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Friday, December 31, 2010

This is the time of year when serious bloggers no doubt are busy creating their 2010 retroespectives of their blog postings. I’d thought about doing something like that myself - but as with my comments about George Ryan the other day, a couple of interconnected news stories have dictated otherwise - news stories that beg the question of what kind of a nation we are. If you had to describe the United States in a few words - say in five words or less - a pretty good description of how we think of ourselves would be " a nation of laws." That’s four words - one under the limit. Other nations may describe themselves that way, but we wouldn’t think of them as being comparable to our understanding of laws. In Pakistan for example there’s a law against blasphemy - saying anything that could be considered disrespectful of Islam or the prophet Mohammed - punishable by death. And we all know that adultery can bring a sentence of death by stoning in Iran.

But while we’re busy turning up our noses and laughing up our sleeves at how some nations consider themselves nations of laws - it might be a good idea, as 2010 draws to a close, to take a look at what kind of a "nation of laws" we take so much pride in. I touched on this briefly on November 20, 2010, when I was writing about the nutty differences between the states. I made the point that the penalty for murder could depend on where the murderer was standing when the crime was committed. In one place it could be years in prison - but a few feet away, across a state line - it could be death.

Now we have two end of the year stories that bring that kind of nuttiness into sharp focus. In one story, one Charles Clements, a 69 year old who has been described in just about all of the news coverage as "a great grandfather and former marine," confronted Joshua Funchea, a 23 year old neighbor, whose dog had urinated on the older man’s well manicured lawn in which he took exceptional pride. An argument ensued and Clements shot and killed Funches.

At trial, the killer was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to - it’s like a gag with an unexpected punch line - wait for it - Four Years Probation!! The story has been widely covered and you’ve probably read about it. Clements testified that the younger man had cussed him out and punched him in the face and so he shot him in self defense. Whether or not there were witnesses to the confrontation isn’t clear - but in any event, the judge in the case - Daniel Rozak - bought the "explanation" and decided that probation was sufficient punishment. The prosecutors aren’t appealing the decision because they say they respect this judge. Apparently, Judge Roazak though it was perfectly normal for Mr Clements to chase his neighbor and erring dog down the street brandishing a gun! O.K. I exaggerate. The gun was in his pocket. But nonetheless, he went after the younger man with a gun in his possession and when he subsequently, according to his version of events - got pushed and punched - why, he simply "defended" himself. By pulling out the gun and killing his attacker. Perfectly natural reaction. Absolutely justified. The law according to Judge Rozak of Will County, Illinois.

A few states away, Haley Barbour, the merciful Governor of Mississippi, has decided to "indefinitely suspend" the sentence of Gladys and Jamie Scott, two sisters who had been serving a life sentence for an armed robbery in which no one was hurt and the haul was a big $11 - or maybe it was twelve. After all, it was a long time ago. The sisters have been in jail for sixteen years and memories of the specifics of old cases tend to fade. I doubt if the victims themselves would remember exactly how much was taken from them that many years ago. I don’t know what kind of law can put you away for life for armed robbery in Mississippi. According to what I’ve read about the case, the sisters lured the victims into an ambush where a bunch of teens beat and robbed them. The actual robbers got lesser sentences and for all I know may be long gone from the pokey. But the sisters were there until the release of death until Barbour intervened. Not as an act of mercy. Not to right an injustice. But to save money. And with conditions yet.

One of the sisters is on dialysis, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars - so Barbour decided to rid the state of that cost by offering to release the two on condition that the healthy sister donate a kidney to the other. The arrangement raises all kinds of issues - ethical, legal and monetary, which we’ll no doubt be reading about in the weeks and months ahead. But that isn’t the issue here. What concerns me is the life sentence the two women received for an eleven or twelve dollar robbery. I will admit to not doing a great deal of research about the Scott sisters, but as far as I have been able to determine, they weren’t career criminals with multiple past convictions, so the robbery and subsequent life sentence wasn’t the culmination of a life of crime. Mississippians didn’t exhale a collective sigh of relief that those dangerous ladies had finally been apprehended and locked away so they could no longer be a menace to their peaceful southern society. So their punishment, though not as extreme, could be compared to the punishment for dissing Mohammed in Pakistan. In both cases, the punishment didn’t fit the crime - but is more egregious here because we are the original "nation of laws." The Constitution and all that stuff.

So what we have here as the year comes to a close is - on one hand a sentence of life imprisonment in the state of Mississippi for taking part in an eleven or twelve dollar robbery - while on the other hand, as Tevye would say - four years of probation in Illinois for killing someone who didn’t stop his dog from urinating on the killer's lawn and who reacted belligerently when he was chased by a gun toting lawn care fanatic. Both happening in our nation of laws. In the same country. Not in two third world countries with laws that provide fodder for late night comedians on American television. Right here, at home.

Both cases will consume a small portion of our attention for a while - there’ll be some outrage expressed by some people over aspects of both of them - but in a while, in a very short while, we’ll give a collective shrug and get on with our lives. The outrage that sent two young women for life for a two bit robbery in one state while a murder in another was "punished" with probation will result in no examination or changes to the disparate laws of various states or even counties within those states - nor to those who administer them. And we’ll continue to be disgusted by, feel superior to and laugh about the laws of some other countries and why and how those who break them are punished. Even though in some ways, we’re as bad as they are. A conclusion with which I am sure the Scott sisters and the surviving members of Joshua Finches’ family would agree.

A strange story on which to end the New Year. Let’s hope for brighter times and subjects in 2011. Even though I’m thinking that my first commentary in the new year might be about Republicans…….

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I had several things in mind to write about before the year ran out and maybe I’ll get to one of them between Xmas and New Years. But for today - a topic that I find difficult to ignore - the Inspector Javert complex of the Chicago Tribune when it comes to former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Ryan was convicted of various shades of corruption in April, 2006 and sentenced to 6 ½ years in a Federal Penitentiary. Back then I wrote about what I considered to be a vendetta against Ryan by the Tribune and the influence I thought they had on the trial’s jurors. Now they’re at it again. Ryan’s wife has been diagnosed as having perhaps six months to live and his lawyers appealed to the sentencing judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer for early release - an appeal swiftly and not unexpectedly denied. Before the decision was handed down, the Tribune published a lead editorial urging denial. The editorial pointed out that many prisoners face similar circumstances of sickness and death of spouses and other loved ones and are not granted early release from their sentences and Ryan shouldn’t be granted special consideration - a not unreasonable argument. But the Tribune couldn’t leave it there. It had to add arguments that were both vindictive and specious.

The editorial speaks of Ryan "lining his pockets." Whatever crimes Ryan may have committed, none involved "lining his pockets." Yes, he gave out state contracts to friends who gave him perks but they didn’t make him rich. He put family members on his election payroll who allegedly didn’t do much for their pay, (Family members hired by politicians? Whoever would think such a thing possible?) But whatever he did or was accused of in the way of corrupt practices, the man is broke. He was virtually broke when he went to trial. There is no money stashed away in foreign banks. No shoe boxes full of hundred dollar bills have been found. The few illegal perks that he received were petty. And now he has lost his pension. It is not just disingenuous to allege that he enriched himself while he was in elective office - it is unnecessarily vindictive and far removed from the journalistic integrity which the Chicago Tribune claims to have.

But worse than this is the Tribune’s insistence, editorially, in the columns of John Kass and now in an editorial cartoon, that Ryan should remain in jail because he was somehow personally responsible for the death of the six Willis children, killed when part of a truck’s rear assembly fell off and crashed into the car in which they were passengers. The driver of the truck, who spoke little English, had paid a bribe to get his commercial driver’s license while Ryan was Secretary of State and somehow the ex-Governor has been labeled as being indirectly responsible for their deaths and even though he has never been charged with anything concerning the accident and while it was never an issue at his trial - it was nonetheless an "issue" that the Tribune brought up again and again during its trial coverage - coverage that was available to members of the jury that ultimately found him guilty.

Whatever Ryan is or was, he is not a killer and I do not believe it is fair to pin the deaths of the Willis children on him as though he was personally responsible and to cite this "responsibility" as one of the reasons he should not be granted an early release from jail. . Though never charged with anything involving his tenure as Illinois Secretary of State, he was accused of overseeing a corrupt agency where bribery of license examiners was common and that some of the bribe money found its way back to his political fund. Some or maybe all of this may be true, but the accident wasn’t caused because the truck driver had paid someone a bribe to help get his license application approved. It could just as easily have happened with a driver with decades of truck driving experience whose truck suddenly had the same kind of failure that resulted in the deaths of those children.

One news story that I read on line alleged that "absent the corruption under Ryan's watch, the trucker in question would not have been on the road, and six kids would still be alive and on their way to adulthood today." That’s very little different than saying absent the granting of a drivers license to anyone involved in an accident resulting in death, the deceased would still be living and enjoying life. Yes, the driver in this case paid a bribe to get his license. Yes, according to news reports, Ryan or his staff may have quashed any investigation of the tragedy, though of course Ryan denied it. But at the end of the day it was still a tragic accident that could have happened the same way if that same truck driver had obtained his license without any bribes being involved. And when you look at some of the people driving on Illinois roads who somehow were O.K.’d to drive by a State examiner, you have to wonder why anyone would need to pay a bribe.

I guess I’m in the minority on this issue if readers letters to the Tribune can be considered any kind of yardstick - but perhaps the Tribune is being selective in the letters they decide to publish, which of course is their right. Ryan may indeed have been as corrupt a politician as that portrayed by the prosecution at his trial, but nothing that he personally did caused the accident that killed six children. Punish him for the offenses for which he was convicted. Make him serve the full 6 ½ years if that is the final determination of the courts. But don’t insist that he be kept there because he is as some kind of murderer by proxy. And don’t keep implying that he has escaped but deserves greater punishment because of the death of the Willis children. He didn’t kill those kids. Corruption didn’t kill those kids. A horrible accident did - an accident that could have happened anywhere to anyone. I don’t expect the Tribune’s editorial writers or columnist John Kass or cartoonist Scott Stantis to back away from the position they have adopted on the case, but they are wrong and they will continue to be wrong as they continue to attach the name of Willis to every story they write about George Ryan, however removed it may be from the elective office he held at the time the tragedy occurred.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I’ve been listening to supporters and what sounds like former supporters of President Obama express their views of his tax "compromise" and I can imagine how much all of the disagreement must be music to Republican ears. They’ve not only won control of the House and made cloture virtually impossible in the Senate - but have been handed the bonus of watching members of Obama’s own party rebel against him. And Obama has only himself to blame. He made a bad deal and now he’s making it worse by trying to sell it as a "stimulus" package. Shades of Bush senior trying to sell us on the first Iraq war being about jobs!!

And if you wanted absolute proof that he’s made a bad deal, Charles Krauthammer wants us all to believe that what Obama really did was pull a fast one over the Republicans and the deal that he hammered out with them is a bigger "stimulus" package that the stimulus money already pumped into the economy!! Charles Krauthammer for Pete’s sake! As ancient philosophers were want to say in situation like this - Oy!!

I’m no economist but I see nothing in the arrangement with the Republicans that will stimulate anything other than the heightened expectations of children of the rich who’ll be getting a free pass on the first five million of their inheritance and a reduced tax on the rest. Leaving those earning a quarter million a year and up with the same tax rates they’ve enjoyed for the last ten years isn’t going to create any jobs - it hasn’t for the past ten years - nor will a 2% reduction in payroll tax. The idea being floated that employers will suddenly be persuaded to hire more workers because it will cost them fractionally less is ludicrous - as was a previous idea to offer a tax break for each new hire. The only thing that will induce small businesses to increase their payrolls is need - the need for more workers because business has picked up and they’re needed to handle it. All the so called incentives are little more than political gimmickry. The only thing that Obama can crow about is that there’ll be an extension of benefits for some of the unemployed - though not the ninety niners - and that taxes on the middle class won’t go up. But what a price he paid to wring those two concessions from the Republicans. Increasing the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars.

The "compromise" looks like it will sail through with virtually no changes, despite initial signs of revolt from the House and the marathon effort of Bernie Sanders in the Senate. Now there’s a poll showing that close to 70% of those polled favor the deal. I don’t know what questions were asked or of whom, but I doubt that a majority were people who voted for Obama. I think he has lost the support of a great many of those people and I don’t think the President understands that or why they have lost faith in him. I could cite the things they expected of him that haven’t happened - closing Gitmo, stopping the Bush doctrine of rendition, getting rid of Don’t Ask -Don’t tell and more - but instead I’ll cite just one thing that he said while defending the deal - criticizing those who were criticizing it. "It’s the Public Option all over again", he said. Yes Mr. President, you’re right - but you don’t know in what way you’re right.
For most of us who supported healthcare reform, the key ingredient was a "Public Option" - something to compete with the insurance industry’s stranglehold on healthcare. We expected the President to fight tooth and nail to make sure that it was the major instrument of healthcare reform. Instead, he hardly gave it lip service. He gave in to the forces that he knew would fight tooth and nail to keep it out of any healthcare bill and what we ended up with was a bonus to the insurance companies - a guarantee of millions more premium paying customers - many subsidized by taxpayers. We should have known then that Obama was not the man we thought we had elected. For sure we know it now as he admits that the tax deal is the "Public Option" all over gain. As in once again he didn’t fight - showed no passion for what he said was the kind of deal he wanted. Instead, he surrendered to the Republican insistence that ALL of the Bush tax cuts be extended while claiming some kind of victory that it is only for two years and not the permanent extension that the Republicans wanted. He said the right kind of things about them - that they were hostage takers and terrorists. The problem is he said these things after he’d struck the deal which, according to Moody’s, could put the U.S. credit rating at risk.

Right now, Obama has kicked the can down the road for two years, at which time the battle by Republicans who have this crazed idea that the road to prosperity is paved with tax reductions for those who need it least, will resume - as in trying to make the temporary tax cuts permanent . He’s gambling that he’ll be the one in opposition and with the power of the veto pen. If he isn’t, the United States will need more than a president. It will need a high priced bankruptcy attorney.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

And the madness continues. Republicans in the House and Senate are thumbing their collective noses at the American people and at the President and what is incredibly sad is that the people who voted for them don’t get it - and neither it seems does Mr. Obama. Republican Senators and Representatives , who have expressed such great concern about our growing deficit, are acting as they always act when it comes to. taxes. They act as though the nation can function without the need for any tax revenues. They frequently run for office and for re-election on such a theme and low information voters will nod approvingly when one of their heroes proclaims that he or she has NEVER voted for a tax increase and never will!! Yeah. Hooray for the tooth fairy.

That is the charade being acted out in the Senate this weekend as Republicans - and a few so called Democrats - block the extension of the Bush 2001 tax cuts for middle class tax payers - unless its also extended for millionaires and billionaires. Give us what we want or we’ll pick up our filibusters and go home. And if we don’t get what we want, that lazy unemployed riffraff can just forget about more unemployment insurance. Let ‘em put some string and different shaped stones in the Christmas stockings and tell the kids to use their imagination - like we had to do when we were kids. And they’re going to win of course. The two sides are negotiating a "compromise" - which means that there’ll be a "temporary’ extension of the current tax rates for everyone and a few more weeks of benefits for the long term unemployed - even though Republicans know that as long as they’re getting those few weekly dollars, they won’t bother to look for work. But what the hell. It’s a compromise. And the President will have lost any chance of being reelected in 2012.

He ran on a number of absolute promises - among them a guarantee that there’d be no tax increase for the middle class and the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would expire at the end of its ten year wealth enhancement spree. Now he’s talking "compromise" - a self invented euphemism for surrender. He’s given in without a fight - and I think Tom Harkin was being optimistic when he said that Obama better hope and pray that Sarah Palin runs. I’m not sure he could even beat the half governor self promoter if he chooses to run for a second term. The base of his supporters have given up on him. He’s not the man they put their faith in and voted for - as witness their absence from the voting booth at the mid term. I was a big supporter but I’m not sure if I could vote for him again. If a Republican is elected in 2012, at least it would be likely that we’d know what we were getting. We thought we knew with Obama and we were wrong.

There’s still hope. All his supporters want him to do in order to continue to be supporters is to fight for the principles they thought he stood for. The Presidency is not the office of community organizing. It is the world’s largest bully pulpit. The people who voted for Obama want him to say what Mitch McConnell and his gang of 41 have said - that there will be no compromise when it comes to taxes - that he will veto any extension of the Bush tax cuts that includes those making in excess of a quarter million dollars a year. And he should hammer at the hypocrisy of Republicans agreeing to extend unemployment benefits for those in dire need only if the Bush tax cuts are extended for those who are far from in need. They have thrown down the gauntlet. Obama’s supporters want to see him pick it up and throw it right back at them - preferably across Senator McConnell’s protruding jowl.

The Republicans insist that it would be catastrophic to raise taxes on the wealthy during a time of recession. The lack of logic in that statement boggles the mind. What do they think will happen? That there’ll be catastrophic drop in caviar sales? A slow down in yacht production? A delay in mansion construction? Yes the rich have more money to spend - but it’s the millions of the rest of us who do the day to day spending that keeps the economy rolling - even when it slows to a crawl.

There has never been a clearer distinction drawn between what the blinkered Republicans and the rest of us stand for. It’s an opportunity for the President to go before the American people and point it out - not in professorial and conciliatory terms but in the kind of language we’ve been waiting for him to use for the past two years. He should have started after he met with Republicans at the White House and announced that they seemed to want to stop the partisan deadlock and work for the good of the nation - only to have them announce their "screw you" response the next morning. He needed to say that it’s obvious the Republicans have no interest in working with his administration and that from this moment on - unless and until they change - he will respond to them accordingly.

He needs to learn from Ronald Reagan. The Russians didn’t tear down the Berlin wall because he said - "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" - but he knew the effect of style over substance. Win or lose on any issue, Obama’s supporters are waiting for him to draw a line in the sand - any line on any issue. It’s only from behind such a line will his supporters join him and fight for another four years of hope and change. A lot of people are trying to tell him just that. We can only hope that he will hear through the noise of Presidential paraphernalia and listen to what they’re saying.