Later On

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Archive for the ‘Biden administration’ Category

“I Fought in Afghanistan. I Still Wonder, Was It Worth It?”

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Timothy Kahn, formerly a USMC captain, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and writes in the NY Times:

When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.

Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.

It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless.

Then it’s replaced by the sweet, artificial scents of home after the long plane ride back. Suddenly I’m on a cold American street littered with leaves. A couple passes by holding hands, a bottle of wine in a tote bag, dressed for a party, unaware of the veneer that preserves their carelessness.

I remain distant from them, trapped between past and present, in the same space you sometimes see in the eyes of the old-timers marching in Veterans Day parades with their folded caps covered in retired unit patches, wearing surplus uniforms they can’t seem to take off. It’s the space between their staring eyes and the cheering crowd where those of us who return from war abide.

My war ended in 2011, when I came home from Afghanistan eager to resume my life. I was in peak physical shape, had a college degree, had a half-year of saved paychecks and would receive an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in a few months. I was free to do whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Initially I attributed it to jet lag, then to a need for well-deserved rest, but eventually there was no excuse. I returned to my friends and family, hoping I would feel differently. I did not.

“Relax. You earned it,” they said. “There’s plenty of time to figure out what’s next.” But figuring out the future felt like abandoning the past. It had been just a month since my last combat patrol, but I know now that years don’t make a difference.

At first, everyone wanted to ask about the war. They knew they were supposed to but approached the topic tentatively, the way you hold out a hand to an injured animal. And as I went into detail, their expressions changed, first to curiosity, then sympathy and finally to horror.

I knew their repulsion was only self-preservation. After all, the war cost nothing to the civilians who stayed home. They just wanted to live the free and peaceful lives they’d grown accustomed to — and wasn’t their peace of mind what we fought for in the first place?

After my discharge, I moved to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Curbing gun violence in the United States

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In a post yesterday, I set out the reasons that suicide should, like homicide, be viewed as part of the serious gun violence problem the US has. What can be done to implement ways of combating gun violence? Colleen Walsh describes in the Harvard Gazette some steps that could be taken.

In the wake of several deadly mass shootings, President Biden announced a list of executive orders last Thursday aimed at reducing gun-related violence, and called for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Biden’s orders included better regulation of “ghost guns” — homemade weapons that lack traceable serial numbers — and stabilizing braces that transform pistols into more lethal, short-barreled rifles. They also called for increased support for violence-intervention programs, and model “red flag” legislation to make it easier to get guns away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Stopping gun violence will take myriad approaches, including a range of public health efforts, according to David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and author of the 2006 book “Private Guns, Public Health.” Hemenway, who is working on a new book about firearms and public health while the Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, spoke with the Gazette about what needs to be done to curb gun violence in the U.S.

Q&A with David Hemenway

GAZETTE: What was your impression of Biden’s executive orders around gun control?

HEMENWAY: Biden’s overall plan seems excellent—a response that is more than just more law enforcement — and these executive actions are good first steps to reduce the terrible problem of firearm violence in the U.S. There are various specific actions taken, such as beginning to address the issues of ghost guns (which aren’t subject to background checks), and they are all important. He could do more, but there are so many important things he can’t do by himself with executive orders. Overall, I think it’s a nice first step, but he needs Congress to work with him to do many of the most important things.

GAZETTE: What are some of those things?

HEMENWAY: Universal background checks need to be passed by Congress, but even more important than that would be universal gun-licensing laws (which implies universal background checks) and handgun registration. Just as everyone who drives a motor vehicle needs to have a license and vehicle registration, the same should be true for anyone who owns a firearm. Only a few U.S. states have gun licensing, but as far as I can tell, virtually every other developed country has some form of gun licensing, and their levels of gun violence are all far lower than ours. Licensing and registration helps keep guns out of the wrong hands.

There are so many other actions the federal government could take to help further reduce firearm violence. For example, the federal government could model what good training for gun owners should look like. In our work at the School of Public Health, we sent people out to take dozens of basic gun training classes throughout the Northeast. Some of the trainings were excellent, but some were horrible. Only half of the trainers discussed how you should store your guns appropriately, while a few said if you have kids you can just hide your guns. Almost no one discussed the role of guns in suicide, the curiosity of children, methods of de-escalating conflict, alternative methods of self-defense, or the type of continual training one needs to effectively use a gun in self-defense. The federal government could play an important role in helping to create and model rules around training.

We also need better gun-safety standards. Many children (and some adults) don’t know that when you take out the magazine from a semi-automatic pistol, the gun is still loaded, not realizing that there is a bullet left in the chamber and that if you pull the trigger you could kill somebody. This is the most common way that children are killed unintentionally with guns in this country. Even better than teaching every child or even having guns that make it apparent when they can still be fired, semi-automatic pistols can be made so the gun won’t fire when the magazine has been removed. We should also have childproof guns. Many 2- to 4-year-olds kill themselves when they find a loaded firearm. We made childproof aspirin bottles because children would find aspirin bottles and die from ingesting the aspirin, but we still make it too easy for toddlers to find guns and kill themselves.

I also think we need strict liability laws for gun owners. One of the reasons accidental pool drownings decreased in many parts of the world is because people who don’t properly fence and protect their pools became liable in the case of accidental injury, especially to children who gained access to the pool and drowned. The same should be true for something as dangerous as a gun. If you own TNT, or anything which is extremely dangerous, you have to be safe and responsible with it. Right now, that’s not the case for many guns, which are too commonly stored insecurely. Roughly 350,000 guns are stolen each year and end up in the wrong hands.

GAZETTE: Picking up on the issue of liability, Biden said during his press conference if he could do one thing it would be to eliminate immunity for gun manufacturers.

HEMENWAY: That’s certainly important. The reason the law was passed during the Bush administration was to protect the gun manufacturers and distributors who saw what had happened in the tobacco arena, and they didn’t want it to happen to them, so they got Republicans to pass a law giving them incredible immunity compared to other products. So yes, that would be a useful thing.

GAZETTE: Why do you think there is so little appetite in America, even after so many mass shootings, for any additional controls on the sale and use of guns?

HEMENWAY: I think it’s a combination of misinformation and the culture wars. I looked at Google news this morning, and the headline about the Biden initiatives was from Fox News: “Sen. Hawley: Biden ultimately seeks civilian gun confiscation while permitting rioters and crime.”

GAZETTE: What do you think of Biden’s pick to head the ATF, David Chipman?

HEMENWAY: I know David. I think he’s great. He’s very smart, very personable, hard-working, and quite experienced. He was an ATF agent for years ­— he’s certainly well-qualified. It would be good if he could strengthen the ATF’s oversight of gun dealers. The agency has been hamstrung through the years, and there seem to still be too many bad-apple gun dealers who make it too easy for the wrong people to gain access to firearms.

GAZETTE: Biden’s plan also calls for a new report on gun trafficking to be conducted by the Justice Department. In your mind, why is that data so important?

HEMENWAY: Reports are good, but perhaps even more important would be

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 12:07 pm

Republicans going off in all directions

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Heather Cox Richardson has a post that’s worth reading because it sets out a variety of developing issues, including a serious conflict within the Republican party regarding the direction it should take. She writes:

Congress has been on break since March 29, and tomorrow members will go back to Washington, D.C., to resume work. The next weeks are going to be busy for the lawmakers, not least because the political ground in America appears to be shifting.

In the two weeks the lawmakers have been back in their districts, a lot has happened. The Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan on March 31, calling for a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure. The plan includes traditional items like railroads and bridges and roads; it also uses a modern, expansive definition of infrastructure, including support for our electrical grid, green energy, and clean water delivery, as well as the construction of high-speed broadband to all Americans. The plan also defines childcare and eldercare as infrastructure issues, an important redefinition that will not only help more women regain a foothold in the economy, but will also help to replace manufacturing jobs as a key stabilizer of middle-class America. The administration is selling the infrastructure plan, in part, by emphasizing that it will create jobs (hence “American Jobs Plan” rather than something like “American Infrastructure Act”).

President Biden has proposed paying for the plan by raising the corporate tax from 21% to 28% (it was 35% before Trump’s 2017 tax cut) and by increasing the global minimum tax from 13% to 21% (so that companies cannot stash profits in low-tax countries). He has also proposed saving money by ending the federal tax breaks for fossil fuel companies and by putting teeth in the enforcement of tax laws against corporations who have skated without paying taxes in the past.

The president also put together a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to look at the question of adjusting the Supreme Court to the modern era. While people are focusing on the question of whether the number of justices on the Supreme Court should be increased—it has held at 9 since 1869, even as three more circuits have been added—the commission is also looking at “the length of service and turnover of justices on the Court.” It is only very recently that justices grimly held onto a Supreme Court appointment until death; the positions used to turn over with some frequency. The commission is an astonishingly distinguished group of scholars, lawyers, and judges.

Nonetheless, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claimed the establishment of the commission displayed “open disdain for judicial independence.” And yet, the Supreme Court itself undermined his position in favor of a nonpartisan judiciary late Friday night. It issued an unsigned opinion in which the court decided, by a vote of 5-4, that state restrictions on private religious gatherings during the pandemic infringed on people’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the minority.

Biden has also asked Congress to take on the issue of gun control, after yet more mass shootings in the country. And overshadowing all is the Democrat’s demand for the passage of voting rights legislation that would protect voting, end gerrymandering, and curb the influence of big money in U.S. elections.

While the legislative world has been rocking, so has the world of the Republicans. The party is torn between the Trump wing and the business wing, and in the course of the past few weeks, that rift has widened and destabilized.

On March 25, Georgia passed a sweeping new voting restriction law. Legislators argued that they were simply trying to combat voter fraud, but the law, in fact, significantly restricts voting hours and mail-in voting, as well as turning over the mechanics of elections to partisan committees. The Georgia law came after a similar set of restrictions in Iowa; other states, including Texas, are following suit.

But this attack on voting rights is not playing well with the corporate leaders who, in the past, tended to stand with the Republicans. Leaders from more than 170 corporations condemned the new Georgia law, saying, “We stand in solidarity with voters 一 and with the Black executives and leaders at the helm of this movement 一 in our nonpartisan commitment to equality and democracy. If our government is going to work for all of us, each of us must have equal freedom to vote and elections must reflect the will of voters.” Major League Baseball grabbed headlines when it decided to move this summer’s All-Star game out of the state.

Following the corporate pushback over the Georgia law, the leader of the business Republican faction, Mitch McConnell, said that it was “stupid” for corporations to weigh in on divisive political issues, although he specified he was “not talking about political contributions.” Republican lawmakers have said that corporations should not take political stances, a position that sits uneasily with the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which said that corporate donations to political candidates were a form of political speech and could not be limited by the government. The so-called “Citizens United” decision opened up a flood of corporate money into our political system.

Yesterday, more than 100 corporate executives met over Zoom to figure out how . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and some interesting aspects are discussed later in the column.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 10:47 am

America’s Immigration Amnesia: Despite recurrent claims of crisis at the border, the United States still does not have a coherent immigration policy

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Caitlin Dickerson writes in the Atlantic:

In the early 2000s, Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas were accustomed to encountering a few hundred children attempting to cross the American border alone each month. Some hoped to sneak into the country unnoticed; others readily presented themselves to officials in order to request asylum. The agents would transport the children, who were exhausted, dehydrated, and sometimes injured, to Border Patrol stations and book them into austere concrete holding cells. The facilities are notoriously cold, so agents would hand the children Mylar blankets to keep warm until federal workers could deliver them to child-welfare authorities.

But starting in 2012, the number of children arriving at the border crept up, first to about 1,000 a month, then 2,000, then 5,000. By the summer of 2014, federal officials were processing more than 8,000 children a month in that region alone, cramming them into the same cells that had previously held only a few dozen at a time, and that were not meant to hold children at all.

As the stations filled, the Obama administration scrambled to find a solution. The law required that the children be moved away from the border within 72 hours and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, so they could be housed safely and comfortably until they were released to adults willing to sponsor them. But HHS facilities were also overflowing. The department signed new contracts for “emergency-influx shelters,” growing its capacity by thousands of beds within a matter of months. Government workers pulled 100-hour weeks to coordinate logistics. And then, seemingly overnight, border crossings began to drop precipitously. No one knew exactly why.

“The numbers are unpredictable,” Mark Weber, an HHS spokesperson, told me in 2016, just as another child-migration surge was beginning to crest. “We don’t know why a bunch of kids decided to come in 2014, or why they stopped coming in 2015. The thing we do know is these kids are trying to escape violence, gangs, economic instability. That’s a common theme. The numbers have changed over the years, but the themes stayed the same.”

The cycle repeated itself under President Donald Trump in 2019, and is doing so again now. And as border crossings rise and the government rushes to open new emergency-influx shelters, some lawmakers and pundits are declaring that the Biden administration is responsible for the surge. “The #BidenBorderCrisis was caused by the message sent by his campaign & by the measures taken in the early days of his new administration,” Marco Rubio tweeted last week. The administration is “luring children to the border with the promise of letting them in,” Joe Scarborough, the Republican congressman turned cable-television host, told millions of viewers during a recent segment.

But for decades, most immigration experts have viewed border crossings not in terms of surges, but in terms of cycles that are affected by an array of factors. These include the cartels’ trafficking business, weather, and religious holidays as well as American politics—but perhaps most of all by conditions in the children’s home countries. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report found that young peoples’ “motives for migrating to the United States are often multifaceted and difficult to measure analytically,” and that “while the impacts of actual and perceived U.S. immigration policies have been widely debated, it remains unclear if, and how, specific immigration policies have motivated children to migrate to the United States.”

The report pointed out that special protections for children put into place under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 may have shifted migration patterns by encouraging parents to send their children alone rather than travel as a family. But it found that blaming any one administration for a rise in border crossings ultimately made no sense—the United States has offered some form of protection to people fleeing persecution since the 1940s, and those rights were expanded more than 40 years ago under the Refugee Act of 1980.

This is not to say that President Joe Biden’s stance on immigration—which has thus far been to discourage foreigners from crossing the border while also declaring that those who do so anyway will be treated humanely—has had no effect on the current trend. Like other business owners, professional human traffickers, known as coyotes, rely on marketing—and federal intelligence suggests that perceived windows of opportunity have been responsible for some of their most profitable years.

For example, border crossings rose in the months before President Trump took office in part because coyotes encouraged people to hurry into the United States before the start of the crackdown that Trump had promised during his campaign. With Trump out of office, some prospective migrants likely feel impelled to seek refuge now, before another election could restore his policies.

But placing blame for the recent increase in border crossings entirely on the current administration’s policies ignores the reality that the federal government has held more children in custody in the past than it is holding right now, and that border crossings have soared and then dropped many times over the decades, seemingly irrespective of who is president.

Given, then, that the movement of unaccompanied minors has long ebbed and flowed—we are now experiencing the fourth so-called surge over the course of three administrations—why do border facilities still appear overwhelmed? The answer, in part, is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 1:36 pm

A scorching reply to Georgia’s vile new voting law unmasks a big GOP lie

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Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post:

The 2020 elections in Georgia should have been cause for celebration among everyone, not just Democrats who won the state’s presidential and Senate races. Amid extremely challenging conditions, election officials took smart, public-spirited steps to ensure that as many voters as possible could participate.

And it worked. Turnout was high on Election Day and during the Senate runoffs, especially among African American voters.

That should have been widely cheered. Yet it’s precisely what the state’s Republican officials apparently want to ensure never happens again.

Georgia Republicans just passed a far-reaching voter suppression law that is shockingly blatant in its efforts to restrict voting. It was signed Thursday by Gov. Brian Kemp (R), as one Democratic lawmaker who sought to watch was arrested.

In multiple ways, the measure appears designed to target African American voters, the very voters who drove the 2020 Democratic wins. That complaint is at the core of a new lawsuit filed on Thursday night against the law.

But the lawsuit also exposes — in a fresh way — the appalling dishonesty of Republicans who continue using former president Donald Trump’s lie about the election to justify voter suppression efforts everywhere.

Voter suppression on steroids

Most conspicuously, the new law bars third-party groups from sharing food and water with people waiting in voting lines. It imposes new ID requirements for vote-by-mail, restricts drop boxes for mail ballots and bans mobile voting places, among many other things.

The lawsuit by several voting rights groups — represented by Democratic lawyer Marc Elias — argues that the package unduly burdens the voting rights of all Georgians, disproportionately African Americans, violating the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.

The lawsuit cites the extremely high voter turnout in the general and runoff elections, facilitated amid a raging pandemic by vote-by-mail, which was used by African American voters at higher rates than White voters.

The law is largely targeted toward that fact, the lawsuit argues. Restrictions on drop boxes and mobile voting units come after both were heavily utilized in Fulton County, a populous, majority-Black area. African Americans are more likely to use drop boxes because they more often work multiple jobs, the suit argues.

Meanwhile, bans on sharing food and water target the fact that voting lines and wait times tend to be longer in African American areas. And Black voters are disproportionately less likely to have the right ID to qualify to vote by mail, the lawsuit argues.

The critical point is that the past election worked, due to the very practices Republicans now want to curb. Organizers distributed food and water, enabling voters to brave lines. Election officials used expanded vote-by-mail, drop boxes and mobile units to facilitate pandemic voting.

“This successful mobilization was widely heralded as crucial in facilitating Black voter turnout,” the lawsuit notes. Which is precisely the problem, the lawsuit argues: What Republicans want to avert is another such “successful mobilization.”

Republicans give away the game

The justification that Republicans themselves offer for these measures gives away the real game here. Defenders say they are needed to ensure the integrity of future elections and boost public confidence in them.

But the elections in Georgia actually were conducted with absolute integrity, and the Republican secretary of state has himself attested to this. That official, Brad Raffensperger, declared the elections “safe” and “secure.”

This caused Raffensperger to become the target of Trump’s rage. But that doesn’t mean what Raffensperger said isn’t true. It is true.

This was confirmed in a statewide audit. Indeed, Raffensperger has attested to the integrity of Georgia elections more generally, declaring: “Georgia’s voting system has never been more secure or trustworthy.”

Which raises the question: Why are these new measures needed, if Georgia elections are already secure and trustworthy? Why, to avert another “successful mobilization.”

As the lawsuit argues, the very fact that GOP election officials confirmed the integrity of Georgia elections shows the measures “serve no legitimate purpose or compelling state interest other than to make absentee, early, and election-day voting more difficult — especially for minority voters.” . . .

Continue reading.

The column concludes:

p class=”font–body font-copy gray-darkest ma-0 pb-md ” data-el=”text”>All this points to a bigger lie. All across the country, Republicans are escalating voter suppression efforts, fake-justified by the lie that the election was stolen from Trump.

In the softer version of this, it’s fake-justified by the notion that many Republican voters believe that to be true and just need their “confidence” restored to ensure future participation.

But the real way to restore such confidence is to tell voters the truth: That the election was an inspiring success amid very difficult conditions — and its outcome was unimpeachably legitimate — precisely because of the integrity of election workers everywhere. Grounds for confidence in future elections

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 2:37 pm

Trump Complains Government Is ‘Persecuting’ Capitol Rioters

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The situation in the US is actively getting more dangerous because Donald Trump is leading and fomenting an already-violent insurrection against the government — against the administration, really, to force someone — Congress, Georgia Governor, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence… anyone — to provide an election “count” sufficient to put Trump back in the White House. And he’s not going to shut up until he is in the White House. He’ll butt into every situation he can. As we’ve seen, he has zero sense of shame and zero decorum.

Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

One of the most dangerous, long-lasting changes effected by Donald Trump is the rightward extension of the Republican coalition. A wide array of far-right militias and cults was either created or inspired to join the Republican Party by Trump’s racist, paranoid, and authoritarian rhetoric. Now those groups are the subject of regular apologias in party-aligned media.

The new reality was driven home in Trump’s interview with Laura Ingraham Thursday night. At one point, the Fox News host, whose “interview” was more like an exchange of talking points, brought up a new report that the Homeland Security Department will be giving more attention to right-wing domestic extremism. “The idea is to identify people who may, through their social-media behavior, be prone to influence by toxic messaging spread by foreign governments, terrorists, and domestic extremists,” Ingraham noted. “Mr. President, their DHS is going after people who may be your supporters.”

It is worth pausing for a moment to record that Ingraham’s reaction to a description of people “prone to influence by toxic messaging spread by foreign governments, terrorists, and domestic extremists” is hey, they’re talking about us!

Trump, taking the cue, denounced federal authorities for charging his supporters with crimes. “They go after that, I guess you’d call them leaning toward the right … those people, they’re arresting them by the dozens,” he complained.

Ingraham did not follow up by asking who was being arrested by the dozens. But Trump’s answer became clear a few questions later. Ingraham prompted him with a safe question about the security fencing around the Capitol, a precaution even Democrats have deemed excessive long after the insurrection ended.

Rather than simply denounce the fencing, Trump launched into . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 2:14 pm

Bad blood and bad faith in the US Senate

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2021 at 11:05 am

US sinks to new low in rankings of world’s democracies

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Sam Levine reports in the Guardian:

The US has fallen to a new low in a global ranking of political rights and civil liberties, a drop fueled by unequal treatment of minority groups, damaging influence of money in politics, and increased polarization, according to a new report by Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group.

The US earned 83 out of 100 possible points this year in Freedom House’s annual rankings of freedoms around the world, an 11-point drop from its ranking of 94 a decade ago. The US’s new ranking places it on par with countries like Panama, Romania and Croatia and behind countries such as Argentina and Mongolia. It lagged far behind countries like the United Kingdom (93), Chile (93), Costa Rica (91) and Slovakia (90).

“Dropping 11 points is unusual, especially for an established democracy, because they tend to be more stable in our scores,” Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice-president for research and analysis, told the Guardian. “It’s significant for Americans and it’s significant for the world, because the United States is such a prominent, visible democracy, one that is looked to for so many reasons.”

While Freedom House has long included the US in its global ranking of freedoms, it traditionally has not turned an eye inward and focused on US democracy. But this year, Repucci authored an extensive report doing just that, a move motivated by increasing concern over attacks on freedoms in the US.

The report details the inequities that minority groups, especially Black people and Native Americans face when it comes to the criminal justice system and voting. It also illustrates that public trust in government has been damaged by the way rich Americans can use their money to exert outsize influence on American politics.

And it points out that extreme partisan gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral district lines to boost one party over the other – has contributed to dramatic polarization in the US, threatening its democratic foundations. Gerrymandering, the report says, “has the most corrosive and radicalizing effect on US politics”.

“We’re really concerned about these longer-term challenges that aren’t going to be addressed with quick fixes, that were kind of highlighted during the Trump administration and, in some cases, taken advantage of, by that administration.” Repucci said. “A change of president is not gonna make them go away.”

The report offers three recommendations for improving American democracy:  . . .

Continue reading. You will not be surprised to read that Democrats in Congress are pushing to implement all three recommendations and Republicans are fighting all three. Republicans do not want democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2021 at 1:04 pm

Republicans fight to cling to power

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Heather Cox Richardson has another good column. It begins with a description of the Biden administration’s efforts to support and defend democracy abroad (rather than attempting to ingratiate itself with tyrants and dictators, the approach used by the previous administration). Then the column concludes with this:

. . . The Biden administration is not just trying to defend democracy overseas. It is also trying to reclaim democracy here at home. Since 1981, Republicans have focused on cutting taxes and turning over our public infrastructure to private individuals, and as their agenda became less and less popular, they have relied on voter suppression and gerrymandering to stay in power. With Republicans in charge of the Senate, they could kill even enormously popular bills that passed the House of Representatives, and now that Democrats are in charge, the filibuster enables them to do the same.

The Biden administration has used its success with the coronavirus vaccine rollout to illustrate that government can actually be a dramatic force for good. This weekend, the number of coronavirus vaccines delivered was over 3 million a day, and President Biden beat his own goal of reaching 100 million vaccines in arms within his first hundred days by a month.

The passage of the American Rescue Plan, which 77% of the American people wanted and which promptly put desperately needed money into people’s pockets, has encouraged the White House to turn to a $3 trillion infrastructure and jobs package. The details of the plan are still fluid, but it appears that this plan will have two parts: one focused on infrastructure, including hundreds of billions of dollars to fix the country’s crumbling roads and bridges, and one focused on the societal issues that Biden calls the “caregiving economy,” including universal prekindergarten and free tuition for community colleges, as well as funding for childcare. This plan will likely be funded, at least in part, by tax increases on those who make more than $400,000 a year.

They are reclaiming the government for the American people.

But Republicans, who generally cling to the idea that, as President Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem,” are determined to stop Democrats from enacting their agenda. Legislators in 43 states have proposed more than 250 bills to suppress voting. Getting rid of Democratic votes would put Republicans back into power even if they could not command a real majority.

To combat this rigging of the system, Democrats in the House passed HR 1, a sweeping bill to protect voting, end gerrymandering, and limit the power of dark money in our elections. The “For the People Act” has now gone on to the Senate, where Republicans recognize that it would “be absolutely devastating for Republicans in this country.”

The bill will die so long as Republican senators can block it with the filibuster, and if it does, the Republican voter suppression laws that cut Democrats out of the vote will stand, making it likely that Democrats will not be able to win future elections. That reality has put reforming the filibuster back on the table. While President Biden, as well as Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have all expressed a wish to preserve at least some version of the filibuster, they are now all saying they might be willing to reform it. This might mean making election bills exempt from the filibuster the way financial bills are, or going back to the system in which stopping a measure actually required talking, rather than simply threatening to talk.

Both parties recognize that their future hangs on whether HR 1 passes, and that hangs on the filibuster.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 March 2021 at 12:58 am

How Biden Can Clean Up Obama’s Big Tech Mess

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Last week, documents leaked showing that the Obama administration nearly brought antitrust charges against Google in 2012. I’m going to write about why they didn’t, the damage that decision caused, and why Biden will forge a different path.

Also in this column are short pieces on:

  • How Gmail Quietly Controls a Vital Channel for Political Speech
  • The Slow Collapse of Corporate Republicans
  • The Monopoly Behind the Nuclear Weapons Lobby
  • The Coming Merger Boom
  • Why Golf Clubs Are Getting Worse

Before the main event, some house-keeping. I have a piece in the New York Times on the Arizona state legislative fight against the app store monopolies of Google and Apple. Also, I was recently on Marketplace to talk about Google. Finally, reporter Alec McGillis has an important book out on Amazon and the tearing apart of American society. It’s called Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, and I’ll be writing more about it shortly.

And now…

Bad Search Engine Results Kill People

Americans expect Google to deliver the most relevant and best results for any particular query. But Google has an edge case problem. When an unsophisticated or desperate user really needs information about something important, and marketers are trying to lie or defraud the user, Google may deliver results that are not only bad, but actively harmful.

For instance, in 2017, reporters Cat Ferguson and Dave Dayen showed that Google’s poor search results had become a useful tool for con artists trying to entice addicts and alcoholics to sham rehab facilities. Google’s marketing tools often worked, helping shoddy treatment center firms cheat addicts, some of whom no doubt relapsed.

Offering poor quality rehab facilities is wrong, and Google didn’t cheat the addicts directly. But what made this line of business profitable was among other things the easy access to customers enabled by using Google. Indeed, as Ferguson noted, these companies were “united by their dependence on Google.” Embarrassed by the publicity, Google eventually made some effort at addressing the problem, but never really figured out how to stop con artists from using its service to harm these desperate people.

Similarly, in 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported on millions of fake listings on Google Maps, which con artists used to cheat customers and blackmail honest small businesses. Users were screwed. But for businesses, the only recourse was to spend more ad money on Google; complaining got you nowhere, or worse. Said one businessman, “It’s less harmful to piss off the government than piss off Google. The government will hit me with a fine. But if Google suspends my listings, I’m out of a job. Google could make me homeless.”

In other words, while generally speaking you will get good results from Google, in edge cases you may get results that are extremely harmful, like a repairman who cheats you, a bad doctor, or someone who wants to steal your money in the guise of helping you recover from addiction. Since most people expect to get credible results from Google, it’s a form of mass deception. And those who rely on Google to convey information to customers, like small businesses, are often on a knife’s edge, existing at the whim of a search monopolist that does not notice them.

These quality problems are a result of Google’s monopoly; poor quality is a classic symptom of monopoly power. How Google seems to offer good results on the whole, but sometimes undermines quality at the edges, is a somewhat subtle story.

Why Does Google Help Kill Addicts Seeking Recovery Services?

Google’s main search engine is what is called a ‘general search engine,’ meaning it provides general results based on indexing most of the web.

There are other types of search engines. Yelp and Expedia, for instance, are known as ‘vertical search engines’ who focus on a much narrower topic, like local businesses and travel. You can’t ask Yelp generalized questions about research or culture, but it is likely better (though not perfect) at removing local restaurant listing spam than Google, because that is its entire business.

Of course Google isn’t just a general search engine. It has vertical search lines of business as well. It competes with Yelp, Expedia, etc, listing restaurants, health providers, travel information, etc, and has user reviews. But the incentives are different for Google. If Google Maps stopped listing every restaurant in New York City, the lost revenue literally wouldn’t show up on Google’s income statement. Yelp, however, would see it as a crisis for its business.

The CEO of Yelp no doubt spends a lot more time thinking about removing fake listings of restaurants than Google CEO Sundar Pichai, just because Pichai has nine products with more than a billion users. Maybe Google is better at building stuff than most companies, but it’s not so much better that its executives can spend no time on a search problem and, all things being equal, still outperform a specialized search vertical. In other words, the reason Google isn’t very good at finding the right health care provider or local business is because that’s not really what its executives think about.

All of this is a way of saying that vertical search engines are sometimes better at finding certain kinds of information than Google. In its original form, from 1998-2007, Google helped blend the world of general and specialized search; it simply chose the best results, sending people to the right place on the web or to the right vertical search engines that had the best results. As Google co-founder Larry Page once put it, “We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible.” People built businesses around an open web. Yelp was founded in 2004, back when you could still found firms adjacent to Google; Yelp got a lot of traffic from Google because it had the best local results.

But in 2007, Google stopped trying to send users to the most relevant place to answer their query, and started to try and keep people on Google properties. It began transforming itself from a general search engine into a walled garden, and it arranged its business strategy to exclude competitors, both vertical and general search, from the market, especially as people started to use their mobile phones to find things. At first this change was subtle, but Google gradually expanded its walled garden, encompassing more and more content. In doing so, it directed ad revenue to itself, eventually strangling not only vertical search competitors, but also publishers, online video and mapping competitors, and advertising technology firms.

Today, Google is the key gatekeeper to the web for users and advertisers, and venture capitalists will not invest in firms adjacent to it. Google’s dominance is also why the web in 2021 is increasingly a mess, a place for scam artists and disinformation. Today, if there were a vibrant competitive market for search, this rehab clinic fiasco might not be a problem; a health-based vertical search engine might be able to solve the problem that Google cannot. But in Google’s walled garden internet, that’s no longer a possibility. And as there really is no distinction between the web and the offline world, Google’s absentee landlord relationship to problems involving credible information is one reason scam artists and disinformation are proliferating globally.

It didn’t have to be this way. And in fact, in 2012, the Federal Trade Commission, which is our antitrust enforcer, nearly filed a case that would have stopped Google from corrupting our information commons.

Fumbling the Future

And this brings me to Leah Nylen’s story last week titled “How Washington Fumbled the Future”, looking back on the Obama administration’s policy vis-a-vis Google. She got her hands on a series of allegations the FTC had in 2012, in documents kept secret for nearly a decade. Recently, there have been multiple antitrust suits launched against Google, two by states and one at the Federal level. What is astonishing is how the FTC in 2012 had the evidence to bring most of the suits in court today.

Those of us who follow this area didn’t think that the 2012 FTC documents would be that interesting. The vote to close the Google investigation was unanimous, 5-0, with both Republican and Democratic commissioners letting Google skate. We figured that the FTC just didn’t see the problem clearly, as technology markets tend to morph quickly. Back in 2011 when the investigation started, who would have imagined that Google would become this powerful and dominant?

And yet, it turns out that the FTC had evidence of Google’s behavior, and just chose not to act. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman called these released documents a “smoking gun” showing how “Google methodically destroyed the web.” Stoppelman competes with Google, but other more neutral observers agree with him. William Kovacic, a Republican ex-FTC member, said, “I always assumed the staff memo was not so specific, direct and clear about the path ahead. A lot of the DOJ case is in there. It’s really breathtaking.” Kovacic, who voted to open an investigation in 2011, left the FTC before the complaint came up for a vote, so he hadn’t read it until this week.

These documents revealed many things, one of which was . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 10:59 am

How to Collect $1.4 Trillion in Unpaid Taxes

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The NY Times Editorial Board points out that, while some increase in tax rates in the topmost brackets may indeed be desirable, the US could gain a lot by funding the IRS better to go after taxes owed but not paid. The board writes:

When the federal government started withholding income taxes from workers’ paychecks during World War II, the innovation was presented as a matter of fairness, a way to ensure that everyone paid. Irving Berlin wrote a song for the Treasury Department: “You see those bombers in the sky? Rockefeller helped to build them. So did I.”

The withholding system remains the cornerstone of income taxation, effectively preventing Americans from lying about wage income. Employers submit an annual W-2 report on the wages paid to each worker, making it hard to fudge the numbers.

But the burden of taxation is increasingly warped because the government has no comparable system for verifying income from businesses. The result is that most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.

In a remarkable 2019 analysis, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that Americans report on their taxes less than half of all income that is not subject to some form of third-party verification like a W-2. Billions of dollars in business profits, rent and royalties are hidden from the government each year. By contrast, more than 95 percent of wage income is reported.

Unreported income is the single largest reason that unpaid federal income taxes may amount to more than $600 billion this year, and more than $7.5 trillion over the next decade. It is a truly staggering sum — more than half of the projected federal deficit over the same period.

The government has a basic obligation to enforce the law and to crack down on this epidemic of tax fraud. The failure to do so means that the burden of paying for public services falls more heavily on wage earners than on business owners, exacerbating economic inequality. The reality of widespread cheating also undermines the legitimacy of a tax system that still relies to a considerable extent on Americans’ good-faith participation.

Proposals to close this “tax gap” often focus on reversing the long-term decline in funding for the I.R.S., allowing the agency to hire more workers and to audit more wealthy taxpayers. But Charles Rossotti, who led the I.R.S. from 1997 to 2002, makes a compelling argument that such an approach is inadequate. Mr. Rossotti says that Congress needs to change the rules, by creating a third-party verification system for business income, too.

The core of Mr. Rossotti’s clever proposal is to obtain that information from banks. Under his plan, the government would require banks to produce an annual account statement totaling inflows and outflows, like the 1099 tax forms that investment firms must provide to their clients.

Individuals would then have the opportunity to reconcile what Mr. Rossotti dubs their “1099New” forms with their reported income on their individual tax returns. One might, for example, assert that a particular deposit was a tax-exempt gift.

Mr. Rossotti has proposed that the I.R.S. require the new forms only for people with taxable income above a generous threshold. A bill including Mr. Rossotti’s plan, introduced by Representative Ro Khanna of California, sets that threshold at $400,000, to minimize the burden on small business. The money is undoubtedly in chasing wealthy tax cheats, but equity argues that business income, like wage income, should be subject to a uniform reporting standard. Small businesses ought to pay their taxes, too.

The proposal would not increase the amount anyone owes in taxes. It would, instead, increase the amount paid in taxes by those who are currently cheating.

It would have the immediate benefit of scaring people into probity.

Consider what happened after Congress passed legislation in 1986 to require taxpayers to list a Social Security number for each person claimed as a dependent. The government could not easily crosscheck all of those claims then, but the requirement itself caused a sharp drop in fraud. The next year, seven million children abruptly disappeared from tax returns.

To realize the full benefit of the new data, however, Congress does need to make a significant investment in upgrading the I.R.S.’s outdated computer systems, and in hiring enough qualified workers to examine suspicious cases and to hold accountable those who cheat.

In 2008, for example, Congress passed a bill to require credit card processors to report payments processed on behalf of online retailers on an annual form called a 1099-K so the I.R.S. could verify the income reported by those retailers. But in December, the Treasury Department’s inspector general reported that “resource limitations” had prevented the I.R.S. from investigating more than 310,000 cases in which individuals and businesses failed to report more than $330 billion in income documented on 1099-Ks.

Congressional Republicans, unable to muster public support for reductions in federal spending, have pursued that goal indirectly by constraining federal revenue, in part by hacking away at the I.R.S.’s budget. The share of all tax returns subject to an audit declined by 46 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office. For millionaires, the decline in the audit rate was 61 percent. Today, the government employs fewer people to track down deadbeats than at any time since the 1950s.

The result is a parallel increase in federal debt and in tax fraud.

Mr. Rossotti, together with the Harvard economist Lawrence Summers and the University of Pennsylvania law professor Natasha Sarin, argued in an analysis published in November that investing $100 billion in the I.R.S. over the next decade, for technology and personnel, in combination with better data on business income, would allow the agency to collect up to $1.4 trillion in lawful tax revenue that otherwise would go uncollected. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 9:55 am

Corruption in the judiciary

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Today, I’m watching some stories that have immediate significance, but also indicate larger trends.

First, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has asked the Justice Department, now overseen by Attorney General Merrick Garland, to look into the unusual circumstances through which Brett Kavanaugh’s large debts disappeared before his nomination to the Supreme Court. While this question is important to understanding Kavanaugh’s position on our Supreme Court, it is more than that: it is part of a larger investigation into the role of big money in our justice system.

Last May, Whitehouse, along with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), released a report titled “Captured Courts: The GOP’s Big Money Assault On The Constitution, Our Independent Judiciary, And The Rule of Law.” It outlined how the “Conservative Legal Movement has rewritten federal law to favor the rich and powerful,” how the Federalist Society and special-interest money control our courts, and how the system benefits the big-money donors behind the Republicans.

On March 10, Whitehouse began hearings to investigate the role of big money in Supreme Court nominations and decisions. Aside from Chief Justice John Roberts, every Supreme Court justice named by a Republican president has ties to the Federalist Society, a group that advocates an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of the courts to regulate business or to defend civil rights.

So while it is the Kavanaugh story that is getting media attention, the longer story is about whether our courts have been bought.

Another story on my list is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell today warned Democrats in the Senate not to get rid of the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. “Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin, to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” he said. But, in fact, they can, because it was McConnell himself who got rid of the filibuster to hammer through Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, and who pushed through Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which benefited only the very wealthy, by using a technique that avoided the filibuster.

McConnell warned that, without the filibuster, he would defund Planned Parenthood, pass anti-abortion legislation, and create national concealed-carry gun laws. But all of these measures are quite unpopular in the nation, so it’s not clear that these are threats the Democrats want to avoid. It’s entirely possible that permitting the Republicans to push through those measures would hurt the Republicans, rather than the Democrats.

Democrats are talking about reforming the filibuster because they are keen on passing H.R. 1, the voting rights act that would defang the voter suppression measures Republicans are pushing in 43 states. If those measures become law, it will be hard for the Democrats ever again to win control of the government, no matter how popular they are. H.R. 1 will level the democratic playing field, so both parties compete fairly. But fair elections will disadvantage Republicans, who have come to rely on voter suppression to win.

Hence McConnell’s threats.

For his part—in a third story I’m watching– Biden is reaching out to Republicans with an infrastructure package. Republicans were caught wrongfooted when they all voted against the enormously popular American Rescue Plan, and he is offering them an infrastructure bill at the same time Democrats have gotten rid of a ban on so-called “earmarks,” local spending funded in a federal package. Earmarks tend to increase bipartisanship by enabling lawmakers to go home to their constituents with something tangible in hand in exchange for their vote on a bill. Infrastructure spending is popular among voters in both parties, so this approach might break the united front of Republican lawmakers to oppose all Democratic policies.

Finally, I am fascinated by the Democratic-led, bipartisan move among congressional leaders to repeal the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2021 at 8:59 pm

The importance of Biden’s Dept of the Interior appointment

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Tonight, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior Department. An impressive woman in her own right, Haaland embodies the determination of the new administration to use the government for the good of all Americans, rather than for special interests. This makes her a threat to business-as-usual on issues of both race and the economy. Her confirmation vote was 50-41; only four Republicans voted in favor of her appointment.

Haaland is the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in our history, heading the department that, in the nineteenth century, abandoned Indigenous peoples for political leverage. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, whose people have lived in the land that is now New Mexico for 35 generations. The daughter of two military veterans, Haaland is a single mother who earned a law degree with a young child in tow. She was a tribal leader focused on environmentally responsible economic development for the Lagunas before she became a Democratic leader.

Haaland brings to the position her opposition to further explorations for oil and gas on public lands, as well as an opposition to fracking, the process of extracting natural gas through fracturing rock with hydraulic pressure. Republicans have called her “radical” and say her opposition to the expansion of fossil fuels disqualifies her from overseeing an agency that, as Washington Post columnist Darryl Fears puts it, “traditionally promoted those values.”

Congress established the Department of the Interior in 1849 to pull together federal offices that dealt with matters significant to the domestic policy of the United States and were, at the time, scattered in a number of different departments. Among other things, the Interior Department took control of Indian affairs and public lands.

Reformers hoped that moving Indian Affairs from the War Department to the Interior Department, where civilians rather than army officers would control Indigenous relations, would lead to fewer wars. Instead, the move swept Indigenous people into a political system over which they had no control.

As settlers pushed into Indigenous territory, the government took control of the land through treaties that promised the tribes food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and usually the tools and seeds to become farmers. As well, tribal members usually received a yearly payment of cash. These distributions of goods and money were not payment for the land. They replaced the livelihood the tribes lost when they gave up their lands.

Either willingly or by force, tribes moved onto reservations, large tracts overseen by an agent who, once Indian Affairs was in the Department of the Interior, was a political appointee chosen by the U.S. senators of the state in which the reservation was located. While some of the agents actually tried to do their job, most were put into office to advance the interests of the political party in power. So, they took the money Congress appropriated for the tribe they oversaw, then gave the contracts for the beef, flour, clothing, blankets, and so on, to cronies, who would fulfill the contracts with moldy food and rags, if they bothered to fulfill them at all. The agents would pocket the rest of the money, using it to help keep their political party in power and themselves in office.

When tribal leaders complained, lawmakers pointed out—usually quite correctly—that they had appropriated the money required under the treaties. But the system had essentially become a slush fund, and the tribes had no recourse against the corrupt agents except, when they were starving, to go to war. Then the agents called in the troops. Democrat Grover Cleveland tried to clean up the system in 1885-1889, but as soon as Republican Benjamin Harrison took the White House back, he jump-started the old system again.

The corruption was so bad by then that military leaders tried to take the management of Indian Affairs away from the Interior Department, furious that politicians caused trouble with the tribes and then soldiers and unoffending Indians died. It looked briefly as if they might win until the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 ended any illusions that military management would be a better deal for Native Americans than political management.

By the twentieth century, much of the Interior Department’s work turned to managing mineral and grazing rights, not only on Indigenous land, but also on land owned by the federal government. Until 1920, federal law permitted companies to claim the minerals under land they staked out. The discovery of oil in the West sparked a rush, though, and in 1909, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey warned Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger that prospectors were taking up all the land. Ballinger in turn warned President William Howard Taft, who used an executive order to protect more than 3 million acres of public lands in California and Wyoming, reserving the oil under them for use by the U.S. Navy.

In 1920, Congress passed . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2021 at 8:52 pm

As did the Great Depression, the pandemic year may bring a sea-change in how the public views the role of government

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Prior to the Great Depression, much of the public had the idea that people who needed help were shiftless and lazy. Since they themselves did not require help, and since they lacked imagination, insight, and contact with those who did need help, they disapproved of government programs to help such people. “They don’t need help, and if they do, it’s their own fault,” was pretty much the sentiment.

But when the Great Depression hit and millions and millions were out of work and unable to find jobs, the public slowly realized, “Wait a minute. All these people cannot be shiftless layabouts.” And for some, the realization was particularly forceful, because they themselves had lost their job and their farm and their home, and they knew that they were not at fault — that it was due to forces beyond their control — and that the government not only could help them, the government had a responsibility to help them. That’s why they pay taxes: so that there will be a government organized and empower to help the public — or, as the Constitution so clearly states, to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.”

The Biden stimulus relief plan that the House will vote on tomorrow so that President Biden can sign it into law is a clear sign that the public supports and even expects the government to step up and help out when things fall apart. Certainly this view is not universal: every single Republican Senator voted against the plan, and when the Texas power grid failed, the view of many conservatives matched that stated by Rick Perry, that people would be happy to freeze to avoid government help. That is not, if I read the mood of the country correctly, not a view widely now shared by the public.

The election next year will be interesting. I expect that Republican Senators who are running for re-election and Republiccan Representatives will be faced with the question, “Why did you vote against Biden’s stimulus relief plan? It saved our bacon, and you voted against it.” An answer of “I voted against it because I didn’t need it and none of my donors needed it” will not, I think, pass muster.

And regarding how government can help the public, this report in Yahoo News is interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2021 at 1:41 pm

Who gets help from the American Rescue Plan just passed by Democrats? (Every Republican in the Senate voted against it.)

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 March 2021 at 10:45 am

A clear snapshot of what’s wrong with Congress

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the House of Representatives passed the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill requested by the Biden administration. The vote was 219 to 212, with two Democrats—Jared Golden (D-ME) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR)—voting no. Not a single Republican voted for the bill.

The coronavirus relief bill illustrates a crisis in our democracy.

This measure is enormously popular. On Thursday, the day before the House took up the bill, a poll by Morning Consult/Politico showed that 76% of Americans liked the measure, including 60% of Republicans. It includes $1400 stimulus checks which, together with the $600 checks in the previous package, get us to the $2000 checks that former president Trump, a Republican, demanded.

It includes increased unemployment benefits of $400 weekly, provides $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, establishes tax credits for children, provides money to reopen schools, funds $8.5 billion to distribute vaccines, and gives small business relief.

The bill is popular among Republican mayors and governors, whose governments cannot borrow to make up for tax revenue lost because of the pandemic and who are facing deficits of $80 to $100 billion even with money from the last relief packages. The deficits will require devastating cuts on top of the 1.3 million jobs that have already been cut in the past year. Relief is “not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue,” Fresno, California, mayor Jerry Dyer told Griff Witte of the Washington Post earlier this month. “It’s a public health issue. It’s an economic issue. And it’s a public safety issue.”

Those in favor of the measure note that while there is still close to $1 trillion unspent from previous coronavirus relief bills, currently unspent money has been assigned already: it is distributed among programs that are designed to spend it over a period of time. This includes federal employment benefits, which are distributed weekly; the Paycheck Protection Program, which is held in reserve for employers to apply for funds from it; enhanced medical matching funds to be distributed as the pandemic requires; and tax breaks to be spent as people file their tax returns.

The chair of the Federal Reserve, which oversees our banking system, Jerome H. Powell, has backed the idea of increased federal spending; so has Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Powell was nominated to his current position by Trump (he was nominated to the Federal Reserve Board by President Barack Obama); Yellen is a Biden appointee.

This is a bill that should have gotten some Republican votes in the House of Representatives.

But it didn’t. Republican lawmakers are complaining about the partisan vote and scoffing that President Biden promised to unify the country. But the problem is not the bill. The problem is the Republican lawmakers, who are determined to oppose anything the Democrats propose.

The American Rescue Plan bill now goes to the Senate, where Republican senators appear to be united against it. In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) complained about the Democrats’ “deliberately partisan process” in writing the bill, but the Republicans willing to meet with President Biden—McConnell was not one of them– proposed a measure that provided less than one-third the relief in the present bill. There is enormous urgency to passing the bill quickly, since current federal unemployment benefits expire on March 14.

The Senate is evenly split between the Democrats and the Republicans, with each party holding 50 seats (technically, Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are Independents, but they currently work with the Democrats). Although each party effectively holds 50 seats, the Democrats represent 41.5 million more Americans than the Republicans do, in nation that has 328.2 million people [that is Democrats in the Senate represent 13% more Americans than do Republicans – LG].

In addition to their disproportionate power in the Senate, the Republicans can stop legislation through the filibuster. This is a holdover from an earlier era, in which a senator could stop a bill approved by a majority by refusing to stop talking about it, which would prevent the bill from coming to a vote unless senators voted to invoke “cloture,” a process that limits consideration of a pending bill to 30 additional hours. Today, cloture requires 60 votes.

The filibuster was rarely used before about 1960; in the early twentieth century, southern senators used it primarily to stop civil rights legislation. But as the volume of business in the Senate raised the need to streamline debate, the Senate reformed the filibuster so that a senator could simply threaten a filibuster to kill a bill.

Our current Republican lawmakers use these “holds” to kill any measure that cannot muster 60 votes, effectively turning the Senate into a body that requires not a majority to pass legislation, but rather a supermajority. Those who defend the filibuster argue that this supermajority requirement will make senators create bills that are bipartisan, but in fact it has meant that a small minority controls the Senate.

So Democrats will have to pass the American Rescue Plan through a procedure known as “reconciliation,” which enables certain budget bills to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes currently necessary for a regular bill. But the Senate can only pass three bills a year through this process, and there are strict limits to what can be in them. The Senate parliamentarian, a nonpartisan judge of the procedural rules of the Senate, has decided that the $15-an-hour federal minimum wage in the current bill does not meet the requirements of reconciliation. Fifty-nine percent of Americans like the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, as the bill sets out, but the hike cannot be included in the convoluted process necessary to get the bill through without the supermajority the current filibuster system requires.

Senate leadership can . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2021 at 9:13 pm

It is increasingly clear that Republicans hate the US system of voters deciding who will represent them.

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Heather Cox Richardson writes in her column today:

On ABC’s This Week this morning, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) refused to admit that Democrat Joe Biden had legitimately won the 2020 presidential election.

It’s hard to overestimate how dangerous this lie is. It convinces supporters of the former president that they are actually protecting American democracy when they fight to overturn it. Jessica Watkins is one of 9 members of the right-wing paramilitary group the Oath Keepers indicted for their actions on January 6. Yesterday, her lawyer told the court that Watkins behaved as she did because she believed that then-President Donald Trump would use the military to overturn what he falsely insisted was the rigged election.

“However misguided, her intentions were not in any way related to an intention to overthrow the government, but to support what she believed to be the lawful government. She took an oath to support the Constitution and had no intention of violating that oath….”

Watkins claims she was given a VIP pass to the pro-Trump rally, had met with Secret Service agents, and was charged with providing security for the leaders marching to the Capitol from Trump’s January 6, 2021, rally.

Supporters of the former president are portraying the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6 as a legitimate expression of anger over an election in which states did not follow their own rules. This is a lie that the Trump wing hopes will resurrect their lost power. Politico’s Gabby Orr and Meridith McGraw report that Trump is planning to “exact vengeance” on the Republicans who have turned against him, running his own candidates in 2022 to undercut them. Earlier this week, he met with Scalise.

Trump’s big lie is deeply cynical, and yet it is falling on the ears of voters primed to believe it.

Republican Party leadership launched the idea that Democrats could not win an election legitimately all the way back in 1986. They began to examine the made-up issue of voter fraud to cut Democrats out of the electorate because they knew they could not win elections based on their increasingly unpopular policies.

In 1986, Republicans launched a “ballot integrity” initiative that they defended as a way to prevent voter fraud, but which an official privately noted “could keep the black vote down considerably.” In 1993, when Democrats expanded voter registration at certain state offices—the so-called Motor Voter Law– they complained that the Democrats were simply trying to enroll illegitimate Democratic voters in welfare and unemployment offices.

In 1994, Republicans who lost elections charged that Democrats only won through voter fraud, although then, as now, fraud was vanishingly rare. In 1996, House and Senate Republicans each launched year-long investigations into what they insisted were problematic elections, one in Louisiana and one in California. Keeping investigations of alleged voter fraud in front of the media for a year helped to convince Americans that voter fraud was a serious issue and that Democrats were winning elections thanks to illegal voters.

In 1998, the Florida legislature passed a voter ID law that led to a purge of voters from the system before the election of 2000, resulting in what the United States Commission on Civil Rights called “an extraordinarily high and inexcusable level of disenfranchisement,” particularly of Democratic African American voters.

After 2000, the idea that Democrats could win only by cheating became engrained in the Republican Party as their increasing rightward slide made increasing numbers of voters unhappy with their actual policies. Rather than moderating their stance, they suppressed the votes of their opponents. In 2016, Trump operative and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone launched a “Stop the Steal” website warning that “If this election is close, THEY WILL STEAL IT.” The slogan reappeared briefly in 2018, and in 2021, it sparked an attack on our government.

The idea that Democrats cannot legitimately win an election has been part of the Republican leadership’s playbook now for a generation, and it has worked: a recent survey showed that 65% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was plagued by widespread fraud, although election officials say the election was remarkably clean.

Republican lawmakers are going along with Trump’s big lie because it serves their interests: claiming fraud justifies laws to suppress Democratic votes. Alice O’Lenick, a Republican-appointed election official in Gwinnett County, Georgia, endorsed restrictive measures, saying, “they have got to change the major parts of [laws] so we at least have a shot at winning.”

But that is not the only story right now.

Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee will  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, includnote links to sources.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2021 at 7:56 pm

A former Border Patrol agent is now one of its loudest critics — and has years of first-hand knowledge of the Border Patrol and how it works

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Kristina Davis reports in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The migrant girl was around 6 years old, dehydrated, fluish and despondent. Her head looked too big for her body — a sign of malnutrition — and she had lice in her hair.

The girl had spent two weeks outdoors held at the sunbaked Border Patrol detention center in El Paso with her asylum-seeking family before being brought to a migrant shelter in San Diego. That’s where Jenn Budd found her in the summer of 2018, and she needed serious medical intervention.

It was Budd’s first time as a volunteer at the shelter. Still, another volunteer commented, “You’re probably used to seeing this.”

As a former Border Patrol agent, Budd had witnessed first-hand the cruelties of both the border and the agency. She says she was also a victim of them, raped in the academy, harassed on the job, and in fear for her safety when she quit after six years in 2001.

Even then, she was astonished by the girl’s condition — and that it occurred under the Border Patrol’s watch.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Budd responded before rushing the girl to the hospital in the back of her car.

There would be more trips to local hospitals over the next several months, as Budd slowly shed everything she’d been taught as an agent and embraced a new role as an immigrant activist.

Since then, Budd, 49, has become one of Border Patrol’s sharpest public critics, using her personal experience and insider expertise to call out an agency plagued by allegations of misogyny, xenophobia, corruption and human rights abuses.

Her acerbic commentary has generated a Twitter following of more than 27,000, and she is frequently quoted in national media as an expert on Border Patrol’s culture problem — a problem that persisted long before it was reinvigorated under the Trump administration.

The Border Patrol disputes her characterizations of unaddressed corruption and abuse.

“As public servants, the Border Patrol holds itself to the highest ethical standards,” a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, the umbrella agency over Border Patrol, said in a statement. “Allegations of abuse and corruption are taken very seriously as the slightest hint erodes public confidence and subverts the Border Patrol’s ability to effectively accomplish its mission.”

Some of Budd’s critics dismiss her as a disgruntled former agent living in the past. But her commitment to activism, vulnerability and candid acknowledgement of her own complicity in a broken immigration system have set her apart.

After four years of former President Donald Trump unshackling the Border Patrol, her outspokenness is likely to resonate with a new administration that is under pressure to rein in the agency and root out any indications of a toxic culture.

“The story of Jenn Budd is the story of redemption,” said Hiram Soto, who took Budd under his wing as the then-communications director at Alliance San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights.

“It’s really the story of the United States in the moment we are going through now,” he said, “recognizing the cruelty and racism and violence that Border Patrol has inflicted on so many people, and how you can come to turn the page on that and actually find other ways to manage immigration and treat people.”

Escape to the unknown

The border was never something Budd thought about growing up White in Alabama.

But by the time she’d graduated from Auburn University with a pre-law degree, the thought of going to law school was unbearable. It would mean racking up more debt, and the lawyers she knew didn’t make much money. She’d also have to stick close to home, within the grasp of her abusive, alcoholic mother.

The Border Patrol — what little she knew of it — offered an escape.

“They told me people were bringing drugs across the border, that it was about protecting America,” she recalled. “The idea of riding ATVs and horses — I pictured in my mind kind of like a cowboy thing.”

Budd signed her employment papers two days before her 24th birthday and headed to the academy in Georgia for four months.

She was already expecting a hyper-masculine environment. She says what she found was worse: a program hostile to women recruits.

Male classmates were told by instructors to view their female counterparts as not up to the job physically or mentally, Budd said. They were told that the few women who managed to graduate did so by exchanging sexual favors — or by accusing instructors or fellow trainees of rape, she said.

Budd’s narrative would be no exception.

Budd had tried to come out as gay when she was 19, but her mother told her it would embarrass the family. She continued to hide that part of herself in the academy.

One night, a classmate insisted on walking Budd home to her townhouse. There, he raped her and punched her in the face as she tried to fight back, she said.

Budd was scared to report the attack, but she told her instructors about it a few days later when she was forced to spar in training with the classmate who’d assaulted her. They told her to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if she had a problem, she said.

She had heard what happened to women who had filed similar complaints — they were failed out of the academy, she said. Budd did not file the complaint.

Weeks later she failed her physical training run by one second, she said. The rules allowed for one more try. “I made sure I smoked the hell out of it,” she said of her second attempt.

She said she later learned from her Spanish instructor that the academy leadership had ordered him to fail her; he’d refused.

She was one of two women to graduate in her class.

It will be different in the field, she told herself.

On the line

Operation Gatekeeper was in full swing by the end of 1995, when Budd arrived as a rookie agent at the Campo station.

Launched a year earlier, the strategy poured resources and manpower into the San Diego Sector, the nation’s hotspot for illegal border crossings at the time.

The initial focus was on controlling the urban San Diego-Tijuana corridor, which in turn drove many migrants east, into the mountains of Campo.

“Working any shift in Campo was constant hiking, running, tracking all night,” she said.

Budd — at one point the only woman working patrol at the station — carried the extra pressure of proving herself to her male colleagues as she learned how to apprehend migrants and seize drug loads making their way through one of the state’s most rugged border corridors. She faced harassment instead, she said.

She’d find used condoms in her mail drawer, panties hanging from video cameras in the processing area, and even a live rattlesnake placed in the cab of her patrol truck, she said.

But mostly, she was ignored.

“I just wouldn’t get any backup,” she said.

She filed an EEOC complaint against two fellow agents, alleging they had spread rumors that she was sexually involved with a male supervisor. Others corroborated the claim, and the investigation concluded that it appeared one of the agents may have engaged in an effort to damage Budd’s professional reputation. But the actions weren’t found to be discriminatory, according to the records.

Other women have complained about sexual harassment in the agency, including a trainee in the academy class after Budd’s who said she was pushed down on a bed and groped by a male classmate. The alleged attacker, who denied the incident, said the woman brought the complaint because she was having problems with physical training, while an instructor blamed the complaint on the woman’s “immaturity” in relating to men in her class, according to EEOC records.

The EEOC complaint was ultimately sustained on appeal, with the agency found liable for harassment.

Another woman reported being raped by an instructor and male peers at a graduation party, according to a report by Newsweek.

When asked about Budd’s assertions of widespread of abuse and corruption, a CBP spokesperson described a multilayered approach to rooting out such issues.

The agency said all reports of misconduct are coordinated with . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it makes you think about how the US has not addressed some of its own serious problems.

Biden has his job cut out for him, and the Border Patrol culture has proved to be strongly resistant to change, though to start over with all new personnel would be difficult — but it might be the only way.

Later in the article:

James Wong, a retired deputy assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs, said the Border Patrol’s culture problem was evident when he was overseeing investigations and vetting new applicants. The agency was plagued by cronyism, which often didn’t bode well for women deemed outsiders, he said.

“It is a male-dominated organization. They call themselves the Mean Green Machine,” Wong, who spent part of his career in San Diego and retired in 2001, said from his home in Louisiana.

“They didn’t welcome new ideas,” he added. “You were either a reflection of the group of people who hired you, or you didn’t get hired, or you didn’t get promoted.”

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 11:56 am

Is Biden the “Reagan of the Left”?

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Noah Smith has a very interesting column. It begins:

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, has a pretty wild theory of American Presidents. He calls it a theory of “political time”, arguing that America elects its chief executives according to a very specific cycle. Here’s a summary from a 2016 interview in The Nation:

[Skowronek] claims all of presidential history follows a distinct pattern: “Reconstructive” presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (to take only the last two cycles) transform American politics in their own image, clearing the field of viable competition and setting the terms of political debate. They are followed by hand-picked successors (Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Bush) who continue their predecessors’ policies and do little more than articulate an updated version of their ideas. They are usually succeeded in turn by presidents whom Skowronek calls “pre-emptive”—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton—who represent the opposite party but adopt the basic framework of the reigning orthodoxy. Next comes another faithful servant of that orthodoxy (John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson; George W. Bush), followed by another preemptive opposition leader (Richard Nixon, Barack Obama) who again fails to overturn it. The final step in the sequence is a “disjunctive” president—usually somebody with little allegiance to the orthodoxy who is unable to hold it together in the face of the escalating crises it created and to which it has no response. The last disjunctive president, in Skowronek’s schema, was Jimmy Carter.

Any social scientist will immediately recognize that this theory is hilariously overfit. For the non-social scientists among you, overfitting is when you use a very complex explanation to try to explain every little zig and zag of the data, and end up not being able to make accurate predictions:

Skowronek’s theory purports to predict the exact sequence in which different types of U.S. Presidents are elected. A single interruption in the pattern, and the theory fails. Since there must be some randomness in the system, his theory is obviously only going to be right if it gets very, very lucky.

And yet, it looks like Skowronek might get very, very lucky! In defiance of all expectations, Joe Biden (!!!) looks like he might become the next transformative — or in Skowronek’s terms, “reconstructive” — President, setting the nation durably on a leftward course for the next few decades.

The Biden Blitz

Like most people, I expected Joe Biden to be a cautious, status-quo-biased, reformist sort of guy. After all, this is the guy who opposed busing, supported the 1994 crime bill, and was VP during the notably incrementalist Obama administration. Furthermore, he was almost universally perceived as one of the most moderate of the Democratic primary candidates in 2020, offering up reformist alternatives to Bernie Sanders’ plans. Nor was he perceived as being particularly “woke” on cultural issues. The general expectation was for him to reverse Trump’s more well-known policies like the Muslim Ban and family separation of asylum seekers, putter around the edges of policy with incremental fixes to health care and the welfare state, and appoint more competent people than Trump had done. To Americans exhausted after four years of what will likely go down as the worst presidency in the nation’s history, that might have felt like enough.

Yet despite the fact that he only took office 23 days ago, Biden has unleashed an absolute torrent of executive orders and legislative proposals that go far beyond anything I expected. Here’s Mehdi Hasan, a Biden skeptic aligned with the Bernie movement: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and it’s quite intriguing.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2021 at 9:52 pm

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson: Headed for Supreme Court?

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Ruth Marcus writes in the Washington Post:

Unless you happen to practice law in the District of Columbia, you probably haven’t heard of Ketanji Brown Jackson. That may be about to change — in a big way.

The 50-year-old federal district court judge is a leading contender to take the appeals court seat being vacated by attorney general-designate Merrick Garland. That could be just the first promotion, though.

The federal appeals court in Washington is a frequent steppingstone to a Supreme Court nomination. So any choice for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit matters. Given President Biden’s pledge to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, though, Jackson’s elevation would be particularly significant. A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, she once clerked for Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

One of the high court’s three remaining liberals, Breyer, at 82, may well retire in the next year, and, while it’s hard to phrase this politely, he should: The tragic choice made by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg not to retire during President Barack Obama’s term ought to weigh heavily on Breyer.

Hence the potential significance of Jackson’s elevation to Garland’s seat. To put it bluntly, at least based on the traditional model of choosing justices from among those who have judicial experience, there aren’t very many Black women on the list. There are, astonishingly, just four Black women serving as active judges on the federal appeals courts, and all are over 65.

Another leading possibility is California Supreme Court justice Leondra Kruger, a Yale Law School graduate who edited the Yale Law Journal, clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens and served as principal deputy solicitor general during the Obama administration. And, of course, Biden could look outside the bench, to practicing lawyers or government officials.

Still, Jackson, named to the district court by Obama in 2013, brings to the bench an intriguing — and for the Democratic Party’s restless progressives, attractive — piece of career diversity as well: experience as a public defender.

No current Supreme Court justice has the perspective of having been a public defender, representing indigent defendants, although several — Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and Brett M. Kavanaugh, in his role as associate independent counsel — have prosecutorial experience.

For Jackson, the daughter of two public school teachers (her father later became a lawyer), the criminal justice system has an unusually personal wrinkle as well: Her uncle was convicted of a low-level drug crime when she was a senior in high school, and was sentenced to life in prison under a draconian three-strikes law. (He had been convicted previously of two minor offenses.) He ended up receiving clemency from Obama after serving three decades.

She also brings the real-world perspective of a working mother. In a remarkably candid speech at the University of Georgia in 2017, Jackson described the challenges she encountered juggling private practice at a major law firm, marriage to a surgeon and motherhood to two young daughters.

“I think it is not possible to overstate the degree of difficulty that many young women, and especially new mothers, face in the law firm context,” she observed. “The hours are long; the workflow is unpredictable; you have little control over your time and schedule; and you start to feel as though the demands of the billable hour are constantly in conflict with the needs of your children and your family responsibilities.” How refreshing to hear from a self-confessed non-Superwoman.

Jackson’s most prominent ruling since taking the bench involved the House Judiciary Committee’s 2019 effort to subpoena former White House counsel Donald McGahn; in a 118-page opinion, Jackson rejected the Trump administration’s argument that McGahn was absolutely immune from being called to testify.

“Stated simply,” she wrote, “the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.” (Disclosure: Jackson is presiding over a defamation suit filed against The Post by the Trump campaign.)

But a more obscure ruling, involving William Pierce, a deaf D.C. man who was imprisoned for 51 days after a domestic dispute, may offer more insight into Jackson’s belief in law as a mechanism for achieving justice. Corrections officials did nothing to accommodate Pierce’s disability, as the law requires, ignoring his repeated requests for a sign-language interpreter.

Jackson assailed prison officials’ “willful blindness regarding Pierce’s need for accommodation.” She said it was “astonishing” for D.C. to claim that it had done enough, when “prison employees took no steps whatsoever” to figure out how to help him. And she took the unusual step of ruling for Pierce even before trial.

You can learn a lot about  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 February 2021 at 2:36 pm

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