  The crime scene log had the officer who was the presenter of the photo arrays present at the crime scene until 3:15 pm.  There were quite a few people in the crime scene log who left at 3:15 pm.  My assumption is that the person entrusted with the log didn’t note each coming and going but, rather, signed out everyone still on the list when he or she left the scene.  But who knows?  The evidence is what it is.

We took another poll.  Now that we’d identified problems with how the photo arrays were administered — particularly given that the prosecution and detectives went into a lot of detail about how the photo arrays were presented and why — there were 10 of us that agreed that the prosecution had not proven that the defendant was at the scene and in possession of a gun.  I think that we were all convinced that the defendant was the gunman but that the evidence was tainted.  Two jurors would still vote to convict; 10 (including me) would vote to acquit.  Eventually, those two agreed to acquit and we went back upstairs to read the verdict:  Not Guilty on all  counts.

It was a thoroughly unsatisfying and discouraging experience.  I can’t help but worry about the witnesses who lived in the neighborhood.  Their names and their address were broadcast frequently during the trial.  I can only hope that, having been acquitted, the defendant will have no animus towards those witnesses.  Still . . .

There’s a saying among Baltimore lawyers to the effect that “you can’t convict anyone in a court in Baltimore.”  This is usually interpreted to mean that juries in Baltimore are intransigent and uncooperative.  I have a new perspective on this now:  perhaps people aren’t convicted in Baltimore courtrooms because the police consistently foul up the case.

 

 

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The Ugly Underside of the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Decision

When I was a kid, growing up in the sixties, “fag” was about the worst thing one could be called.  Of course, it had nothing to do with sexual orientation; it was merely a demeaning epithet slung in anger.  Long after the word “nigger” was banished from our vocabulary, “fag” was bandied about easily.  Even nice, seemingly enlightened people would occasionally mince and lisp mocking homosexuals.

Twenty years ago, a 1996 poll found that just 27% of the population supported gay marriage (the question could not have been asked by a serious pollster in the 60s or 70s).  A poll done this week, coincident with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell  that legalized same sex marriage in the US, found that 60% of respondents supported gay marriage.  That’s a really amazing change in social attitudes over just two decades.

I’m not really interested in trying to determine how such a change came about (although I’d be interested to read about it), so I’m going to speculate.  Looking over the nearly six decades that comprise my life, the change in attitudes is completely remarkable.  Gay people have transitioned from outcast perverts to respectable citizens in my lifetime.

The only thing that I can think of that explains the attitude shift is this:  some brave individuals “came out” before it was very safe to do so.  Then, other gay people felt more able to be public about their sexuality.  With each wave of coming out, it became easier and easier to admit the fact of homosexuality.  Meanwhile, more and more people realized that they knew gay people and accepted that.  This made it easier still for gay people to decide to “come out.”  Lather, rinse, repeat.

When I was a kid, no one knew any gay people — and, if someone did, it was a major secret.  There were obviously gay entertainers like Liberace and Paul Lynde but the media made no effort to divulge the secret.  I’m nearly 60 years old; I have a number of out, gay friends.  The gradual opening of the closet eventually caused the door to swing open with a bang.  No one can pretend they don’t know anyone who’s gay.

Another recent poll found that people who self identify as gay or lesbian comprise 1.6% of the population.  As we celebrate the Supreme Court decision that ameliorated the injustice perpetrated on homosexuals, we should also reflect on this:  for most of my life, well over five million gay and lesbian people in the US were 2nd class citizens with attenuated civil rights.  That’s a sad thing to think about — even as we stand pleased with the ruling that ended this sort of institutional bigotry in the US.

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Comparing Apples and Orange Sherbert

This morning, I read a comment on social media that made me want to scream.  The gist of the comment:  Baltimore and Ferguson, MO could learn a lesson by looking at the restraint of the citizens of Charleston, SC in the wake of the murder of nine African American people in their church.  No protests and no riots.  Such well behaved people!

Within the last year, in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD, protests were mounted in response to the killing of young, black men by law enforcement officers.  In Baltimore, although protests were generally peaceful, there was an ugly afternoon and evening of rioting and looting.  In Charleston, of course, a young racist sat through a bible study session at an African American church before standing up and announcing that black people “rape our women” and are “taking over our country.”  He then used a handgun to murder nine African American people.

Dylann Roof, the young racist, was promptly arrested and jailed.

Imagine a situation in which, despite the testimony of survivors of the tragedy, Dylann Roof is acquitted of all charges in a court of law.  Or, worse, imagine that charges are dropped and he is released before any trial takes place.  Would the citizens of Charleston not protest?  If they didn’t, would their restraint be admirable?

Individual violence, while deplorable and tragic, is an unfortunate fact of life in our armed and violent society.  Haters are going to hate; killers are going to kill.  There is no obvious solution — at least not with respect to actions the state might take.  On the other hand, when the power of the state is used to protect those killers and haters, there is a moral obligation to protest the injustice.  In addition, protests of this kind have a purpose: the state is put on notice that the injustice will not be tolerated.

I suspect that Dylann Roof will be tried on nine counts of murder, found guilty, and sentenced to a long incarceration in prison.  Justice will be done and the people will have no reason to be outraged.  Certainly, we should all be outraged that this sort of thing happens but the response of the state will have been appropriate.

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Harriet Tubman, The Face of Money

Yesterday’s Baltimore Sun What Maryland Thinks online poll question:

Should Harriet Tubman replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill?

Yes 22%
No 76%
Not Sure 2%

(115 votes)

As is often the case, the poll question is a fluffy non-issue that really doesn’t lend itself to analysis. You would think that, since Harriet Tubman was a Maryland native, there’d be some significant support for ascending her to be the face on the $20 bill. Since there were more than 3 No votes for every Yes vote, there is something else at play.

It would be easy to suggest that racism is a factor — it certainly is. However, I don’t think that racism is the major factor influencing the voting. Rather, it’s primarily resistance to change. Why change the $20 bill? I suspect that many of the participants in the poll know that Andrew Jackson (currently the face of the $20 bill) was a president; at the same time, I think they’d be hard pressed to pin him down in an historical context or to name a single accomplishment of that administration. Assuming I’m right, there’s no admiration for Jackson driving resistance.

I think it’s simply a matter of not wanting things to change. Boring, but there you have it.

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Voting Rights for Felons

While I was writing my “What I Think Maryland Thinks” feature — in which I attempted to predict the outcome of the Baltimore Sun’s What Maryland Thinks online poll — I noticed some logistical issues. For example, each post had two topics — the outcome of the previous day’s prediction and the prediction for the following day. My thought was to break these into two posts, one for each prediction.

This week, real life got in the way and I wound up skipping two days of polls. Now, my plan is to just comment on the topic at hand each day.

Yesterday’s question in the What Maryland Thinks poll:

Should Gov. Larry Hogan sign a bill granting full voting rights to felons out on parole?

Yes 23%
No 73%
Not Sure 4%

Predictably (heh), participants in the online poll overwhelmingly want to deny felons voting rights. This is profoundly undemocratic. Convicted felons in Maryland must currently wait until they have completed parole and/or probation before being re-enfranchised. A bill is on Gov. Hogan’s desk awaiting his signature that would restore the right to vote immediately after release from prison.

I am sure that many of the people who voted no in the poll would just as soon have felons lose the right to vote permanently following conviction. This seems sensible to them since felons have chosen to live outside of decent society and therefore have forfeited the right to shape that society. These are people for whom the justice system is fair and, really, too mindful of the rights of the accused. They assume that convictions are valid and that the felon is responsible for what has happened. And, probably, they are generally correct.

I have a rather radical take on this topic. I would have convicted felons be able to vote while imprisoned. The United States has the highest incarceration rate — by far — in the world (707 inmates per 100,000 residents). In this era of mass incarceration, it is easy to see how disenfranchisement could be used to squash the voting power of segments of the population that don’t vote correctly (according to the political class). There are already a variety of attempts to put obstacles between voters and the ballot box in places where those voters are likely to vote for the wrong candidates. Prison disenfranchisement is a more long term strategy but I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that it would never be employed.

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What I Think Maryland Thinks — Aerial Surviellance Baltimore Riots

Friday’s What Maryland Thinks online poll question in the Baltimore Sun was:

Was it appropriate for federal authorities to run sophisticated surveillance flights over Baltimore in the wake of last week’s riots?

I predicted that the results of the poll would be:

Yes 83%
No 13%
Not Sure 4%

with 208 votes cast.

The actual poll results are as follows:

Yes 88%
No 10%
Not Sure 2%

(91 votes cast)

I clearly got the general sentiment correct but miscalculated the degree of interest in the topic predicting more than double the actual votes cast. C’est la vie. Predictions are hard — especially about the future (Yogi Berra).

Today’s question:

Should the Baltimore students who participated in city rioting this month be punished by the school system as CEO Gregory Thorton has promised they will be?

Yes
No
Not Sure

Ah, does the Baltimore Sun have a copy editor? There is an redundant verb to be in that question. Awkward and embarassing.

Predicting the outcome of this poll is a little tricky. While I am sure that a significant majority of folks who vote in this poll want hellfire and damnation to rain down on the kids who rioted, there also is the likelihood that public schools are the wrong venue to pass judgment on these students. Some of the latter will feel that the school system has enough on its plate dealing with its student population; some will just feel that whatever the city schools tries to do will be a monumental failure; some will feel that action by the school system will just accelerate the drop out rate and provide fuel for the poverty/unemployment cycle.

I think that Gregory Thornton is trying to score political points and, unfortunately, making himself look foolish. Now that he is on record recommending some sort of school based punishment, he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. I think there should be a distinct separation between school and the application of justice. This separation doesn’t exclude cooperation by the schools in investigations but certainly excludes the meting of justice by the school system itself.

Consequently, I think that the school system should stay out of it. Rioters who are arrested and jailed will no longer be in the public schools anyway; others who may have participated but aren’t charged — by what presumption does the school system trump law enforcement? There is simply no good reason to punish students within the context of school. Any action will almost certainly lead to drop outs and/or absenteeism, guaranteeing an increased number of future poor and unemployed.

Herewith, my prediction:

Should the Baltimore students who participated in city rioting this month be punished by the school system as CEO Gregory Thorton has promised they will be?

Yes 66%
No 31%
Not Sure 3%

with 204 votes cast.

If you’d like to vote, you can do so here.

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What I Think Maryland Thinks

The Baltimore Sun has a feature in which it conducts an online poll What Maryland Thinks. I have been trying to predict the answers to the poll and slipping in a bit of commentary. Yesterday’s What Maryland Thinks question was:

Are you more or less likely to visit and support Baltimore entertainment venues because of the recent unrest?

The answers I predicted were:

More 17%
Less 77%
Not Sure 6%

with 211 votes cast.

The actual poll results were:

More 17%
Less 79%
Not Sure 4%

(135 votes cast)

I think we can all agree that I pretty much hit the nail on the head with this one — the guess at vote count was the worst showing and I suppose I overestimated how much interest people would have in this particular question.

Today’s question:

Was it appropriate for federal authorities to run sophisticated surveillance flights over Baltimore in the wake of last week’s riots?

Yes
No
Not Sure

I count myself among those people for whom the growing ubiquity of surveillance is disturbing. Consequently, I am inclined to dismay when I hear of yet another incidence of surveillance. On the other hand, since there was a major disturbance in the city following Freddie Gray’s funeral, I can understand the value of noting crowd movements/activities from the air. Of course, this assumes that the goal of said surveillance was to protect property and attempt to quell violence. Sadly, I’m not as inclined to believe that law enforcement motives are virtuous as I once was.

One nuance that bothers me is that the overflights were kept secret. Considering that the riot comprised mostly kids wielding trash cans, traffic cones and rocks, there wasn’t the remotest possibility of those flights being interfered with in any way, much less shot down. Nor was there any chance that knowledge of the surveillance aircraft would affect the behavior of the rioters (except in a positive way by making them worry about being photographed and decide to go home).

I often wonder about people who vote in this poll who choose “Not Sure”. After all, it takes a little effort to go to the polling page and vote. Why vote if you haven’t a strong feeling one way or the other. Nonetheless, I will vote “Not Sure” on this one because 1) I don’t trust the motives of law enforcement and 2) I really distrust motives when there is an attempt to keep the activity secret.

As for my prediction for today — my sense of the Marylanders who participate in the What Maryland Thinks poll is that a number of them fall into the “I’ve got nothing to hide” camp with respect to surveillance. This belief is short sighted and naive in lots of ways but I do suspect that there is a largish component of these sorts voting in the poll. As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of people who look at the demographic of the rioters as requiring special means if they are to be controlled. Herewith, my prediction:

Was it appropriate for federal authorities to run sophisticated surveillance flights over Baltimore in the wake of last week’s riots?

Yes 83%
No 13%
Not Sure 4%

with 208 votes cast.

If you want to participate, you can vote in the poll here.

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