On the New Congress: Better They Just Keep Doing Nothing

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

Bipartisanship! They always say it’s a good thing. That we need more of it. They say that Washington doesn’t get anything done because Democrats and Republicans don’t have enough in common to get along.

This week pundits are singing their usual song to the tune of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he argued that there is indeed still common ground between the two major parties (something he’s been saying since November), and so there are deals to be struck, bills to be negotiated, business to be done. Republicans say they agree.

God, let’s hope not.

There are many times when bipartisanship turns out to have been a terrible idea. Invading Iraq? Both parties were into it. Ditto with invading Afghanistan. Take a look at the compromises being floated as issues on which the GOP and the Democrats can potentially reach a bargain despite the “toxic tone in Washington” and “partisan rancor.”

Fast-track authority by the president to sign trade agreements is “one of the few areas of potential compromise between the White House and Republican lawmakers.”

Liberal Democrats are trying to scuttle such an agreement, and let’s hope they succeed.

The administration wants to double down on “success” of NAFTA with two new “free trade” agreements, a Trans-Pacific Partnership with 12 Asian nations and another deal with 28 in Europe. It’s hard to find credible projections of net job losses or increases for the ideologically fraught TPP, but we know what happened with previous free-trade deals. The Clinton administration originally predicted that NAFTA would generate 200,000 new American jobs within two years and 1 million new jobs within five, thanks to all of the products the United States would be exporting to Mexico.

In fact, not only to the United States not pick up any new jobs, it lost so many millions of them that it’s impossible for economists to keep track of them all. Not only that, NAFTA led to widespread environmental destruction, especially along the US-Mexico border, and severe downward pressure on US and Canadian wages.

To be charitable, it will hardly be the end of the world if TPP dies on the vine, or if Obama doesn’t get the chance to sign it before the end of his second term.

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The president has previously proposed slashing the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, so the political class thinks this is another wonderful way the Democrats and Republicans could skip down the halls of the Capitol together, holding hands.

However, corporate tax reform wants to solve a problem that doesn’t exist: high taxes paid by business. Corporations and their allies in the media repeatedly claim that American corporations pay the highest taxes in the world.

That’s crap.

They pay the highest marginal tax rate, but that’s totally theoretical, not what they are actually shelling out at the end of the year. Thanks to an array of fancy loopholes enacted into law by both parties over the years, the actual “effective rate” of American corporations is a tiny 12.6 percent. If anything, American corporations haven’t been paying their fair share in a long time.

Corporate toxic reform would be great, of the kind we need – higher taxes in order to relieve the burden on ordinary working Americans – isn’t something Obama, the Democrats or the Republicans are going to get behind.

If corporate tax reform collapses, take yourself out to dinner with the money you’ll save as a result.
Republicans are refusing to consider taking the United States off the short list of countries – it’s us and Papua New Guinea – that don’t require employers to provide paid sick leave. Ah, but Republicans are proposing what they call a compromise, and Democrats are signaling that their open to it: a bill that would allow workers to bank their overtime toward “paid” time off. Federal workers are already allowed to do this.

Workers would be better off holding out for something polls show Americans of both parties are overwhelmingly in favor of: real sick days, fully paid, the cost borne by the employer. Banking overtime toward sick days lets employers – who have seen soaring profits over the past few decades while incomes have stagnated and fallen behind – pass yet another expense from management to labor. Again, one hopes that this is a place that Democrats and Republicans learn not to get along.

We are repeatedly being told that we need bipartisan cooperation.

No we don’t.

What we need is a Congress that addresses our needs and desires.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Still Trust Them? Now the Government Is Tracking You So It Can Steal Your Car

According to federal government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, federal and local law enforcement agencies are using incredibly sneaky technology to track you as you drive the nation’s streets and highways. Their goal? Stealing your car.

This latest scandal — a mash-up of privacy violations on a wide NSA-like scale, corrupt asset forfeiture programs that make a mockery of the U.S. as a nation that respects private property rights, and brazen targeting of lawful gun owners — is a perfect political storm, an outrage that ought to bring liberals, libertarians and conservatives together in an alliance of freedom-loving people against an out-of-control government.

Given the collective shrug elicited by the Edward Snowden revelations, however, expecting a big reaction may be unrealistic.

In the shell of a nut: the ACLU has learned that the DEA and local police departments are scanning every motorist’s license plate as they drive down American streets. The NYPD and LAPD have each already collected hundreds of millions of time- and place-tagged license plate scans. One private security corporation sells its composite list of 2 billion scans to any police department or government agency that wants it. The Department of Homeland Security is teaming up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to build and maintain a national database of license plate data to be shared with other parts of the U.S. security state apparatus.

Aggregated and analyzed, license plate tracking data forms a sophisticated model of your, and my, and everyone else’s habits, associations, shopping habits, friendships, and other activities. If you visit a porn store, they know — and their algorithms can predict when you’ll go again. But blackmail is not what’s on the cops’ minds…not for now, anyway.

They want your cash.

“Asset forfeiture” programs have become big business for law enforcement. Relying on dubious interpretations of the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, American police agencies are taking in billions of dollars a year from people they arrest. “Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing,” according to The Washington Post.

Total take: $5.3 billion.

If you think they’re confiscating the mounds of coke and machine guns they find in a drug kingpin’s trunk, think again. Pulled over for DUI? They take your car, sell it at auction and pocket the proceeds, or keep it for the cops’ own use. That’s on top of whatever jail time and fine the judge hands you if you get convicted.

Even if you’re found not guilty, they keep your car. And/or your cash. And/or jewelry. Anything valuable. Anything they want.

“No criminal charges are necessary for such seizures, and under federal and state laws, authorities may keep most or all seized assets even in the absence of formal charges. Countless innocent Americans have been victimized by what critics call legalized government theft,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “Police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” says the Post. “Police spent the seizure proceeds with little oversight, in some cases buying luxury cars, high-powered weapons and military-grade gear such as armored cars.”

            Talk about un-American: these renegade robber-cops are traitors.

Police have been so pleased with the money and other goodies they nab through asset forfeiture programs that they send officers to seminars that teach them how to maximize their take. Some victims have complained, and successfully proven in court, that they were targeted and entrapped by police whose motivation to detain and arrest them was solely to steal their possessions — but it’s expensive and time-consuming.

Among the money-making schemes cooked up by greedy cops was a 2009 plan by the DEA to “work closely” with officials of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) “in attacking the guns going to [redacted by government censors] and the gun shows, to include programs/operation with LPRs [license plate readers] at the gun shows.”

But the DEA and ATF didn’t care about gun violence. “One internal email acknowledged that the tracking program’s primary purpose is civil asset forfeiture,” the Journal reports. They planned to set-up checkpoints around gun shows, search attendees’ cars using the pretext of a traffic stop, and arrest drivers on whatever charge they can come up with — some legit, others ginned up, in some cases no indictment at all — as an excuse to take their money and their cars. Which, even if they beat the rap, the cops get to keep.

Note to self: carry $5 in cash, use a debit card.

The UK Guardian reports: “According to DEA documents, the primary goal of the program was to seize cars, cash and other assets belonging to criminals. However, the [license plate reader] database’s expansion ‘throughout the United States,’ as one email put it, also widened law enforcers’ capacity for asset forfeiture.”

“It’s deeply concerning and creepy,” lawyer Clark Neily of the libertarian Institute for Justice told the newspaper. “We’re Americans. We drive a lot.”

It is also disgusting, cause for the immediate firing of every “law enforcement” official who has overseen an asset forfeiture program, and a perfect illustration of why only an idiot would trust the government.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

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Pre Ripping Apart the State of the Union Address

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

If you’re in a hurry, I’ll skip straight to the biggest reason not to watch President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address: these things are always hyped, yet they are never good. Think about it. Year after year, pundits tell you to expect big things from the SOTU, but we’re always disappointed.

This is the political version of Lucy offering to hold the football for Charlie Brown so he can kick it. Okay, you can go wash the car or whatever.

Still here? Okay, here’s another reason to skip the so-called big speech: Obama is the lamest of all lame ducks, so nothing he says really matters anyway. He’s got two years to go, but really he’s got less than one year left because the presidential election campaign season begins this September. And there’s no way he’s going to get much traction with a Republican Senate and a Republican House, both of which hate him to various degrees.

If you’re still reading, you’re like me — the kind of political junkie who will watch tomorrow night’s SOTU out of pure multiple-car-pile-up voyeurism.

Like the Grammys.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Senior Obama political advisor Dan Pfeiffer says the theme of the speech will be jobs: “How we make paychecks go farther right now; how we create more good-paying jobs right now; and how do we give people the skills they need to get those high-paying jobs.”

Well, ain’t that sweet.

Correctly if I’m wrong, but as I recall, Pfeiffer’s boss came into office in the middle of the great economic meltdown of 2009, when America was shedding 800,000 jobs a month. Back then, people like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman (and, ahem, moi) suggested that the government ought to step in with a WPA-style jobs program that would have directly employed millions of Americans to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure and build things like national high-speed rail. Rather than bail out Main Street, however, the White House chose to bail out their buddies on Wall Street. As a result, millions of people lost their homes, millions more lost their jobs, and workforce participation has plummeted, putting a serious crimp on the mini recovery that appears to have begun late last year.

In short, better late than never. Or maybe it’s the same exact thing, since whatever chance there was of cooperation with Congress evaporated with the results of the 2014 midterms.

Faced with low expectations of progress, Obama’s speechwriters faced a choice between aiming high – setting the bar for what Democrats favor and will be fighting for in 2016 – and low, asking for legislation so modest in scope yet popular that Republicans would look bad for refusing. Instead, they opted for a third choice: proposals so ridiculously unambitious that Republicans can ignore them because no one will care whether they pass or not.

For example, Obama will ask Congress – though probably not loudly – to require employers to provide workers with seven paid sick days a year. Given the fact that the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that don’t guarantee paid sick days – that’s right, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea do — you’d think that this would be the sort of thing that even pro-business Republicans could get behind, and they could if the winds were in their faces rather than at their backs.

The same thing is true about his so-called plan – I say so-called because if it was really a plan, it should have been announced years ago – to provide free community college tuition to students who attended at least half-time and kept their grades up. Sure would’ve been a good idea if he’d been willing to spend some political capital on it to make it happen.

This is what has been so frustrating about this president. Time was the one thing he didn’t have to waste, yet he has been casually golfing his way through both his terms as the income and wealth gaps continue to widen.  Imagine what he could have accomplished had he acted immediately upon taking office in 2009, when he enjoyed control of both houses of Congress, sky-high opinion polls, and the adoration of the media.

Now it’s way past way too late. At this point, it’s annoying to watch him pretend to try to wake up.

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The Government’s Drive to Criminalize Driving While Talking

Welcome to the dawning of the age of DWT — the criminalization of “driving while talking.”

For the first time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a formal recommendation calling for states to prohibit the use of cellular phones while driving.

Yes, that’s right. The board even wants to ban mobile phone use while using hands-free devices like earbuds and those fancy cars that let you pick up the phone through the dash using Bluetooth, which are currently viewed as less likely to distract drivers.

Texting while driving

The NTSB doesn’t have legal authority to enforce its proposed phone-use ban, but its recommendations are taken seriously by state regulators and legislators.

“There is a large body of evidence showing that talking on a phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, impairs driving and increases your risk of having a crash,” Anne McCartt, SVP for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told The Huffington Post.

Automobile safety experts agree that distracted driving is behind a growing portion of the accident rate, which in general is falling.

Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, co-authored a test of “the performance of drivers not engaged in conversation and drivers who could hear someone talking to them through headphones. Drivers took the simulator tests inside an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine that recorded images of changes in their brains while driving, including which areas of the brain were used for driving. The amount of the brain devoted to driving was 37 percent less in drivers who could hear someone talking to them than for drivers not using cellphones.”

“The human mind can multitask, but each task is performed with less brain power and lower proficiency,” Just explained.

The NTSB says 18 percent of automobile fatalities are caused by distracted driving (including causes other than phones).

Other distractions, such as children and other passengers in the vehicle, are viewed to be relatively neutral from a traffic safety standpoint. You might be distracted by your screaming kids, but one of them might also point out the potential danger that you might otherwise have missed.

Forty percent of Americans told the National Highway Administration they don’t think that hands-free driving is dangerous. But if you’re like me, and you’re honest with yourself, you have to know that you have more close calls when you text or talk on the phone as you drive.

Still, it’s hard to know where to come down on this question of freedom versus safety. Horror novelist Stephen King was nearly killed by a guy distracted by his dog, but it sure would be sad to mandate that dogs be locked in their cages throughout a drive.

What’s certain is that, if a ban on driving while talking becomes law, it will have significant cultural and economic implications.

A Return to Disconnection

In their early days, cellular phones were more of a way for you to call someone else than for you to be reachable. There were many places where they simply didn’t work: inside buildings, out in the sticks, even in the middle of some cities.

Starting in the 1990s for most Americans, the digital revolution has seen connectivity increased to the point that it is easy to foresee a time when everyone would become available to everyone all the time. Cellular signals have spread into remote rural areas, including national parks, and even into subways. The FAA is currently considering a proposal to allow the use of cellular phones on airplanes.

One place where cellular phones have been popular has been behind the wheel of an automobile. Getting stuck in traffic isn’t as bad if you know you can make a few important calls while you’re sitting there sucking up the exhaust fumes. (Since everyone else is doing the same thing, of course, their reaction times aren’t as great, which means that traffic jams are bigger and longer, but whatever.)

There’s just no denying the appeal of using time that used to be close to a total waste — transportation from point A to point B — to make a call. Not to mention the ability to check Google Maps for a quicker route around that jam, and to text your friend to tell him that you’re running late.

If the NTSB gets its way, all that will be over. Cops will have devices that allow them to track the use of cell phones from moving cars, and though some people will break the law, for most the only interaction you’ll have is with your radio or fellow passengers — if, of course, it’s enforced.

It’s obviously impossible to quantify the cost to business, but I have to think it would be high.

On the other hand, the glory days of unavailability would return. Don’t feel like picking up a call? You can always tell your boss you were stuck in traffic. It would have been illegal for you to talk to them.

Mothers Against Talk Driving?

Talkers won’t be demonized as badly as drinkers, but the media and politicians will declare those who break laws against using cell phones while driving to be irresponsible buttholes, who don’t care if they kill your kid so they can pick up a pizza without waiting for it to be made. There will be ad campaigns, sad-eyed dead children and of course high fines, prison sentences and asset forfeiture.

Trains and Planes Instead?

Some people may decide to switch to alternative forms of transportation where they are still allowed to use their phones in transit. For many people, especially those conducting business during daytime hours, the desire for conductivity will trump all other considerations.

Which might be good — that means less traffic on the roads.

Reverse Darwinism

Experts say that we should expect fewer accidents as a result of a cell ban, which would obviously be great, but what about culling the herd? What if we end up with more, stupider people?

Just kidding.

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Comix Journalism: Why My City is Gone: The Gutting of Dayton

I’ve been working on this major comix journalism project for a while and now it’s posted: a comix journalism investigation about the destruction of my hometown. If you’re from the Midwest, your city may have fallen prey to the same destructive forces that hollowed out my home city of Dayton, Ohio.

This project was drawn exclusively for ANewDomain.net.

A short tease is below:

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More.

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On Charlie Hebdo and the Real Free Speech Weenies

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

Not everyone believes in free speech.

I’m not talking about those on the authoritarian right. No one expects them to stand up for the right to dissent. They are ideologically consistent; for them, the rights of the individual always, a distant second to the prerogatives of the state and its incessant campaign to maintain the status quo that keeps them in power.

Today I’m pointing to those – liberals, progressives, left libertarians – who purport to support freedom of expression, and must be seen to do so in order to continue to identify as members of the antiauthoritarian left, but only state their defense of press and personal freedom with reservations.

As in: “Andres Serrano has the right to soak a crucifix in urine, but I would never do anything like that cuz I’m, like, awesomely sensitive.”

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned last week’s mass shooting at Charlie Hebdo‘s offices in Paris — yet found it necessary to introduce the qualifier “whatever you think of this magazine…”

What he or you or I think about the editorial cartoon content of Charlie Hebdo pre- or post-shooting ought to be irrelevant. Either you support freedom of expression, or you don’t.

Even when it is offensive.

Even when it is racist.

Even when it is gross.

Especially when it makes us uncomfortable. (For a recent example of something that triggers my censorship impulse, check out this reactionary response by an Australian cartoonist to the Paris massacre. Really gross. Australian police thought Islamists might think so too, because they turned up at the artist’s house to offer protection.)

Having been at the center of cartoon controversies, I am well familiar with the standard issue liberal “well, I wouldn’t draw anything that disgusting about our soldiers, firefighters, 9/11 widows, president, but Rall clearly has the legal right to do it – if he can get someone to print it” talking point. What these weak sisters conveniently forget is that, even while they’re kind of sort of defending free  expression, death threats and dismissal letters are pouring in… and they are not kind of sort of.

Arthur Hsu’s essay in The Daily Beast is a classic entry in this oh-so-reasonable rhetorical tradition.

First comes the required condemnation of mass murder: “Shooting people is wrong. I want to get this out of the way. When twelve people are killed by violence, whoever they are, for whatever reason, that is a tragedy and a waste. To murder someone by violence is the greatest crime imaginable…”

Yeah yeah yeah, we get it.

Though it’s too late for Hsu to cut to the chase, he finally gets to the point: “Charlie Hebdo is also a crap publication and people need to stop celebrating it and making martyrs out of its staff.”

Why does Hsu think it’s a crap publication?

“Paging through translated cartoons from Charlie Hebdo’s past, the comparisons that kept coming to mind were to Mad magazine or pre-David Wong Cracked, but while the sophomoric level of humor fits—we’re talking single entendres on the level of this crappy joke about the Pope raping choirboys—none of those publications ever descended to quite the same depths as, say, making fun of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram by portraying them as pregnant welfare queens.

The best comparison here for an American audience is, well, Internet stuff. The stuff that ends up in censored form on Tosh.0—the kind of videos, images, and text memes you see linked from 4chan or Something Awful.”

As someone who speaks and reads French fluently, and has read more than my share of French cartoons and graphic novels, Hsu’s reliance on “translated cartoons” jumps out at me. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are stripped of cultural and historical and political context when they are translated minus the extravagant puns, leftist orientation of the editor and artists, and literary and cultural references of the original. I’m about as French as you can be without living in France, and I don’t get half of this stuff.

I doubt Hsu gets 5%.

But never mind that.

Referencing the magazine’s cartoons about Muslims, who are a persecuted minority in France, Hsu writes: “The whole reason the concept of responsible satire has been summed up as ‘punch up, don’t punch down’ is to acknowledge that not all your targets of satire start out on an equal footing.”

Well, fine. I agree with him. But that’s because I’m American. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted is the American way, especially for left-of-center American satirists. But the slaughtered cartoonists weren’t American. They come from a very different cultural tradition. It’s not possible for foreigners to judge these cartoons intelligently.

Cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo make people like Hsu — and me — uncomfortable. They set off all sorts of triggers rooted in political correctness and identity politics, some, no doubt well-intentioned.

But that’s exactly the point.

If those cartoons hadn’t been outrageous, the cartoonists who drew them probably wouldn’t have gotten shot to death. (Similarly, my cartoons about 9/11 icons were over-the-top. That’s why they stirred a fuss.)

To believe in freedom of expression, to truly defend satire, we must stand up for it unequivocally, without reservation — not despite our distaste for the cartoons or standup routines or humorous essays or films drawing fire from critics and potential murderers, but because they make us uncomfortable.

If you can’t compartmentalize, if you can’t refrain from playing the critic even when the cartoons or whatever have gotten their creators blown away by automatic weapons, then you are not with us. You are with them.

[Corrected 1/23/15. “Piss Christ” was the work of Andres Serrano, not Robert Maplethorpe.

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