Occasional Planet http://www.occasionalplanet.org progressive voices speaking out Fri, 18 Apr 2014 12:00:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 Scientific study concludes US is an oligarchy, not a democracy http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/18/scientific-study-concludes-us-is-an-oligarchy-not-a-democracy/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/18/scientific-study-concludes-us-is-an-oligarchy-not-a-democracy/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 12:00:51 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28303  

We are so close to losing our democracy to the mercenary class, it’s as if we are leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon and all that’s needed is a swift kick in the pants. Look out below.

The predators in Washington are only this far from monopoly control of our government. They have bought the political system, lock, stock and pork barrel, making change from within impossible. That’s the real joke.

Bill Moyers

For some time, those of us on the Left have been calling the United States an oligarchy, meaning that the democratic process and our elected officials have been co-opted by banks, corporations, and billionaires who have undue influence on public policy. It means a small group of wealthy people control the government for their own ends. When calling the United States an oligarchy, we’ve been accused of hyperbole. Well, no more eye rolling when we say the “O” word. Sadly, we’ve been vindicated.

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University will be publishing their study, “Testing Theories of American Politics,” in the Fall, 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics. They asked the questions “Who governs?” and “Who really rules?” in the United States. And this is what they discovered:

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, . . . America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

In this first-ever comprehensive scientific study of the subject, Gilens and Page demonstrated that theories that premised America as a democracy failed to hold water. They discovered “. . . the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America].” When the authors say “median voter” they mean average Americans.

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Their study was conducted using “a unique data set that included measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.” The authors suggest that the pervasiveness of corruption could be even worse than their data shows.

So, bottom line, you can keep calling the United States an oligarchy because it is a scientifically proven fact—the study strongly suggests that American democracy is a sham. A choice between corporate owned candidate, A, and corporate owned candidate B, is not really a choice. And neither candidate—Gilens and Page tell us—is going to represent your interests anyway. If your interests are reflected in policy decisions, it’s probably not because they listened to you, it’s because your interests coincided with the interests of the elite. After the recent Supreme Court decision that gives oligarchs free reign to buy as many politicians as they want, your elected officials may no longer have to pretend to listen to you. A hand full will, but the overwhelming majority are going to be serving their corporate donors.

Paul Craig Roberts, ex Assistant Treasury Secretary under Reagan gives a working definition of oligarchy and connects it to US foreign policy:

An oligarchy is a country that is run for private interests. These private interests–Wall Street, the military/security complex, oil and natural gas, and agribusiness–seek domination, a goal well served by the neoconservative ideology of US hegemony.

The takeover of government by oligarchs is both hidden and furthered by corporate-owned news media. These news outlets most often function as stenographers to power, delivering the administration’s official line on the issues of the day. The current reporting on the crisis in Ukraine is one example of how lies and fabrications are reported on a daily basis in order to convince ordinary Americans to accept whatever the administration and its shadow state are doing in service of the elite. Iraq anyone?

Of course there are cracks in the facade. Good reporting happens now and then even in corporate owned media. But, the main point to remember is this: while we are deliberately being distracted by false narratives on government policy and issues (NSA, for another example), or force fed oil and gas company ads claiming fracking is safe and will make us “energy independent,” or entertained by partisan Punch-and-Judy shows, our government is crafting oligarch-serving domestic and foreign policies behind closed doors.

 

 

 

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Dressing up: A feminist issue http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/17/dressing-up-a-feminist-issue/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/17/dressing-up-a-feminist-issue/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:00:53 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28284

“Dressing up means wearing a dress,” she said. “It means you put on a dress or skirt, high heels, and some makeup and you look good. AND, ladies, you’re not going clubbing; you’re skirt needs to reach past your fingertips when your arms are down.”

The National Honor Society members were supposed to dress up for induction of the new members, and I was astonished and confounded by non-inclusion of dress pants. I had turned to ask my friend why in the world none of the girls were wearing pants. That was her response to me in an imitation of our National Honor Society advisor.

Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate the insinuations. At all.

I’ve actually been told something fairly similar multiple times through the course of the past few weeks. It’s graduation season, and that means Honors Nights, Induction Ceremonies, Graduations, and all kinds of other flamboyant events we’ll all forget about in a few years. But I won’t forget the dress code. Nope. I’m much too riled up for that.

Let’s pick it apart one by one by one.

1. Since when does “dressing up” mean a dress???? The guys don’t have to wear dresses! And if they did show up in dresses, I bet most parents and teachers would throw a fit about how they were mocking school protocol or corrupting the youth or something equally preposterous and then refuse to let them participate in the ceremony! So then that rule only applies to females… which is simply antediluvian and antiquated.

2. Oh thank you so much for permitting us skirts. I suppose it would be too much to ask if we could wear pants? I forgot those were reserved for XY- individuals. My mistake. (Yeah, I’ll be wearing pants, thank you very much).

3. I really love high heels, I do, but I abhor this implication that they are the only shoes fit for women to wear. I will wear sandals or flats or wedges or plain old sneakers if I so choose and I will still participate.

4. I think we ought to be confident enough in ourselves not to need to don five pounds of makeup every time we leave the house. I mean teenage girls are inundated with calls for us to “love ourselves” and be “proud of our bodies” whatever they may look like (in order to counter the mass-media perception of women as big-breasted, small-waisted know-nothings). I can understand that yes, the theater lights will probably make us look fairly washed out and pasty and therefore a little makeup may perhaps do us some good, but the implications of what we were told was not necessarily that, but rather that we cannot look good without makeup- that women are incapable of being attractive without primer, foundation, concealer, rouge, eyeshadow, kohl, blush, eyeliner, bronzer, highlighter, brow pencils, tweezing, waxing, bleaching, plucking, tanning, dieting… Need I go on?

I want to address one more thing: a misconception about feminism. Yes, feminism is about breaking gender stereotypes (as I have already espoused)- in fact it’s about a complete obliteration of even the concept of gender stereotypes. That means girls can wear camo pants and guys can wear pink skirts if they want. That does not in any relate to homosexuality or heterosexuality or anything of that sort. Believe it or not, I have heard that argument against feminism as well. Feminism simply advocates for gender equality. That may often lead feminists to accept all people- homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, black, white, asian, and everything in between- but there are plenty of people with “stringent” beliefs in other areas.

Resuming my rant:

5.   Perhaps I’m just a prude, but I am perpetually astonished by the fact that people have to be reminded to cover themselves up in public- that guys have to be told not to sag their pants and show off their boxers and girls have to be explicitly told the minimum length of their hemline. Well, first off, do you know where the custom of sagging originated? Prisons. Men in prisons trying covertly to inform other prisoners of their homosexuality (that’s also where “swag” comes from; it stands for “Secretly We Are Gay”). Secondly, ladies, like the gentlemen, we too need to be aware of the messages we are sending with our clothing. There’s a lot that will be said about a woman’s morals, religiousness, intelligence, personality, “easiness,” etc. just by the way she presents herself (men, too, but predominantly women). I’m not saying it’s a good thing or an honorable thing or anything we should necessarily encourage; I’m simply saying it’s a fact of life.

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Spend a little time on the Ft. Lauderdale water taxi and you’ll soon get a feel for the world of the 1% of the 1%. As you drift along you will see row upon row of mega-yachts – sleek vessels, 80 feet, 120 feet, 200 feet or longer in length. According to the City of Ft. Lauderdale, about 1,500 mega yachts visit annually. There are some 100 marinas housing 42,000 resident yachts.

Among all of the craft that dominate the view, one stands out. It’s 282 feet long. It has a black hull and a huge equipment mast. According to a story in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,

It boasts luxury amenities for 12 guests, with a crew of 26. There is a large master stateroom with a study and private deck, a helipad, indoor cinema and an infinity pool with a 15-foot glass wall that converts to a movie screen so the director and his guests can take in a film while swimming.

The Seven Seas is the personal toy of Steven Spielberg. The cost? Just $200 million. The flag on its stern? Cayman Islands. Why is that?

The reason so many American yachts fly non-American flags has a whole lot to do with tax and employment laws and United States Coast Guard regulations.

According to Power and Motoryacht Magazine, U.S.-registered yachts must be staffed by American citizens who have obtained USCG certification. What’s more, the yacht owners must actually comply with U.S. employment tax laws. Of course, it’s much cheaper for them to register in a friendly country and hire foreign nationals.

Power and Motoryacht Magazine further points out that U.S.-registered yachts also are required to meet USCG regulations for firefighting, safety equipment and staffing. These regulations insure that a yacht is safe for both passengers and crew. All of that boosts the cost of ownership and operation.

Spielberg is not alone. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s yacht is registered in the Caymans. So is Larry Ellison’s (CEO of Oracle and ninth richest man in the world). Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht Octopus also flies the red Cayman flag. In fact, most U.S.-owned mega-yachts are registered in the Cayman Islands and other tax-friendly countries.

Safety, decent pay, fair taxes? That must be too high of a price for the mega-rich to pay.

Maybe I’m just envious, but I can’t wrap my head around what one might do with a 282-foot, $200-million yacht. Do a little fishing? Enjoy the ocean breezes? Escape from the drudgery of the workaday world? Maybe.

But then again there’s sea level rise waiting at the doorsteps of the ostentatious $10-million mansions that line the Ft. Lauderdale waterways. Perhaps escape is what those yachts are really for after all.

 

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Voting rights watch: Florida’s bathroom blockade http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/15/voting-rights-watch-floridas-bathroom-blockade/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/15/voting-rights-watch-floridas-bathroom-blockade/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 12:00:22 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28265

In their incessant quest to find ever more creative and nasty ways to suppress the vote, Florida Republicans have come up with a doozy. Not only will voters have to wait in long lines, they won’t be able to use a bathroom during the wait! [I’m sorry, but that deserves an exclamation point.] As you may remember, in 2012, voters in Florida’s Miami Dade County—whose early voting options were severely curtailed by new rules—stood in lines at polling places as long as six hours. This time around, under the newer, more insane and inhumane rules, the long wait could become even more unpleasant, because there will be no potty breaks.

Here’s the full story, as told by Reader Supported News:

Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade County Elections Department quietly implemented a policy to close the bathrooms at all polling facilities, according to disability rights lawyer Marc Dubin. Dubin said the policy change was in “direct response” to an inquiry to the Elections Department about whether they had assessed accessibility of polling place bathrooms to those with disabilities.

“I was expecting them to say either yes we have or yes we will,” Dubin said.

Instead, he received a written response announcing that the county would close all restrooms at polling places “to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not treated unfairly,” a January email stated. “[T]he Department’s policy is not to permit access to restrooms at polling sites on election days,” Assistant County Attorney Shanika Graves said in a Feb. 14 email.

…Dubin said he was “shocked” at this response, and not just because it suppresses the vote for everybody. The Americans with Disabilities Act also requires entities to make “reasonable accommodations” to those with disabilities. For those with a number of conditions, including diabetics and those taking diuretics, closing the restroom will make standing in that line impossible, and thus discriminate against disabled voters.

So, they’re doing under the guise of “not discriminating against disabled voters,” while, coincidentally and simultaneously making it even more difficult for anyone to vote? Gee, that’s thoughtful. I’m sure there are many puns to be made around this ridiculous new twist in voter suppression, but I’m not going to make them, because this is an outrage that defies humor.

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U.S. corporations stashing $2 trillion in profits offshore http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/14/u-s-corporations-stashing-2-trillion-in-profits-offshore/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/14/u-s-corporations-stashing-2-trillion-in-profits-offshore/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 12:00:49 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28248 According to Huffington Post, corporations are keeping $2 trillion in profits offshore to avoid paying taxes. One of the many ways corporations enrich themselves is by giving money to elected officials who then tailor the tax code to benefit their bottom line. Elected officials of both parties, who are given campaign funds and promises of future lucrative consulting jobs, write laws that allow corporations to stash profits abroad, untaxed. So, corporations get to practice legal tax avoidance.

In Washington, D.C., corporate money is the not-so-secret ingredient in the legislative sausage making process. Rationalized by members of both parties, our money-soaked system ensures Washington works for the wealthy and not for ordinary people.

Offshore corporate income tax deferral

Under our loophole-infested U.S. tax law—specifically, the “offshore corporate income tax deferral”clause—corporations can avoid paying income tax on most of their overseas profits until those funds are brought back to the United States.

A handful of senators and congressmen object to our corporate written tax law. Senator Ron Wyden, one of the few calling for repeal of offshore deferral, aptly refers to the tax code as “a rotten carcass that the special interests feed on.”  I appreciate Senator Wyden’s candor.

The tax evasion problem keeps growing year after year. According to the Huffington Post, from 2008 to 2013, the total amount of corporate profits held offshore increased 93 percent. The amount of untaxed profits corporations are stashing abroad is estimated at $2 trillion. General Electric, Inc. leads the pack with $110 billion stored, who knows where, in the Cayman Islands? Then next is Microsoft with $76.4 billion, Pfizer with $69 billion, Merck with $57.1 billion and Apple with $54.4 billion. And the list goes on. They have plenty of willing tax havens to choose from.

What onerous taxes are these corporations avoiding? Huffington Post reports that the top U.S. corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, “though few multinationals pay anywhere near that thanks to tax-reducing loopholes written into the code in the past 28 years.

Alan Pyke at Think Progress weighs in on corporate tax evasion

These companies face no meaningful negative consequences to stashing trillions from the taxman. When they need to access their offshore cash for investing in production or personnel, they can simply use the untaxed profits as collateral for borrowing from the financial sector. There is no business reason to stop ducking U.S. taxes, so it is up to lawmakers to address the problem.

Pyke reports that many in Congress want to reform tax law, but insist on ways that would be very generous to companies that offshore profits. They would slash the corporate tax rate and/or offer a “tax holiday” for bringing money back to the U.S. But few in Washington are willing to propose an outright end to profit offshoring, also known as “profit shifting.” Without ending the practice entirely, because tax havens have such a low tax rate, even with lowering the tax rate and a tax holiday, the practice will continue. This kind of  ”tax reform,” assures campaign funds will keep flowing into Congressmen’s re-election coffers.

The accounting industry helps corporations subvert democracy      

Jerry Alatalo, writing at The Oneness of Humanity, says the accounting industry is complicit in corporate tax evasion. He turns to Finance and Accounting Professor Prem Sikka who describes a “very lucrative global industry” that is having a huge impact on the world’s economy and overall conditions.

Professor Sikka points out that . . . “Financial engineering” is not taught at universities anywhere, but is the first item on the agenda for newly hired, freshly pressed accounting graduates at the Big Four—Ernst and Young, KPMG, Deloitte, and Price Waterhouse Cooper. Financial engineering is the focus of new hires’ initial training workshops, and is all about creating, selling, and implementing off-the-shelf tax avoidance evasion schemes for, and to, high net worth clients.

Taxes are not a “cost” to be minimized.

Alatalo says, because of his views, Professor Sikka is a renegade in the accounting world. He holds the idea that taxes—from the vantage point of everyone paying their fair share—are not a “cost” like raw materials used in the manufacturing process, wages paid to employees, office supplies, etc. Sikka points out that, “bending the rules, at any cost, to increase profits is now seen as an entrepreneurial skill.” From Alatalo’s post:

[Sikka] shared a statement by one of the Big Four, “our profitability rests on the ability of our employees to serve clients well.” There is no mention at all about the public interest. The professor recounts a debate he had with a manager from Price Waterhouse Cooper where his debate opponent finally says, “ . . . we create tremendous revenues for the state, and we have very many satisfied clients. Professor, what is your problem?” The professor responded with, “ . . . that is the language of drug pushers and pimps.”

The public cost of corporate tax evasion Alatalo reports:

The United Kingdom could be losing 30-150 billion, the European Union one trillion, and the U.S. Treasury 345-500 billion, maybe more. Developing countries’ revenue losses from tax evasion could be in the range of 500 billion per year—while total foreign aid is around 120 billion dollars.

Those figures are per year. What would the world be like if, year after year, that $2 trillion or so in unpaid taxes around the world was used for the public good?

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“It only takes a girl” focuses on child marriage and the cycle of poverty http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/11/it-only-takes-a-girl-focuses-on-child-marriage-and-the-cycle-of-poverty/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/11/it-only-takes-a-girl-focuses-on-child-marriage-and-the-cycle-of-poverty/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 12:00:50 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28237

It all starts with the girls. That’s the message of a video, called “It Only Takes a Girl,” produced by Zoe Keating on the website Upworthy. The video invites the viewer to stop and think about the mostly forgotten 600 million girls in developing countries around the world—one in seven of whom is forced before the age of fifteen to marry an older man and lives a life devoid of education or opportunity. If the topic sounds depressing, it is. But the video is anything but depressing. It’s inspiring and clever and engaging (thanks, in no small part, to a young Bobby Dylan—watch it, and you’ll see what I mean)

Upworthy, an online aggregator of videos, was founded by Peter Koechley, former managing editor of The Onion; Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org; and Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook. Upworthy has been described as “social media with a mission.”

Here’s how the worthy folks over at Upworthy describe their goals themselves.

We’re a mission-driven media company. We’re not a newspaper—we’d rather speak truth than appear unbiased. And we’re not a political campaign – we’re more interested in the powerless versus the powerful than in Democrats versus Republicans.

But we do have a point of view. We’re pro-gay-marriage, and we’re anti-child-poverty. We think the media is horrible to women, we think climate change is real, and we think the government has a lot to learn from the Internet about efficiency, disruption, and effectiveness.

If you’re new to Upworthy’s carefully curated collection of message-driven videos or even if you’ve visited the site before, watch this moving example. If you’re a woman, a sister, a mother, a grandmother, or an aunt, it might just get you going in the morning with a new sense of possibility.

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Rape insurance abortion rider goes into effect in Michigan http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/10/rape-insurance-abortion-rider-goes-into-effect-in-michigan/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/10/rape-insurance-abortion-rider-goes-into-effect-in-michigan/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 12:01:45 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28225 Starting in late March, Michigan women really  started feeling the affects of the “War on Women.” The state’s new law known as “rape insurance”—an additional insurance policy if she wants reimbursement for an abortion—went into effect.

This new law drops coverage of most abortions from existing policies. Women who do not buy insurance through an employer-based insurance plan will not be able to purchase the additional coverage, called an abortion rider, from Michigan insurers.

The medical journal Women’s Health Issues found that 36% of Michigan women lack health insurance, but 69% were paying out of pocket for abortion care. Not only are travel costs an issue, but so is the question of what is more important: is food and rent more important than my abortion? 14% of women who underwent abortions put off paying rent, 16% buying food, and 30% to pay utilities and other bills.

The “War on Women” is real and alive, especially in states like Michigan where women may have to pay out of pocket for a legal, medical procedure. Contact your state legislators and check their stances on abortion. More states cannot afford to have legislation like this.

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Free speech and free spending vs. fair elections: A Constitutional dilemma http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/09/free-speech-and-free-spending-vs-fair-elections-a-constitutional-dilemma/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/09/free-speech-and-free-spending-vs-fair-elections-a-constitutional-dilemma/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 12:00:44 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28220 So often we hear about our inherent rights to what is guaranteed in the Constitution. If it’s regarding free speech, we are entitled to say anything because the First Amendment protects us. If it’s about owning a gun, any of us can do so because the Second Amendment guarantees it.

Our founders provided very little guidance in these situations in which one right collides with another. This certainly came to play in the recent McCutcheon v FEC Supreme Court case regarding financial contributions to political campaigns. In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS ruled that individuals could essentially contribute as much as they wanted to in as many campaigns as they wanted to. The decision was clearly a victory for those who believe that those rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are essentially inviolate. The right to free speech extends beyond the spoken or written word to money, which is now considered another means of expression.

Justice Stephen Breyer, speaking for the minority (which also included Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) wrote, “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo.”

The minority argued that the Federal Elections Commission is mandated to “prevent quid pro quo corruption,” and its appearance—was a “sufficiently important governmental inter­est” to place limits to campaign contributions. This means that the right to express oneself through money in a political campaign is not absolute. There comes a point at which society as a whole has the right to take steps to try to keep its electoral process as clean and honest as possible.

We should keep in mind that placing limits on campaign contributions is far from the first time that the Court has ruled that the right to free speech is not absolute. In numerous decisions, the Court has ruled that an individual cannot slander another individual. In other words one cannot knowingly and willfully say something that is false with the intent of harming someone else. And it’s well known that “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” That dictum emanates from Supreme Court rulings that one cannot say something that causes a threat to public safety.

What the Court has not said is that our electoral process (outlined in Article. I., Section 1. and Article. II., Section. 1. of the U.S. Constitution) has as much of a right to be honest as people have the right to free speech. The dilemma of protecting both the right to free speech and the right of citizens to have honest elections clearly come in conflict with one another. In recent years, the Court has ruled that the right to free expression through campaign contributions is of greater value than the right of people to know that their elections are free of undue outside influences.

In practical terms, because Republicans are generally the party of “big money,” they benefit more than Democrats from few restrictions on campaign contributions. However, Democrats have worked to take advantage of the loopholes in previous restrictions on campaign contributions, and Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to refuse to take public monies for his campaign, so that he could raise an essentially unlimited amount of money from private sources.

In light of the McCutcheon v FEC ruling, we are left with two ways of cleaning up our elections. The first would be a constitutional amendment protecting our right to honest elections by curtailing private contributions and taking additional steps to eliminate electoral fraud. The second would be for candidates to voluntarily refuse contributions and for the public to consider that to be such a positive step that it will back such candidates.

The hurdles that must be cleared for a constitutional amendment that protects our right to free elections to be passed are monumental. It’s highly doubtful that any such amendment will be forthcoming in the near future. So, we must ask candidates and the public to accept the notion that excessive money in politics is a bad thing, and for the public to hold candidates who raise (or their proxies raise) excessive amounts of money to be a stain on their reputations and qualifications to hold public office. That too seems to be asking for too much, but we should at least try.

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Florida stands its ground against media access to Stand Your Ground cases http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/08/florida-stands-its-ground-against-media-access-to-stand-your-ground-cases/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/08/florida-stands-its-ground-against-media-access-to-stand-your-ground-cases/#comments Tue, 08 Apr 2014 12:00:36 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28214 Ah, Florida. You’ve got to love the originality of the place. First it comes up with the Stand Your Ground law. Now the state is back in the news with another fun-in-the-sun idea. Yes, it seems at least one legislator in Florida thinks that individuals who injure or kill—and then are acquitted for their crimes based on a Stand Your Ground defense—deserve a bit more love from the state of Florida. To that end, Republican State Representative Matt Gaetz is on a crusade to take some of the “sunshine” out of the Sunshine State.

Let me explain. Sunshine, in this context, refers to “regulations that require openness in government. Sunshine laws make meetings, records, votes, deliberations, and other official actions available for public observation, participation, and/or inspection.”  Today all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have sunshine laws on the books.

Apparently, Representative Gaetz either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the history of his state. He’s out to overturn Florida’s more-than-century-long, proud tradition of enacting open-government laws. Way back in 1909, when sunshine laws were just a twinkle in the eye of other states, Florida passed Chapter 119 of the Florida statutes, called the Public Records Law. In 1967, Florida enacted one of the first sunshine laws in the nation, the Government-in-the-Sunshine law, which became Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes. And, in 1995, the Florida state legislature passed The Florida Sunshine Law.

So what happened to encourage Representative Gaetz to fly in the face of tradition?

(Could it be that Gaetz feels emboldened by the scorched-earth jurisprudence of Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito? Please feel free to answer that question for yourself in the privacy of your own home.)

What happened was that in June 2012, the Tampa Bay Times had the audacity to do exactly what a free and independent press is supposed to do. The newspaper’s reporters and editors recognized an important story, gathered the facts via public records, and published their findings. Following an investigative piece that looked at over two hundred cases in the then-seven years since the Stand Your Ground law was passed, the newspaper published a piece with the headline “Uneven Application, Shocking Outcomes.” The paper’s conclusions, based on statistical analysis, demonstrated the obscenity of Stand Your Ground and showed how deeply the law has subverted the cause of justice.

The paper’s conclusions were not pretty. But here they are:

70 percent of those who invoke the “stand your ground” defense to avoid prosecution for harming or killing someone have gone free [italics added].

Defendants who claim “stand your ground” are more likely to be successful if the victim is black. 73 percent of people who killed a black person faced no penalty.

The number of “stand your ground” cases is increasing as Florida attorneys are using the defense in ways state legislators never envisioned.

If you look at some of the cases claiming the Stand Your Ground defense and succeeding, they are so ludicrous they could have been pulled off of “Saturday Night Live.” Take the case of the jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier. Then there’s the case of a self-professed vampire. What about the man who shot a bear? Or how about my personal favorite, the too-many-garbage-bags-on-the-street nut who shot his neighbor in the stomach and chest because the neighbor put out eight rather than six bags on the curb? By the way, if you’re wondering, garbage-bag nut got off scot-free, demonstrating that, among some of its more admirable qualities, Florida can rightfully claim to be a particularly fastidious state.

In the context of all of the mayhem the Stand Your Ground law has unleashed, in waltzes Representative Gaetz, who just doesn’t like the facts the Tampa Bay Times revealed in its 2012 piece (and continues to publicize in a banner at the top of their online edition that invites the public to review the database of Stand Your Ground cases). In fact, Gaetz dislikes the facts so much that he doesn’t want anybody to be bothered by those facts ever again. So, what’s he going to do about it? Following in the hallowed democratic traditions of this great nation, Gaetz has decided to introduce a bill in the Florida legislature that will restrict media and public access specifically to Stand Your Ground case records.

Gaetz’s bill allows defendants who appropriately use the Stand Your Ground defense to petition to have the history of their criminal record expunged and, in the language of the bill, the defendant’s “criminal history is confidential and exempt from the provisions of the State Constitution.” Gaetz hasn’t left a stone unturned when it comes to showing love for people who injure and kill. Just in case there are some Floridians who still believe they live in a democracy and feel an itch to exercise the stirrings of conscience, the Fort Walton Beach legislator inserted language making it unlawful for anyone to “disclose information relating to the existence [emphasis added] of an expunged criminal history.” And just in case democracy lovers still don’t get the message, Gaetz proposes to criminalize disclosure of any such information and make it punishable as a misdemeanor.

Do you see where this is going? Floridians can walk away from killing or maiming someone for no good reason and have the record of their crime destroyed, but responsible journalists, individuals, and government employees who want the public to have the information necessary for informed public debate can be fined or go to jail.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what kind of country we’ve become.

An update on Representative Gaetz’s proposed bill: The amendment to expunge criminal records, HB89, was adopted by voice vote in the Florida Senate. The larger bill to which it was attached, SB-448, was passed on April 3, 2014, by a vote of 32-7. The bill and the amendment are now on the way to Governor Rick Scott’s desk. The governor is expected to sign the amendment into law.

 

[Featured image: Gary Oliver, Big Bend Sentinel]

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Political poll: Too late at night, too early in the election cycle http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/07/political-poll-too-late-at-night-too-early-in-the-election-cycle/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/07/political-poll-too-late-at-night-too-early-in-the-election-cycle/#comments Mon, 07 Apr 2014 12:00:15 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28208 A 202 area code on caller ID usually means that I’m not picking up. It’s going to be political—probably a plea for money. But last night, when 202 popped up at 10:00 pm, my outrage meter red-lined, and I decided to check it out—if only to vent my anger at whoever was on the other end.

It was a doozy—a political opinion poll focused on the hyper-local Democratic primary for County Executive. Out here in flyover country, St. Louis County [which is not the same thing as St. Louis City] elects a County Executive [a fancy name for, essentially, the mayor of the county] every four years. Somehow, we elected a Democrat to the job in 2010, and he’s running for re-election, but has two Democratic opponents in the primary scheduled for August 2014.

Usually, you can tell who’s paying for these polls, because they ask blatantly obvious “push” questions. This time, though, there were “push” questions pertaining to both of the candidates considered the front runners: the incumbent, Charlie Dooley and the challenger, Steve Steinger.

I was very surprised by some of the questions and options offered for responses.  Examples [from my pre-sleep notes, so undoubtedly far from verbatim]:

How strongly would you consider each of the following reasons to vote in the August Democratic primary for County Executive?

-The need to increase the political strength of the African-American community  [Note to readers: Charlie Dooley is African-American.]

-The desire to elect people who support your right to make your own health care decisions

-To elect people who support increasing the minimum wage

-To elect people who support Obamacare

Which of these traits are most important to you when deciding who you will vote for?

-A candidate who supports a woman’s right to choose

-A candidate who is African-American

-A candidate who supports the principles of the Tea Party

-A candidate who supports conservative ideas

-A candidate who will fight corruption

On education, which of these statements do you agree with?

-Local, independent school districts should have the right to educate their own children.

-There should be a single, county-wide school district.

How strongly do you agree or disagree with this idea?

-There should be a law that guarantees workers a set number of sick days per year.

Which of the following statements are the most convincing to you? [Note to readers: There were more of these, but I didn't manage to get them into my notes.

-Charlie Dooley is a strong leader who listens and puts people first.

-Charlie Dooley has a history of awarding public contracts to his political allies.

-Charlie Dooley has been accused of financial mismanagement.

-Steve Steinger is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County who is invested in its future.

-Steve Stenger refused to release his full federal tax returns after he paid just $21 in taxes on $210,000 in income.

-In his law practice, Steve Steinger has represented people with criminal records.

Huh?

I’m not all that sophisticated about public-opinion polling, but my takeaway is that this poll is designed to test a range of messages that the Democratic Party might use to promote one candidate or the other. Or, wait, maybe it’s a Republican poll, trying to figure out, in the general election in November, what messages to use to try to defeat whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Beats me.

In any case, my notes don’t reflect anywhere near all of the questions I was asked, just the ones I was able to scribble down during what seemed like an endless barrage. I timed it, and it took more than 15 minutes—a major intrusion into my pre-bedtime routine. At this stage of the election cycle, even though I am a likely voter, I haven’t really formed many opinions about the candidates, so the in-the-weeds nature of the questions made them really annoying. Honestly, I only stayed on the phone because I was taking pity on the unfortunate woman who was just doing her job. And I know that she heard me sighing and oy-veying many times during our conversation. In fact, I told her that I felt bad for her, and that I would keep going just so that she could collect her pay.

Bottom line, the whole thing is a sad reflection on the current state of political campaigns. Does anybody actually stand for anything anymore, or is it all about poll-testing the messages and adjusting your beliefs to what will sell? That’s one question for which I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

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