Friday, February 23, 2018

A Modest Proposal

(With apologies to Jonathan Swift.)

In a hail of bullets, students at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were thrust into the role of activists. Within hours, it became clear that they were to become the most determined, effective, and articulate public citizens we have seen in our country in a very long time.

The fact that they were responding to a terror attack in our most politically benighted state made their achievements all the more remarkable. They drew attention to Senator Marco Rubio's misplaced priorities more effectively than anybody of my generation has done, shaming him into endorsing a reduced limit on ammunition magazines. They caused the famously inflexible Gov. Rick "Skeletor" Scott to make a small concession on the question of whether someone too young to buy a Bud Light should be able to buy an assault rifle. The even convinced the president of the United States to speak out in favor of universal background checks, so that terrorists would no longer be able to hide behind private gun sales, and a ban on bump stocks. It remains to be seen whether any of these statements were sincere, and whether they will be enacted while Wayne LaPierre still walks the earth and signs the big checks.

But these young people moved the debate on gun violence, and were not intimidated by the scurrilous smear campaigns that predictably ensued. Politicians who are known to be on the industry payroll had the nerve to suggest that these young people were being paid to speak, as if watching the deaths of their friends and siblings and teachers were not enough. They watched as their state legislators ignored their pleas and their courage, voting down all relevant legislation before voting to codify the empty rhetoric of "thoughts and prayers" in the form of a clearly unconstitutional requirement to install "In God We Trust" signs in all of the schools of the Sunshine State.
Image: New York Times
All of this has me thinking about the voting age. When the Founders of our nation established ages for voting and for holding certain offices, they could not have foreseen the Baby Boomers. There have been more of us than any prior or subsequent generation, and we have made some pretty big mistakes. We have allowed voting districts to be gerrymandered to the very limits of mathematics, ensuring the repeated election of people who are not only unqualified for the jobs they hold, but in some cases not honest enough to hold any job I can think of.

We have allowed -- nay, encouraged -- those politicians to be ruled by the political fetishes of Grover Norquist, a privileged, unelected counter-patriot who somehow gained the allegiance of both major parties, resulting in broken infrastructure, unfunded education, declining life expectancy, and the increasing concentration of wealth.

The Parkland youth are setting an example of
civic engagement for all of us. 
In short, as a group we have had our chance at governing the country, and we have not shown ourselves very capable. If Lincoln is to have his wish that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" we need to do something drastic.

Which leads to my proposal.

The 26th Amendment was passed in 1971, when Boomers were showing our political prowess and actually getting some things done (shortening wars, cleaning the environment, broadening civil rights). It lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, though it left the maximum voting age in place, because the problem of a completely dysfunctional electorate was not foreseen.

It is time to lower the minimum again, and to impose a maximum. Some local elections are already open to 16 year olds, and I would support making that the minimum for federal elections. I think a maximum of 35 or 40 would be appropriate, so that people with a bit more life experience are included, while still avoiding the excesses of the Baby Boomers. At the very most, voting should not be extended to those born prior to 1965.

As for the age restrictions on federal office, I would lower the minimums by 5 years and make the maximum age double the minimum age. So, instead of:

  • Congress Critter: currently eligible from 25 until promised bribes and kickbacks have accumulated to ensure a seven-figure income for life
  • Senator: currently eligible from 30 through rigor mortis
  • President: currently eligible from 35 until golf or brush-clearing consumes every waking moment
... I would suggest:
  • Congressional Representative: 20 to 40
  • Senator: 25 to 50
  • President: 30 to 60 (but this would make me eligible, so we'd better keep this at 52 until the Boomers have aged a bit more)
Under this scheme, those of a certain age can participate, just as those under 18 do now. We can pose in photos when our children or students run for office, we can hold signs on street corners or stuff envelopes. Our financial involvement would need to be similarly limited: donating no more to a campaign than we can carry to a campaign rally in coins with our bare hands, like a kid donating their allowance.


Monday, February 12, 2018

The Gini Is Out of the Bottle

PRI journalist Jason Margolis reports that even with recently rising wages, the United States remains one of the world's most inequitable nations, by several measures.

The report alludes to two prominent measures of income inequality -- the Gini coefficient and ratios of executive pay to that of average workers. By either measure, the United States is either in poor company or in no company at all.

That is to say, a broad measure of income distribution puts the United States in the company of relatively underdeveloped countries -- certainly not any of the countries of Europe. And the stratospheric pay of CEOs compared to ordinary workers cannot be found anywhere in the world.

As other studies have found, sharp inequalities are bad for public health. In countries with highly concentrated wealth, increased stress and other factors mean that even the wealthy are less healthy than they would be in more equitable societies.

The problem in the United States, of course, is that "equitable" is immediately presumed to be the same as "equal." Lingering fears of the deleterious effects of Communism on gumption have resulted in generations of policy-makers -- and voters -- who chose wealth-concentrating policies at every opportunity, from the free-speech rights of corporations to tax and wage policies to the rules for organizing unions.
Hard work is no longer associated with prosperity or even with economic security.
The result is a society in which hard work is now completely disconnected from economic security.

Caveat: The report uses one common term to which I always object: unskilled labor. Use of the term reinforces the myth that executive pay is correlated solely with high levels of skill, discounting the effect of executives staffing each other's compensation committees. It also is used to justify such anti-worker nonsense as "training wages" in place of living wages by which work leads to dignity. Those who use the term "unskilled labor" should spend some time actually trying to do the jobs they think the term covers.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Ill Eagle

Library of Congress researcher Shameema Rahman discusses several failed efforts to count federal laws, and does not offer an estimate. Blogger Dave Kowal argues that there are "too many" and provides a rough estimate of 4,500 criminal violations, with thousands of additional laws throughout the U.S. Code. Neither writer estimates the number of state and municipal laws, but presumably they number in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

In other words, many things are illegal (adj.) in our country -- literally more than we can count. And yet ... and yet! There is one very narrow category of legal violations that will cause the perpetrator to be known as an illegal.

As if the word were a noun. It is not rape, murder, jaywalking, tax evasion, burglary, arson, or treason. People who do these things are described by very specific nouns usually ending in -ist or -er. But the perpetrators of these crimes are understood as distinct from the crimes themselves.

What is the exception? What is the one kind of crime so serious that its perpetrators are labeled as the crime itself? The answer of course, is the breaking of rules related to migration. Sneak across the border, and you are an illegalCross with a visa but violate its terms, and you are an illegal.

Not a trespasser or a paperwork-not-filler-outer, but an illegal (n.). The same does not apply, incidentally, to those who hire undocumented workers -- only to those who are undocumented.

If the economy is growing and unemployment is low, this is not such a big issue. But if an economy is shrinking, or if it is growing slowly, or if it is growing quickly but not providing jobs -- then perpetrators of these crimes are castigated as the illegals and become the target of ire, vitriol, and of course demagoguery.

Even so, during the 2016 presidential campaign, the far right invoked the specter of undocumented migrants who have committed other crimes -- such as murder -- as the focus of eventual stepped-up enforcement. But as Slate journalist Jamelle Bouie writes in ICE Unbound, the distinction between criminality in the narrow sense of being undocumented and criminality in the more common-sense sense of committing crimes against people or property is now guiding federal enforcement actions.

Even people who have documents and are required to check in with immigration agencies are now being arrested and deported, rending families apart. Perhaps this is why we do not hear the phrase "family values conservative" so much these days -- the hypocrisy would be too obvious, even on Fox.

Bouie mentions a sharp shift away from "border removals" -- which strict enforcement under President Obama had already sent into decline -- and toward "internal removals." He hints at one of the reasons for the shift, aside from ideology: many of the removals involve private prisons. With an Attorney General deeply invested in the prison industry and growing number of politicians using it as a source of donations, raids throughout the interior of the country are needed to keep the funds flowing to this sector.


What is often really at work in discussions of immigration is confusion between the notions of patriotism and nationalism. The positive kind of patriotism is something I remember witnessing in the days and weeks -- but not so much the months and years -- following the attacks of September 11, 2001. For a short while, people even in New England started driving more courteously. They treated neighbors more kindly, donated more to charities, and volunteered more in their communities. They even appreciated the outpouring of sympathy from people throughout the world that lasted from the time of the attack until the re-invasion of Iraq.

But in tough times the good energy of patriotism can easily cross over to the bad energy of nationalism, and the bankster-led economic meltdown of 2008 seems to have ushered in just that kind of bad energy. Searching for scapegoats, too many victims of financiers have turned their attention to "others" in their midst and seeking isolation from the "others" outside.
Source: Found online; I'm seeking the name of the cartoonist
Related Stories

As I mentioned several years ago on this blog, my old neighbors in Tucson have long recognized that migrants frequently die in the desert. While this seems to please some of my fellow citizens, others find the compassion to maintain life-saving water stations near the border. Attention has returned to these efforts as news emerged that some border agents have sabotaged water stations. In a recent interview, the Tucson section chief argued that this is against the protocols of the agency itself, and that many agents are actually trained in emergency medicine.

NPR journalist Claudio Sanchez recently reported that among hundreds of thousands of residents currently waiting for relief under DACA are almost 9,000 teachers. The deportations that were discussed during the 2016 presidential campaigns were to be of "bad hombres" who were threats to public safety. Caught in the dragnet, though, are military veterans, teachers, and others who live in and serve the only country they call home: the U.S. of A.

As the White House expands its anti-immigrant program from the "bad hombres" to all undocumented migrants to migrants from places he does not like, the consequences are beginning to emerge in the broader economy. As reported by Forbes journalist Chris Morris, California Crops Rot as Immigration Crackdown Creates Farmworker Shortage.

Writing for Common Dreams, Juan Escalante goes a step further. Citing the influence of white nationalists in the current administration, he plausibly argues that the DACA compromise now under discussion amount to a "racist ransom note" because it ties the fate of DACA applicants to a wish list of policies that would have the effect of whitening the population.

Roger Rocha, president of League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest Latino civil rights organization, did support the administration's position in recent days, as he explains in an interview with NPR journalist Ari Shapiro. He withdrew his letter to the president, however, after significant backlash from members of his organization. In explaining his reasons for supporting the administration, it is clear that the administration positions have been shifting frequently. More troubling is that even in explaining points of agreement, he describes the Dreamer population as hostages to the legislative process.

Consent of the Governed

Extreme measures to limit the rights of migrants are part of a set of strategies by which politicians endeavor to select their constituents, rather than allowing the reverse to happen. Long-term resident of the country are -- clearly -- among the governed, and they are among those who pay taxes. Measures that unduly deny them citizenship and personhood run counter to the ideals of the original (and illegal at the time) American Revolution. We had a bit of set-to with King George, after all, about taxation without representation, and enshrined "consent of the governed" in our Declaration of Independence.

2024 Follow-up: This has only gotten worse

Sadly, I still have to stand by this post six years after I wrote it. I could add another small book here, but I'll point out just a couple of things.
  • I mentioned treason among the crimes one can commit withiout being called illegal. I had no way of knowing about the events of January 6, 2021. If any kind of sanity prevailed in our country, the perpetrators and fomenters of those attacks would be the ones known as illegals. But instead they continue to run for high office.
  • As mentioned above, inflation tends to correlate with the scapegoating of migrants, even though they have nothing to do with it.
  • Shortly after I wrote this post, the government of Nicaragua turned on its people. Shortly after that, some of my dear friends started to make the journey north and some of them are here now -- legally awaiting asylum hearings, but assumed to be illegal by many because they are bilingual and have brown skin.
  • Migrants of all kinds continue to Make America Great.
And finally, some patriotic thoughts from Emma Lazarus and Irving Berlin, along with a sculpture Édouard de Laboulaye. Patriots are proud of both of these. 

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these the homeless tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these the homeless tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Hot Island Hotspot

Avery Island, Louisiana is very high on the list of places I have never been but to which I feel a strong connection. Since I started getting serious about chili in middle school, I have never been far from a bottle of Tabasco. One of the nice things about my three-year stint in the specialty food industry is that our packaging plant always had hundreds of thousands of tiny (1/8-ounce) bottles of the pepper-mash sauce, because we put one in every Meal, Ready-to-Eat that we packaged. When we had meetings in the office, it was often the case that every man in the room was wearing a Tabasco necktie, as we each had a small collection. I remember my boss there admonishing me when I returned from a meeting in New England and complained about the bland food. "What were you doing traveling up there without Tabasco in your pocket?" she scolded.

Its Louisiana home has loomed large in my imagination for years. Even though my parents have visited -- and they did bring me some nice gifts -- I have not yet been closer than a quick zip along Interstate 10 during our 1997 move from Texas to Massachusetts.

I recently learned a lot about the environmental geography of the island from a beautifully illustrated essay by Times-PIcayune journalist Tristan Baurick. As the title implies, his article Tabasco's homeland fights for survival in Louisiana against storms and rising seas is in part the all-too common story of a coastal community defending against the effects of climate change. It is also, however, a richer story of a family that has developed a complex relationship with its land for a century and a half.

The island is more of a hill, a salt dome that is one of the highest points along the Gulf coast, and that continues to provide not only a home for the production of Tabasco Sauce but also one of its three ingredients: salt. Its status as an island is as vague as the land-sea boundary of Louisiana itself, about which I wrote in Tough Shape a couple of years ago.

Image: Justin Secrist USDA
Baurick's profile of the island includes a biographical history of the family business and several stories about the good and bad results of its efforts in the area of wildlife management. It is one of several places where the South American nutria (a varmint similar to a groundhog) was raised for its fur. At a particular point in the 20th century, the economics of the fur industry and the mathematics of nutria reproduction made this a very tempting business prospect. Nutria are apparently adept at escaping confinement, however, and their rapid reproduction makes them quite an aggressive invasive species. The damage done to coastal wetlands -- including those the McIlhenny family have long tried to protect -- is incalculable. I first learned of nutria farming far from Louisiana, when I visited the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. It gives the McIlhenny family a small bit of comfort to know that they were not the only culprits in the century-long nutria fiasco.

The family may have redeemed itself in the wildlife area with its efforts on behalf of the snowy egret, whose feathers were once in such demand that it was hunted nearly to extinction. It would not have been the first abundant bird to have been extirpated by overuse, as was the fate of Martha and the passenger pigeons. The family's introduction of egrets and its ban on hunting them in just its small Louisiana property is credited with the eventual restoration of the species.

At the time of this writing, an even more important "ark" for birds is under threat elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge -- near my former home on the Rio Grande -- is currently threatened by hostility toward wild lands in general and a foolhardy plan to build a border wall in particular.

Our cooking blog Nueva Receta makes fairly frequent mention
of the sauce, most recently as a very minor ingredient
in a baked scallop dish.

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