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                              private jet photo: Private aircraft-luxury_hcVK2_48.jpg

No, the odds are you're really not going to get very rich, or even moderately rich, although you'll probably go to your deathbed telling yourself you will.

The chasm between what ordinary Americans make in income and what the top 1-2% are making is wider than at any time in the last 80 years, with the caustic effects of that disparity rapidly separating us into a two-tier society right before our eyes. Education, once the great leveler of our society since the time of the GI Bill, is now a divisive scythe, combining with the extraordinary social and employment benefits of staggering wealth passed from generation to generation, and cementing in stone the reign of a perpetual, modern-day aristocracy. While the vast majority of Americans consigned to statistical "median" incomes struggle to keep up with the costs of education, housing, child care and health care, a small but not insignificant contingent of the uber-wealthy possessing wealth far beyond most of our capacity to imagine methodically rigs the tools of government to preserve its status and serve its interests.

But for all of the stark evidence in front of us, of Presidential candidates prostrating themselves before venal and ruthless Billionaires or Wall Street bankers, of one half of the entire country's political spectrum practically acknowledging that it exists only to serve the very rich, Americans don't rebel. They shrug their shoulders and accept their lot, confident that one day they too will reach that shining city on the hill.  Then they go back to toiling in their stagnant-wage jobs while the things they took for granted, like a one-income household, affordable college education, a secure retirement, fade into a dim memory. They go back to their glowing electrical gadgets in their purses and pockets and convince themselves they are wealthier than they really are.  And they continue to elect politicians who perpetuate that mythology, or they find excuses not to vote at all.

Recently, studies by two independent research teams (each led by an author of this article) found that Americans across the economic spectrum did indeed severely misjudge the amount of upward mobility in society. The data also confirmed the psychological utility of this mistake: Overestimating upward mobility was self-serving for rich and poor people alike. For those who saw themselves as rich and successful, it helped justify their wealth. For the poor, it provided hope for a brighter economic future.
Americans' childlike faith in the "American Dream" is drilled into them in political speeches, in popular culture, movies and television, and through social relationships. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is just a symptom of the overarching, biologically-rooted imperative to succeed, to prove oneself worthy in the eyes of our peers. The American Dream is the narrative we've created to sustain that.

As highlighted in the New York Times article linked above, research from Cornell University confirms the enduring misperceptions Americans have about their own ability to get ahead. From the abstract of "Building A More Mobile America, One Quintile At A Time:

"A core tenet of the American ethos is that there is considerable economic mobility. Americans seem willing to accept vast financial inequalities as long as they believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. We examined whether people’s beliefs about the amount of economic mobility in the contemporary United States conform to reality."
The short answer is that Americans are largely clueless about economic mobility.  Respondents in the Cornell survey were asked to predict the economic mobility of random individuals assigned to a particular income "quintile." The results, when compared to real-world US data on economic mobility, showed that Americans consistently overestimate people's ability to advance economically out of poverty, or indeed out of any economic strata to a higher "bracket."

More research done under the same leadership at the University of Illinois illustrates why it is so hard to overcome this willful blindness: it is rooted in our own deeply-held self-image. In that study, aptly titled "Americans Overestimate Social Class Mobility,"
 

[P]articipants were asked to estimate the ease of moving up the economic ladder. This time, however, they were also asked to estimate upward mobility for people who were similar to them “in terms of goals, abilities, talents and motivations.” In this case, respondents were even more likely to overestimate upward mobility. We believe unduly in our own capacity to move up the economic ladder, and these beliefs increase our mobility overestimates more generally.
The Illinois study should be required reading for Americans who want to understand why income inequality matters. The authors first establish that for the vast majority of Americans the dream of social mobility is an illusion fostered by the culture, an illusion now directly at odds with reality:
The United States is faced with record levels of income inequality and one of the lowest rates of actual social mobility among industrial nations (Burkhauser et al., 2009, Fiske and Markus, 2012 and Piketty and Saez, 2001).  
* *
Americans place significant hope on the American Dream—the promise that individuals, from any sector of society, have an equal opportunity to become better educated, earn more money, and obtain whatever job they desire. These beliefs in social class mobility are widespread, frequently referred to during political speeches (Obama, 2014), evoked in contemporary popular fiction and cinema (Fitzgerald, 1925), and are a core right referred to in historical government documents (i.e., the Bill of Rights).

The disconnect between actual economic conditions on the one hand and beliefs in the American Dream on the other suggests that Americans may be unaware of the actual levels of social class mobility in society.

* *
These data suggest that Americans are unaware of the actual economic structure of society and of how changes in individual economic conditions shape their own life outcomes,
One cause of Americans' self-delusion about their mobility is the constant reassurance  by society's institutions to make us believe that the system works fairly for all:  
Americans benefit from overestimates of social class mobility because they bolster widely held American ideals of meritocracy and equality of opportunity (Durkheim, 1933, Fiske and Markus, 2012 and Weber, 1930). Thus, overestimates of class mobility satisfy the need to believe that the societal status of the self and others is determined fairly and justly.
The study specifically finds that wealthier individuals tend to bathe themselves in a narrative that they are deserving of their own success:
Specifically, the motivation to believe that one's elevated position in society is both fairly achieved and possible for all Americans will lead individuals from relatively upper-class backgrounds to make larger overestimates of social class mobility.
One of the more significant findings is that political liberals are far more skeptical of class mobility than conservatives. The article attributes this disparity to the conservative philosophy that regards all social mobility as "merit-based."  The shorthand for this assumption is not explored in the article, but it would seem to dovetail with conservatives feelings' about the innate worth of certain races of people.  It also shows why income inequality will never really resonate with  Republicans or conservatives. Their perception of "merit" by definition includes themselves as the "meritorious" ones. So they can't help but believe that "hard work" inevitably leads to wealth, because to face the reality--that attainment of substantial wealth is most often based on social status with a fair helping of luck--would require admitting that their own self-image may be a lie.

The upshot of all of this is that enacting policies to solve a problem Americans are psychologically unprepared to recognize will be a constant uphill battle, even as Americans continue to allow themselves to be herded like cattle to the guillotine of economic stagnation.  Much like organized Labor has been steadily whittled away, the "American Dream" continues to suffer the death of a thousand cuts, all of them nearly imperceptible. It's only looking back over time when one realizes what has been lost. And all the while, new generations keep arriving, staring back at us, bewildered at our concerns. For them, this is sadly the norm, the way things have always been:

Taken together, these sets of studies suggest that belief in the American dream is woefully misguided when compared with objective reality. Addressing the rising economic gap between rich and poor in society, it seems, will require us to contend not only with economic and political issues, but also with biases of our psychology.
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                      morgan freeman photo: Morgan Freeman 2884_2.jpg

The iconic Morgan Freeman has with three little words done us all a huge service.

Morgan Freeman had strong words for the media on Baltimore coverage, and called networks out for zooming in on places like Baltimore only when they see fire.

“F–k the media,”
he told the Daily Beast in an interview published Thursday, and complained about the big three cable networks’ bias.
http://www.thewrap.com/...

Some folks may not know that Freeman provides the voice-over for the TSA warnings at Alabama's Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport. There's nothing quite like listening to Morgan Freeman gently but firmly remind you not to leave unattended bags lying around and never offer to carry something for a stranger onto a plane: "Thank you and have a nice flight."

But in an interview with The Daily Beast, Freeman laid into the media's riot-chasing coverage of not only the events in Baltimore last week, but of Ferguson, Missouri as well:

Freeman says the Baltimore coverage, while fairly biased in its focus on the rioting, has been an improvement over the very one-sided coverage of the Ferguson protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. “Now, they’re getting more of the whole picture. Ferguson? No. Baltimore seems to be coming up with a different scenario in the background,” says Freeman. “People are saying, ‘You were not all there when we were just talking and trying to make a point, but if we set something on fire, all of a sudden you’re all here. Why is that? What’s the difference?’ And some young reporters are listening. That sort of observation is very useful.”
Of course this point was not lost on readers of this site, but it may well have been lost on the rest of the country who woke up last week to yet another media frenzy over disadvantaged African-Americans facing off with police in the street.  For better or for worse Hollywood celebrities command the attention, if not always the respect, of a large segment of the American public. When you switch on your tablet in the mornings it is usually not political news that greets you on the Google or the Yahoo or the Facebook, but some type of celebrity shenanigans or utterance. We should be delighted when the two overlap on an issue as timely as the sensationalistic, wrongheaded and biased coverage of the problems of racial and economic disparity in this country. Because the media--the cable TV networks chasing fires and gunshots without once examining the cause of the desperation and poverty, the newspapers acting as stenographers for the police and politicians-- have no one to blame but themselves for the public's growing disgust. When people like Morgan Freeman articulate that disgust, it helps change the conversation in a useful way.

Freeman also commented on the usefulness of living in a world with smartphones and instant video recording capabilities;

“The other thing is that technology lets us see behind the scenes a little bit better,” he continues. “Police have a standard reaction to shooting somebody. I fear for my life and I fear for my safety. Now, at least you can see, ‘Hey, his hands were up in the air! What part of your safety were you afraid of? The guy was running away, what part of your safety was in danger?’ There was one situation I saw where a cop told a guy to get out of the car, said, ‘Show me your driver’s license,’ and the guy reached back into the car and the cop shot him!”

“Anyway, off the media,” he says, waving his hands in the air and chuckling. “F-ck the media.”

And while Freeman may have simply been signaling his desire to seque into a different topic,  his remarks to the Beast dovetail closely with an interview he gave to Newsweek yesterday, in which the 77 year old actor pulls no punches while discussing his new film, 5 Flights Up, which focuses on wild media speculation that ensues after a Muslim man is stopped in his truck on a New York City bridge. While Freeman says some of the media's behavior portrayed in the film is reminiscent of that displayed in Baltimore, there are differences as well:
The movie has a subplot in which New York is thrown into chaos over a suspected terrorist attack, which Freeman said does not share similarities to recent real-life events.

“That unrest [in Baltimore] has nothing to do with terrorism at all, except the terrorism we suffer from the police,” the 77-year-old star said. “And the fact that now that’s out in the open.” Freeman referred to the case of Amadou Diallo, the Guinea immigrant who in 1999 was killed by four New York City plainclothes officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. “Forty-one times he was shot. That was the beginning of our understanding of how dangerous police are.”

Freeman, nominated for an Academy Award in everyone's Republican neighbor's favorite film, The Shawshank Redemption, and winning the Oscar in every Republican's favorite director, Clint Eastwood's, Million Dollar Baby, is also a prominent supporter of President Obama. There is no more recognizable voice in America, certainly none better suited than his to articulate a new American Sensibility in the simple words of: "F*ck the media."

At least until they start doing a better job.

Discuss
On 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in a prison cell in Pretoria. The announcement of Biko's death by the South African government the next day sparked international and national protest. Steve Biko was not the only person to die in detention at the hands of the South African security police; yet, because of Biko's prominence as a charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, his case captured the attention of many South Africans and people throughout the world.

Biko's death in detention illustrates the brutality of the security police during apartheid and the state's hand in covering up torture and abuse of political detainees. Biko's case also demonstrates the collaboration of non-governmental institutions with apartheid and, furthermore, that not all South Africans accepted or were satisfied with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.

http://www.news24.com/...

REUTERS: BREAKING

Reports are just now coming in what appears to be the death of an African-American male while in police custody.  This evidently occurred some time ago. The name of the deceased has not yet been released, with reports simply referring to him as "B" (presumably standing for the first letter of the accused's surname). It should be noted from the outset that the death is not being treated as "suspicious" nor is there any suggestion of police misconduct involved.  The facts are these:

"B", 30, was travelling with a friend, Pete Jones (also African-American), when they were detained for questioning by police in what is described as a "routine" traffic stop.  A comprehensive description of the incident is being reported here and at News24 here.

At the roadblock the police asked [B.] and Jones to step out and open the [trunk]. Jones, who was driving, followed their orders but struggled to open the [trunk].
According to reports, the police's suspicions were raised by Jones' unusual behavior:
Jones tried to make light of his struggle with the [trunk] and invited one of the policemen to have a try.
It was also reported that "B" and Jones were not from the immediate area and would not provide a satisfactory account of what they were doing in this locality. Nor, when asked, would Jones identify "B" to the officer, further raising suspicions that "B" might have a criminal record. This prompted police to arrest "B" and Jones. Police reported "B" resisted arrest and became violent shortly after being taken into custody.
On the morning of September 6, what would be described by the policeman as a "scuffle" erupted between the policeman and [B.]
After being initially subdued and remanded to police custody, police reported that "B" intentionally tried to injure himself, apparently by means of a hunger strike. The Police have only noted that "B" was transported for further medical attention:
... for medical attention following a seven-day hunger strike.
According to the authorities, "B"'s condition rapidly deteriorated during this transport. Medical professionals apparently were called in to save his life, to no avail:
Several hours later he was given an intravenous drip by a newly qualified doctor who had no information about him other than that he was refusing to eat.
Thus far there have been no further statements from the authorities about his death:
An inquest into his death is not to be held for several months, according to the authorities.
It should be emphasized that to the extent the circumstances are known at this time both the the public and government officials seem to support the police's version of events and there appears to be no suggestion of racism or bias on the part of the police. Political observers familiar with the jurisdiction describe the racial tensions in the area as essentially non-existent:
“They have eliminated the segregation that we once had...the type of thing where hotels and restaurants and places of entertainment and so forth were segregated — that has all been eliminated.”
There is also significant community support for police action to combat civil unrest and the threat of violence. For example:
Sixty-nine percent were in favour to deploy military to end a strike and 72% held the opinion that the police should fire on demonstrators who threw stones at them.

UPDATE: 12:20 PM.

Local News outlets are now reporting on certain discrepancies between the official police record and the condition of the deceased as reported by the Medical Examiner:

District surgeons employed by the government, Doctors Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang, examined ["B"] on September 7. ["B'] was weak, spoke unclearly, and had external injuries on his face and head...
It also appears that "B" was transported a considerable distance in the back of a police vehicle and may have been injured during the trip.  

Update: 12:50 pm (EST):

The ME report on "B"s death was released this morning:

The cause of his death was not disputed: complications resulting from a brain injury. ["B" ] suffered at least three brain lesions occasioned by the application of force to his head; the injury was suffered between the night of 6 September and 07:30 on 7 September.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN explained the definition of "brain hemorrhage" and the various ways this could occur.

Update: 12:55 pm (EST)

The Washington Post has now published a story which corroborates the police assertion that "B" may have been intentionally trying to injure himself.  Other media outlets have picked up the story as well.

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with "B" told investigators that he could hear "B" “banging against the walls” of the vehicle and believed that he “was intentionally trying to injure himself,” according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.
Additionally, Fox News commentator Bo Diehl has suggested that "B" may have injured himself while high on drugs.  Other media outlets are attempting to verify this assertion, which has been picked up and spread through social media. The New York Times implicitly criticizes the Post's "sensationalistic" coverage in an Op-Ed by its Public Editor. Wolf Blitzer profiles the "drug controversy" on an extended version of "The Situation Room."

UPDATE: 2:45 pm (EST)

The Police have just released a report indicating there was "no evidence" that "B" received any injuries during his arrest.

The medical examiner found "B"'s catastrophic injury was caused when he was slammed into back of the police transport van and apparently broke his neck. Law enforcement sources also said [he] sustained a head injury that matches a bolt in the back of the police van, the affiliate reported.
Various media outlets are saying this corroborates earlier reports by the WAPO suggesting that "B" purposely injured himself while in transport. This new report will be released on the AP wire to hundreds of local affiliates and disseminated widely on the Internet.With the aid of state-of-the-art graphics,  Erin Burnett explains the interior of a police van while carrying a tape measure.

Jones has also issued a statement:

During the height of my interrogation there wasn’t a spot on my body that wasn’t either swollen, bruised or sensitive. At times, I struggled to find a comfortable sleeping position, resorting to sleeping in a kneeling position with my forehead resting on the floor.
Minutes after the release of Jones' statement, Fox News aired an interview with one of the police officers involved in the arrest, in which he claimed to have been "badly beaten" by both "B" and Jones.  The officer declined to be named for the record, citing personal safety concerns, which we will, of course, honor:
According to the well-placed source, [The Officer] was coming off another case in the neighborhood ... when he ordered "B" and his friend (Jones)to stop walking in the middle of the road because they were obstructing traffic. However, the confrontation quickly escalated into physical violence, the source said.

“They ignored him and the officer started to get out of the car to tell them to move," the source said. "They shoved him right back in, that’s when "B" leans in and starts beating Officer [Name Deleted]in the head and the face."

The Officer claims to have sustained serious residual injuries, a claim he reiterated on Sean Hannity's televison broadcast later that evening.

Since making the statement, Jones has also come under attack, with many media outlets pointing out his past criminal record. A video, purportedly of Jones has gone viral which suggests he is anything but the "Gentle Giant" described in earlier news reports. It should be noted that confirmation of the authenticity of that video has yet to be verified.

Update: 5 pm, EST:

Diane Sawyer will conduct an exclusive interview with the police officer allegedly involved in the arrest of "B" and Jones, during which the officer will purportedly reveal scars from injuries he sustained in the attack.  The video will be aired on ABC news and will be available on YouTube later in the evening.

Update: 5:15 PM:

Right-wing websites have tentatively identified "B" as one Steven Biko, and this has been confirmed by the authorities.  Fox News' Geraldo Rivera will air a report tonight detailing Mr. Biko's many prior arrests. Fox also begins wall-to-wall coverage of Bike's "left-wing political views."

Since identifying Biko, the Police have issued another statement clarifying the timeline of events:

Since 5 September Mr. Biko refused his meals and threatened to go on a hunger strike. He had been regularly supplied with meals and water, but refused to partake thereof.

On 7 September a district surgeon was called in because Mr. Biko appeared unwell. The district surgeon certified that he could find nothing wrong with Mr. Biko.

The following morning he was again examined by a doctor and kept at the hospital for observation. On Sunday morning, 11 September, Mr. Biko was removed from the prison hospital to Walmer police station on the recommendation of the district surgeon. He still had not eaten on Sunday afternoon and again appeared unwell. After consultation with the district surgeon it was decided to transfer him....

On 12 September Mr. Biko was again examined by a district surgeon in Pretoria and received medical treatment. He died on Sunday night.

This statement is carried with minimal comment by every major media news outlet and newspaper with an AP feed.

Update: Two weeks later.

A Grand Jury has unanimously declined to indict anyone for the death of Steven Biko.  

Updated: Six Months Later( Interview with Police Chief Kruger on Fox News):

Sean Hannity: Now that a Grand Jury has voted not to indict any members of your department for the death of Steven Biko, you must feel vindicated. You've been through a terrible ordeal, hounded by liberal columnists and pundits, vilified by left-wingers on social media. Some liberals in Congress have even suggested the jury's decision was improper. What would you like to say to them?

Kruger: Sir, I just want to tell the congress and I want to tell the Press. I expect nothing from them [the press].

I know. Sir, I know because I have it in documents, that they are going for us.

They will search for nooks and crannies. Whether they will find them, I don't know. We are also only people.

But from my point of view, on the facts that I have, it looks to me as if what had to be done was done.

... I say to you as Minister, that I cannot see how we could have acted differently.

 (Cheers and applause.)

Discuss

Thirty-five years ago, babies born in the U.S. had an infant mortality rate equal to Germany. Today, American babies die at twice the rate of those in Germany.

Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. ranked 13th in life expectancy for girls among the 34 recognized industrial societies. Today we are ranked 29th out of those same 34 countries.

We have the highest teenage birth rate among the industrialized world.

One out of every four children in this country lives with a single parent, the highest rate by far in the industrialized world.

Our incarceration rate is triple what it was four decades ago, with an incarceration rate five times that of other wealthy democracies.

Economists from the University of Chicago, MIT and the University of Southern California conducted research to find out why our children die at a rate exponentially higher than European kids. Their conclusion? Staggering rates of income disparity, all stemming directly from the 1980's, the Era of Ronald Reagan and the beginning of the resurgence of the conservative movement.

"On nearly all indicators of mortality, survival and life expectancy, the United States ranks at or near the bottom among high-income countries,” says a report on the nation’s health by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

What’s most shocking about these statistics is not how unhealthy they show Americans to be, compared with citizens of countries that spend much less on health care and have much less sophisticated medical technology. What is most perplexing is how stunningly fast the United States has lost ground.

The statistics above are taken from this article by Eduardo Porter in today's New York Times. As Porter states, "Pick almost any measure of social health and cohesion over the last four decades or so, and you will find that the United States took a wrong turn along the way."  But as his analysis shows, it wasn't just lower wages caused by globalization and technological advancement that led to this dismal state of affairs (although those certainly played a part), but the unique failure of our U.S. government to respond to these developments:
[B]laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy. Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.

What set the United States apart — what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense — was the nature of its response. Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together.

From the time most of us have even had a political memory we have had to listen to conservative ideology spewed at us, telling us that the U.S. was living in a "welfare state," that "handouts" to the poor were sapping our productivity and harming the "spirit" of the country. That if we only unleashed the power of Big Business through fostering "entrepreneurship" while cutting programs designed to support the rest of us, the nation would "regain" its stature and create vast sums of wealth for all of our citizens, with corporate profits leading us back to a mythical promised land.  That shrinking government programs while cutting taxes for the richest would put wealth back into all our pockets and improve the quality of our lives. This was the dominant narrative in the 1980's, it was swallowed nearly whole and regurgitated by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, and reached its apotheosis in the 2000's prior to the Economic Crash presided over by George W. Bush and the same tax-cutting, supply-side ilk who sold it to us from the start, often in the guise of "deficit reduction." It is the same narrative that continues to paralyze our government's ability to respond to our citizens needs, now mutated into what we know as the "Tea Party."

Now this narrative has borne itself out to be nothing but a staggering lie. The reality is that beyond a meager Social Security and Medicare for the aged, both creations of Democratic Administrations, and with the constant demonization and derogation of Labor and Unions, there was not much at all to break the fall of ordinary Americans when trends like globalization appeared over the horizon:

A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of. The threadbare safety net tore under the strain.

Call it a failure of solidarity. American institutions, built from hostility toward collective solutions, couldn’t hold society together when the economic underpinning of full employment at a decent wage gave in.

"Hostility toward collective solutions" is polite terminology for "greed."

In searching for solutions, Porter weighs the benefits of education, but rightly concludes that the way education is structured in this country today it actually exacerbates inequality. One need only to examine the income levels of those victimized by the latest collapse of for-profit colleges, left clutching their near-worthless degrees, to understand why. He also points to attempts by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others to generate enthusiasm for lifting the payroll cap on Social Security to expand benefits for the elderly. But caring for the elderly is ultimately not our biggest problem. Ultimately the changes necessary to reverse the criminal damage already wreaked on us by the American Right and its malignant, self-serving ideology must be solved at the ballot box.

The challenge America faces is not simply a matter of equity. The bloated incarceration rates and rock-bottom life expectancy, the unraveling families and the stagnant college graduation rates amount to an existential threat to the nation’s future.

That is, perhaps, the best reason for hope. The silver lining in these dismal, if abstract, statistics, is that they portend such a dysfunctional future that our broken political system might finally be forced to come together to prevent it.

So this election is not just "our time." It may be the only time.
Discuss

Some nasty, malevolent wingnut took it on himself to spoil a kindergarten concert in Iowa by yelling "USA! English Only!" over and over when the concert was introduced first in English, and then by a Spanish translator to accommodate Spanish speaking toddlers and their parents.

This occurred last week at the local Performing Arts Center in Perry, Iowa, about 40 miles Northwest of Des Moines, during a concert by Perry Elementary School students.  The incident was caught on a 12-second video and provided to the Perry News. The video shows:

[A]n unidentified man being escorted out of an auditorium by security personnel, while he repeatedly chants, "USA, English only. USA, English only," and shakes his fist in the air.

The man responsible for the disruption reportedly started bellowing the chant when a translator began repeating the event host's opening remarks in Spanish.

Perry Elementary has about a 50% Hispanic and Latino kindergarten class.

The incident initially made the local news and is rapidly going national.

       

It's bad enough that adult Americans have to put up with this hateful nonsense on Fox News, but at least they can change the channel. It takes a particularly heinous individual to bring this kind of rank hatred into a kindergarten.  Although, when the state's "leading voice" on immigration issues is an immigrant-bashing Republican Congressman Steven King, I guess we shouldn't be too surprised.

Parents were understandably appalled that little children had to witness the display of right-wing inspired racism. Many booed when the man began shouting.

"I've never heard anything like that and it just hurt me really bad," Sara Benedict, whose son was in the concert, told KCCI-TV.
The Superintendent for the District sent an email about the incident to all school staff on Friday:
"We live in a diverse/people rich community that values all people and our children truly are our most precious resource," Ubben wrote, according to The Des Moines Register. "As our elementary music instructor so eloquently said, 'Our children don't see color, they just see their friends.'"
The Police have neither identified nor charged the man, but their investigation is still underway.
Discuss

                            finnish flag photo: Finnish flag Finland20flag.gif

Finland doesn't mess around when it comes to income inequality. Just ask Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman with an annual income of $7 million.

He was recently fined 54,024 euros (about $58,000) for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone. And no, the 54,024 euros did not turn out to be a typo, or a mistake of any kind.

Mr. Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income. The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too

Traffic fines in Finland, and to a lesser extent, in other Scandinavian countries, are assessed depending on your income, through a complex system accessible by police through a one-minute inquiry to the Finnish tax office:
The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income, with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently 255 euros per month.

Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense.

Mr. Kuisla was fined for "eight days." If he had made only $54,000 per year he would have received about a $370 fiine.
The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending. Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines.
As one might expect, Mr. Kuisla did not take the news well, venting on Facebook to a (for the most part) bemused and unreceptive Finnish audience:
The ticket had its desired effect. Mr. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what 54,024 euros could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes. He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether, a position to which he held firm when reached by phone at a bar where he was watching horse races.

“The way things are done here makes no sense,” Mr. Kuisla sputtered, saying he would not be giving interviews. Before hanging up, he added: “For what and for whom does this society exist? It is hard to say.”

Actually it's not that hard to say. Finland boasts one of the most admired and successful educational systems in the world, with no tuition fees, highly educated teachers and professors, and fully subsidized meals for students.  Progressive taxation of the wealthy makes that and many other programs for social good possible:
Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.

This explains why Mr. Kuisla's highly publicized indignation has largely been met with indifference by the Finnish public. While there is general agreement that the fine in this case might be excessive, there is also acceptance that fines and taxes should continue to be assessed in a progressive manner based on income.  That's because the system works wonders for the vast majority of the Finnish people. In fact, the general reaction to Mr. Kuisla's blustering about leaving the country has been to show him quickly to the door:

“This says a lot about the times when the stinkingly rich can’t even take their fines for crimes, but are immediately moving out of the country. Farewell, we won’t miss you,” said one post in The Helsingin Sanomat, a daily newspaper and website.

Of course, one can sympathize with Mr. Kuisla to some degree. He's hardly the first person to have been caught speeding, rich or poor. The fact is, however, that he should have known better. He was previously hit for an $83,000 fine for doing 76 in a 50 MPH zone.  Courts do take into account mitigating factors and Mr. Kuisla had that fine reduced to about $7000 U.S., since his "income" that year was based on a one-time stock sale.  A ticket issued in 2002 assessed a $103,600 fine against a heavy-footed motorcyclist who blew through Helsinki in too much of a hurry.  That ticket was based on an income of $12 million.

Police note that very, very few tickets of this magnitude are issued, although they acknowledge they do not keep track of them.

Discuss

                       galaxy photo: Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) hs-2005-12-a-web.jpg

Last week two Senior NASA Scientists confidently predicted that we will find evidence of extraterrestrial life within a decade or so. Ellen Stofan, NASA's chief scientist and John Grunsfeld, the agency's associate administrator for science programs, weren't talking about walking, talking or slithering aliens, but rather microbes composed of basic chemical compounds necessary for life as we understand it. The growing consensus that there are innumerable temperate planets capable of supporting this kind of life prompts generous funding by NASA in efforts to locate it, and it seems that one day soon we will.

Efforts to locate more developed extraterrestrial life, on the other hand, receive almost no funding and are the provenance of only a limited number of astronomers and scientists embarked on a quest known as SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  Defunded by the U.S. government in 1995, SETI relies almost entirely on private funding. Some of the more well-known SETI projects are run through Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley and the SETI institute.  Computer power is sometimes donated to support these efforts, which essentially seek out radio or laser-type signals that may pass through our own galaxy and possess a certain pattern indicative of intelligence.

However, for all of its efforts, SETI has yet to find any real trace of intelligent or advanced civilizations that might possibly exist out there.  The disconcerting results of the most recent and comprehensive efforts to locate definitive traces of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are detailed in the latest issue of Scientific American:

Now, new results suggest this loneliness may extend out into the universe far beyond our galaxy or, instead, that some of our preconceptions about the behaviors of alien civilizations are deeply flawed. After examining some 100,000 nearby large galaxies a team of researchers lead by The Pennsylvania State University astronomer Jason Wright has concluded that none of them contain any obvious signs of highly advanced technological civilizations. Published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, it is by far the largest of study of its kind to date....
Rather than look for radio signals, Wright and his team looked for thermodynamic residual signatures of what they would expect from galactic-sized colonization, using NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer. They based their work in part on a theory advanced by physicist Freeman Dyson:
Dyson postulated that a growing technological culture would ultimately be limited by access to energy, and that advanced, energy-hungry civilizations would be driven to harvest all the available light from their stars. To do that, they might dismantle a planet or two as feedstock for building star-enveloping swarms of solar collectors. A star’s light would fade as it was encased in such a “Dyson sphere,” but Dyson noted the constructions could be detected by the mid-infrared glow of their radiated waste heat—essentially the same phenomenon that causes your computer to warm up when it’s running.
In 1963 a Russian astronomer (Nikolai Kardashev) elaborated on Dyson's hypothetical, creating a classification system for degrees of advanced civilizations which employed "Dyson Spheres." Depending on the amount of energy harnessed, a civilization could be called Class 1, 2 or 3, with Class 3 able to harness the energy not only of a single planet or solar system, but an entire galaxy. Of course this implies a degree of advancement that would render our human species barely a blip on the cosmological scale.

Wright's research, funded by the Templeton Foundation, relied on Dyson's assumptions and Kardashev's classification system but also allowed for the possibility that no "Dyson Sphere" existed at all. Wright's search for thermodynamic "waste" would also encompass any galactic-level  astro-engineering (in other words, what we as humans would expect in our conception of a truly "advanced" civilization). Their methodology was based on established principles of physics, particularly the generation of heat:

[B]ecause the second law of thermodynamics makes energy use hard to hide. They could construct Dyson spheres, they could get power from rotating black holes, they could build giant computer networks in the cold outskirts of galaxies, and all of that would produce waste heat.
Where previous research along these lines had been limited to about 100 galaxies, Wright's team examined approximately 100,000. Alas, the results were disappointing.
"On Kardashev’s scale, a type 3 civilization uses energy equal to all the starlight produced by one galaxy,” Wright says. That would equate to an infrared-bright galaxy seemingly bereft of stars. “We looked at the nearest, largest 100,000 galaxies we could find in the WISE catalogue and we never saw that. One hundred thousand galaxies and not one had that signature. We didn’t find any type 3s in our sample because there aren’t any.
The fact that a civilization may not have expanded to the point where such galactic-altering capacities are reached and are therefore undetectable is, of course, a reasonable explanation. However the age of the Universe itself, according to SETI researchers, ought to compensate for civilizations only in their nascent stages of development:
“Life, once it becomes spacefaring, looks like it could cross a galaxy in as little as 50 million years,” [ James Annis, an astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory who has used different methods to survey nearby galaxies for type 3s] says. “And 50 million years is a very short time compared to the billion-year timescales of planets and galaxies. You would expect life to crisscross a galaxy many times in the nearly 14 billion years the universe has been around. Maybe spacefaring civilizations are rare and isolated, but it only takes just one to want and be able to modify its galaxy for you to be able to see it. If you look at enough galaxies, you should eventually see something obviously artificial. That’s why it’s so uncomfortable that the more we look, the more natural everything appears.”

Over the years, researchers have created a vast assemblage of possible explanations for SETI’s failure to find any aliens. Perhaps we are alone or some restriction imposed by astrophysics and biology makes intelligent life vanishingly rare or technological civilizations always self-destruct or interstellar travel is simply too hard, too slow or too boring.

There is no shortage of speculation as to why no life on a galactic-altering scale has been discovered. We may very well be alone.  Or it may be that intelligence is simply a freak of nature that in the extremely rare instances when it does occur quickly mutates to extinguish itself before any real "advancement" of the species can proceed. It is also possible that what we consider as the characteristics of an "advanced" species--the consumption of every conceivable source of energy--is completely different from the evolutionary cycle of other species and that the reason we see no trace of energy being burned is because that species has learned to live more in accommodation with nature.

Or perhaps intelligence actually carries with it the innate seeds of its own destruction. Perhaps every budding intelligent civilization has its own version of David and Charles Koch or other like-minded malignant specimens whose sole purpose in life is to eradicate the species in avid and relentless pursuit of short term self-interest. Perhaps the endless silence that greets us as we listen intently to the Universe is simply the triumph of something as mundane as greed.

Discuss

The New York Times' Timothy Egan reminds us not to lose sight of the real enemy:

While the political press was obsessing over what Hillary Clinton had for lunch, the real action this month in the interminable run-up to the presidency was taking place at the knees of the Brothers Koch, David and Charles. Turns out, we may get an election after all, albeit one that will be decided by a pair of septuagenarians whose combined worth is more than the richest person on the planet.

We are in the “invisible primary,” an apt term for the age of oligarchs and dark money. It’s invisible, this suck-up campaign, because it’s happening behind the closed doors of a wealthy few, as a half-dozen or so Republicans audition to win the blessing of billionaires. It should be called the Plutocrat Primary.

The prospect of supposedly "independent" politicians, who presumably entered political life with at least a half-hearted pretense of serving the public, "auditioning" before a pair of oil-industry Billionaires whose blessing or rejection will determine their fate, is simply mind-boggling. Imagine Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower fawning and posing like dolled-up prostitutes in a brothel before these two brothers, frantically vetting every sentence in their position papers lest one of the Billionaires become displeased and move on to the next in line. The impossibility of imagining such an obscene spectacle is the best evidence of how far the Republican Party has fallen.
David Koch has now clarified the position of the electorate of two. It’s down to five candidates: Walker, Jeb Bush, and Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. The billionaire brothers will withhold their backing until one of the five says the most Koch-friendly things.
The Kochs, whose entire purpose in life is to make as much money for their industries as possible, have pledged 900 million dolllars to buy the next Presidential election. Their vehicle for this theft of Democracy is a thoroughly corrupt Republican Party:
The Kochs’ political views are like an invasive weed growing in every crack of the country, spreading through think tanks, corrupt academics and talk radio shills.
The Kochs' influence is constantly expanding. When Mike Pence, Republican Governor of Indiana made a fool of himself defending the state's discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he immediately hired a new PR shill to mitigate the damage. His new deputy chief of communications and strategy? Matt Lloyd, director of communications for Koch Industries. This week it was revealed that the Billionaire brothers have also dumped 125 million into expanding faux "grassroots" (i.e., astro-turf) efforts into red states to further cement their agenda of "deregulation" (colloquially known as "pollution"), by dominating the electoral process in those states and effectively purchasing politicians who are eager to do their bidding.

But their real prize will be capturing the Presidency and turning loose a Scott Walker or similar puppet on the rest of the country, to destroy labor unions and roll back years of environmental protections.  For that reason they've dedicated the balance of their money towards smearing the Democratic nomineee, presumably Hillary Clinton.  But that all comes later.

[W]ith this bigfoot move into the Republican primary field, the Kochs are determined to pick a winner from the throne room of their family monarchy — free market and free election be damned.
While Walker is their favorite, his appeal outside of Wisconsin is questionable. So the Kochs have now opened up the audition process to the rest of the Republican field. It will only be a matter of time before John Ellis Bush is slavishly prostrating himself to the Kochs' interests, assuming he hasn't already done so in private.

Egan ends with a note of disgust, but also a semblance of hope that Americans will wake up and realize that their country is being stolen from them by people whose interests are not their own:

At some point, you would think that average Americans would be appalled by a few rich guys trying to buy the next presidential election. And — hope alert! — you did see a great pushback against the Kochs in red-state Montana this month. There, Koch-funded surrogates tried to keep poor people from getting health care, through the Medicaid expansion option of Obamacare. Koch agents were booed at one hearing. And they were shamed at another, for the stark cruelty of two people worth a combined $80 billion dollars trying to deny a basic human decency to people who earn $11,000 a year. Health care is on the way in Montana.
Discuss

                     Jindal photo: Bobby Jindal BobbyJindal.jpg

Bobby Jindal, Republican Governor of Louisiana and delusional Presidential wannabee, doubles down on his hatred in an Op-Ed in today's New York Times, declaring war on anyone who opposes discrimination, and making it clear he doesn't give a damn what the consequences are for the people of his state, whether they're being discriminated against, or whether they're the ones doing the discriminating:

In Indiana and Arkansas, large corporations recently joined left-wing activists to bully elected officials into backing away from strong protections for religious liberty. It was disappointing to see conservative leaders so hastily retreat on legislation that would simply allow for an individual or business to claim a right to free exercise of religion in a court of law.
This is the sound of bigotry dying. It makes a loud squeal of victimhood and wraps itself in the Constitution:
Our country was founded on the principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Why shouldn’t an individual or business have the right to cite, in a court proceeding, religious liberty as a reason for not participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony that violates a sincerely held religious belief?

That is what Indiana and Arkansas sought to do. That political leaders in both states quickly cowered amid the shrieks of big business and the radical left should alarm us all.

I guess believing that mega-corporations made up of thousands of individual employees, officers and directors shouldn't have the right to "adopt" a religion and use it to deprive people of their basic human rights is a "radical left" position.  Good to know. I hope my children all grow up to be radical leftists.

The title to Jindal's screed is "I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage", suggesting it is his personal philosophy, and not any concern for others, businesses or otherwise, that motivates him. But Jindal makes it clear that all Louisianians and their businesses will suffer the consequences of his "religious" views as long as he stays in office:

As the fight for religious liberty moves to Louisiana, I have a clear message for any corporation that contemplates bullying our state: Save your breath.
Jindal has some real zingers here, some of which appear to have been rather hastily conceived:
A pluralistic and diverse society like ours can exist only if we all tolerate people who disagree with us.
Isn't that what non-discrimination means?

 

The same people who think that profit making is vulgar believe that religiosity is folly.
Yes. That's why Jesus overturned all those moneychangers' tables in the Temple.  
The left-wing ideologues who oppose religious freedom are the same ones who seek to tax and regulate businesses out of existence.
So, by opposing laws which discriminate and thereby would keep people from consuming products and services, liberals are trying to destroy business?

Jindal's rant is actually quite unhinged, even for a Republican, and although much of it is red-meat pandering most likely intended to shore up his Quixotic quest to be a real "player" in the Republican Party, it ends with a very dark appeal to fascism:

Liberals have decided that if they can’t win at the ballot box, they will win in the boardroom. It’s a deliberate strategy. And it’s time for corporate America to make a decision...

[T]he business community must stand shoulder to shoulder with those fighting for religious liberty...


Those who believe in freedom must stick together: If it’s not freedom for all, it’s not freedom at all. This strategy requires populist social conservatives to ally with the business community on economic matters and corporate titans to side with social conservatives on cultural matters. This is the grand bargain that makes freedom’s defense possible.

This is actually quite frightening in its absolutism. Jindal is urging corporations to unite in imposing religious dogma on American consumers, through discrimination. The consequences of that taken to their logical conclusion would be terrifying and would probably destroy any pretense of America as a Republic.  It would, however, create a theocracy, presumably with fanatics like Jindal at the helm, issuing edicts from time to time to punish minority, non-compliant populations.  

Jindal's rant should be read by all who want to understand the true face of the Republican Party and the extremism that drives it.

UPDATE-The Human Rights Campaign has taken a red pen to Jindal's Op-Ed, proving once again that there is no power as strong as Ridicule against the Right.

Discuss

Sometimes an article is so indicative of the sorry-assed state of American journalism that you have to step outside and catch your breath.  Such is the case with Michael Grunwald's latest article in Politico, in which he agonizes over whether the great "bipartisan success story" of the Everglades might be threatened by the President's visit today...which could "politicize" it and thus prompt Florida lunatics in the Tea Party to oppose restoring or (by implication) even protecting the Everglades at all.

That's right. Grunwald worries that for the President to articulate the consensus of 99.9% of all scientists that climate change presents a clear and present danger might offend Republican sensibilities and do more harm than good. Because Black President. Or something.

[D]ragging the Everglades into the partisan battlefield of climate politics could be less advantageous for the Everglades....
To support his theory,  Grunwald cites a former Republican Congressional Staffer who is very, very concerned:
For decades, the immense sawgrass marsh has enjoyed motherhood-and-apple-pie status in Florida and Washington, straddling traditional political fault lines on the environment...

It’s not clear how Obama’s effort to turn the Everglades into a global-warming poster child will affect that bipartisan consensus.

“Historically, the Everglades has been an ecumenical issue, bringing together the far left and far right and everyone in between,” said Everglades Foundation executive director Eric Eikenberg, a former Republican congressional staffer. “It’s never been partisan, and it shouldn’t be partisan—that’s the beauty of it.”

No, the beauty of the bipartisan consensus regarding the Everglades was that once upon a time, one of the "Bi's" in "Bipartisan" included a Republican Party not made up of knuckle-dragging climate deniers bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.  When one Party goes off the deep end and prostitutes its political existence to the Climate Denial cabal there can never again be that beautiful "bipartisan" thingy.  One of the Parties is dead wrong and hurtling towards destruction, and it ain't the President's Party.  The President's trip is only "political" insofar as the GOP has turned deliberate stupidity on climate change into a litmus test for its Party and its Party's Presidential candidates.

Grunwald has written about the Everglades and the political battles to save them, so he knows the history.  What he apparently doesn't understand is that the modern Republican Party is not made up of the same kind of people anymore.

The fear for some activists is that by hitching the Everglades to the polarizing climate issue, he could end up making Republicans less Everglades-friendly rather than more climate-friendly. It was notable that Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican who has found common ground with Obama on Everglades issues and virtually nothing else, took to Twitter this week to question the president’s commitment to restoration. Obama proposed a $70 million funding increase for the Everglades this year and has repeatedly requested more money than Congress has been willing to provide, but Scott still dinged him for failing to “find a way” to avoid cutbacks.

You know what? If Rick Scott and the Republicans want to trash the Everglades and Florida's tourist economy to punish the Black President, maybe the folks in Florida who voted for Rick Scott might actually come to their senses and elect new leaders next time. What Grunwald is suggesting is that the President may want to back off and let the magical bipartisan waves that existed in decades past flow over him. Perhaps this would allow the poor Republicans to save face and tend to their Everglades without ever having to acknowledge the fact that they're climate positions are wrong. Unfortunately, as any political reporter worth the pixels he produces would realize, that approach hasn't worked with this virulent mutation of the GOP and it won't work now.  Nor is there any attempt by Grunwald to fathom why Republicans would rather trash their state than agree with the President. That aspect is just assumed, with Grunwald concluding that the President should be the one to "moderate" his choice of language on this "polarizing" issue.

Let's be clear--the current restoration of the Everglades is inextricably linked to climate change:

Efforts to restore the Everglades and climate change are closely linked. Restoration efforts involve returning more fresh water to the Everglades National Park — which once covered a much larger area. That fresh water will not only replenish the Biscayne Aquifer, upon which South Florida relies for water, but also push back encroaching salt water from rising seas, which is intruding into the park and dramatically altering the ecosystem.
So the President not only has a right to talk about it, he has an obligation to talk about it. Whether Charles and David Koch or their puppets in the Florida statehouse like it or not.
“This is really ground zero” for the climate issue, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “As the seas rise, salty ocean water travels inland and threatens the primary source of drinking water for more than a third of Floridians.”

On top of drinking water, the administration charges, climate change also threatens Florida’s tourist economy, estimating that the cost across the state could be as high as $ 9 billion by the year 2025.

The most irksome aspect of Grunwald's article is that it fosters the notion that destructive idiocy of the Tea Party is something that needs to be coddled and "managed" rather than eradicated. The world doesn't have time for that, and the Everglades certainly don't.
Discuss

         federal prison photo: prison prison-bunk.jpg          

Many of us knew this intuitively, but the numbers are still shocking:

For every 100 black women not in jail, there are only 83 black men. The remaining men – 1.5 million of them – are, in a sense, missing.
Using data collected from the 2010 Census, Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy, writing for The Upshot in the New York Times, attempt to account for those African-American males "'missing" from everyday life in the U.S.A: missing Dads, sons, grandfathers, brothers, coworkers, comrades, compadres, neighbors, and friends. They are "missing" in the sense that they are, for the most part, either dead from premature or unnatural causes-- such as homicide--or imprisoned.  They are not part of what we know as society. They are completely absent. They do not count, except as statistics.  Black males, for example, are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white males.  The biggest reason they are imprisoned is for drug-related offenses. Blacks make up 50% of the people incarcerated for drug crimes in state and local prisons, at a rate 10 times more than whites, even though five times as many whites use drugs as do African-Americans.

 

Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life...Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million.
If a comparable epidemic of "missing white men" (or white women) existed in this country it's beyond question that a transformative cultural reckoning would occur to discover and correct the cause. The media would be shouting from the rooftops, white families would be marching in the streets, our Republican Congress would be busily speechifying and passing laws instead of trying to deny the entire country an Attorney General based on her race, while simultaneously stoking more racism against immigrant Hispanics and Latinos as their "justification."

But there is no such "gap" of "missing whites and no such cultural reckoning has taken place, There is no media outcry. To the contrary, racism is so pervasive and endemic to this country that its consequences have gradually become an accepted fact of what we euphemistically regard as the "American Experience."  Such "missing" African-American adult males are simply the way things are:

Incarceration and early deaths are the overwhelming drivers of the gap. Of the 1.5 million missing black men from 25 to 54 — which demographers call the prime-age years — higher imprisonment rates account for almost 600,000. Almost 1 in 12 black men in this age group are behind bars, compared with 1 in 60 nonblack men in the age group, 1 in 200 black women and 1 in 500 nonblack women.

Higher mortality is the other main cause. About 900,000 fewer prime-age black men than women live in the United States, according to the census. It’s impossible to know precisely how much of the difference is the result of mortality, but it appears to account for a big part. Homicide, the leading cause of death for young African-American men, plays a large role, and they also die from heart disease, respiratory disease and accidents more often than other demographic groups, including black women.

The gap doesn't exist in childhood. There are as many African-American baby boys as there are African-American baby girls. But as they begin to reach their twenties and thirties, American society begins to winnow the males out, one way or another, by sending them to prison at disproportionate rates, or sometimes  more permanently, by gunning them down in the street in places like Ferguson, Missouri:
And what is the city with at least 10,000 black residents that has the single largest proportion of missing black men? Ferguson, Mo. , where a fatal police shooting last year led to nationwide protests and a Justice Department investigation that found widespread discrimination against black residents. Ferguson has 60 men for every 100 black women in the age group,Stephen Bronars, an economist, has noted.
That's right--the city with the highest number of "missing" black men is the same city that found itself in the vortex of some of the worst excesses of race-inspired police misconduct over the past decade. But for all of its problems, Ferguson is just a microcosm of the factors driving the absence of black men throughout American society:
In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing.
Racism in the U.S. has a reinforcing, almost feedback-loop character where symptoms are deliberately mistaken for causes, simply to justify more racism. The stark reduction in numbers of available African-American men, for example, is rightly blamed for the fact that African-American women are heads of households, and often working and raising children by themselves. This in turn feeds the right's stereotype about the attitudes and behavior of black men while conveniently ignoring the fact that if vast numbers of white men were similarly "disappeared" from American society the same types of social imbalances would occur to white women. It also provides a convenient excuse for conservatives to blame others while ignoring the real problems that face both single-parent female households and black males, such as poverty and lack of good jobs.

The self-justifying character of racism goes a long way towards explaining why it seems to cling perpetually to this nation, decade after decade. The modern Republican Party owes its existence and appeal to the continual, perpetual exploitation of racism. Stoking racist impulses (like tying the confirmation of a black Attorney General to immigrant-bashing) is how Republicans motivate their base to vote, even when those voters end up voting against programs such as the Affordable Care Act and other social programs that largely benefit white Americans.  In this respect, racism may be the most powerful of motivators in American political culture. And these are the consequences:

African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.
While these types of statistics should bewilder and sadden us, what is truly disturbing is that year after year they seem to have no real impact, because these same missing men are denied a voice in the culture.  And when you are denied a voice, someone else's voice is always ready to fill the gap. There is probably nothing so indicative of the undying chasm in political attitudes towards race in this country as the self-congratulatory "explanations" white conservatives reflexively trot out to rationalize facts like those presented in this study. In the conservative worldview these types of studies justify their core beliefs, that African-Americans, far from being racially targeted, are inherently prone to be criminals, therefore the fact that the numbers of African Americans are imprisoned is not a function of racism, but simply a confirmation of their propensity to break the law. That African-Americans, far from succumbing to preventable diseases caused by a racially-enforced culture of poverty, are instead wholly responsible for their own unhealthy lifestyles. In this way of thinking, the more that the reality of racism is denied, the more it thrives.

For a great segment of the American population, raised on racial propaganda from Fox News to Republican politicians, the circle of racism can't be broken--it just keeps going around and around, ingraining the same beliefs set into stone. Those circular attitudes more than anything else explain why racism continues to be an ugly and pervasive problem in the U.S., one that shows few real signs of abating, no matter how "enlightened" or "educated" we pretend we've become.

Discuss

                         wall street photo: Occupy Wall Street OccupyWallStflagWeb320.jpg

This is a piece of investigative journalism by Reuters' Charles Levinson that the Banking industry and the SEC would really prefer that Americans just ignore. And they'll probably get their wish. Few in Middle America will will spend their Sunday morning coffee-sipping time reading this.  It will never make the "featured article" on any search engine's news web site, competing next to "Eleven Movies With Bad Endings" or the most recent incident of police misconduct caught on a cell-phone camera.

Financial regulation doesn't lend itself to Americans' distressed attention spans. It's dry and complicated--its subject matter too esoteric and just plain boring for ordinary Americans to take the time out of their daily grind to try to decipher, and that's exactly the way the industry likes it. Opacity is their friend. But the Reuters article really tells you most of what you need to know why efforts to rein in the banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions following the financial crisis of 2008 were doomed from the start, will continue to be largely for show, and are already setting the stage for another crisis which may turn out to be as big and devastating as the last one.

* * *

Keith Higgins is one smart lawyer. He was the Chair of the ABA Committee on Securities Regulation and a partner at Ropes and Gray, representing corporate clients in mergers, acquisitions, compliance, offerings and governance, to name just a few of his talents. So when the Financial Crisis hit and it looked like the Banks were facing some tough new rules on disclosing the same potentially toxic asset-backed securities and financial instruments that had crashed the economy and turned Henry Paulsen and George W. Bush ashen-gray with fear, he spent a lot of his time sending letters to the SEC, and they listened to him. His mantra--the Banks could do no wrong:

In letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Higgins argued that divulging more details about the mortgages and other financial products that go into such securities would only confuse investors. And it was investors, with “insufficient understanding and … commitment” to their investments, who had been the real cause of the crisis, he argued in a July 2008 letter.
Higgins did more than write letters. The American Bar Association played an important role in the SEC's decision-making, as Banks rely on corporate counsel to oppose Rulemaking that could infringe on their profits.  The ABA Division Higgins chaired was dominated by former SEC lawyers and essentially acted as a proxy for the banks with regard to any pending rulemaking on the Disclosure issue (Reg AB II):
Banks were helped by a particularly vocal and effective advocate: the American Bar Association. The ABA’s Committee on the Federal Regulation of Securities – that’s the committee with four former SEC employees – wrote 94 comment letters to the SEC and other regulators after the crisis, making it one of the most prolific commenters on SEC rules. Nearly all of the comments parroted letters from banks and financial industry lobbyists.

Higgins, chair of the committee when the SEC started drafting Reg AB II, personally signed 46 of the letters.

Asset-backed securities (such as the same type of collateralized debt obligations --and "credit default swaps"--that were bundled into toxic securities to cause the financial crisis) are particularly attractive to Banks because they eliminate the need for a bank to build up capital reserves:
Every additional dollar in assets on a bank’s balance sheet requires holding more idle cash in capital reserves to cover those assets if they drop in value. The increase in reserves means less revenue and earning power and smaller employee bonuses.

Off-balance-sheet vehicles free banks to make more loans and build assets without having to add to capital reserves. These assets include all sorts of things: Treasury securities, home and commercial real estate mortgages, auto loans, even “junk” loans used to finance leveraged buyouts. Banks bundle the assets into securities, sell the securities to investors, and then park the assets in separately incorporated off-balance-sheet vehicles.

The great Financial Crisis of 2008 left no doubt that the "sophisticated investors" to whom such contrivances were sold with little or no formal disclosure process regarding their content were really not so sophisticated after all, particularly in the private, largely unregulated "off-the books" market.  So after the calamity of 2007-2008 when such assets drastically lost value, prompting the Banks to rush in to bail these assets out (and wrecking the U.S. and global economy in the process), such securities were targeted by Federal regulators and Dodd-Frank specifically for more disclosure, on the theory that people would be more circumspect if they knew the risk of what they were buying, and banks would have a greater degree of responsibility for those instruments.  The Rule being drafted was known as "Reg AB II".

As of 2013, though, the woefully underfunded SEC was still hammering out that same Disclosure Rule probably on their vintage cathode-ray PC's. They needed some help. So who did they get to lead the 500 overworked SEC guys in drafting Reg AB II?  

You guessed it:

Washington, D.C., May 15, 2013 —

The Securities and Exchange Commission today named Keith F. Higgins as the new director of the agency’s Division of Corporation Finance.

The Division of Corporate Finance of the SEC is tasked with "ensur[ing]e that investors are provided with material information in order to make informed investment decisions, both when a company initially offers its securities to the public and on an ongoing basis."

Keith's resume was impeccable:

“Keith is a widely-respected expert on the securities laws with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the many issues confronting the Division,” said Mary Jo White, Chair of the SEC. “He understands and appreciates the importance of our disclosure laws in helping to ensure that investors get the information they need to make informed investment decisions.
Unfortunately his "understanding and appreciation" of the importance of disclosure laws turned out to be, apparently, the same "understanding and appreciation" that his former clients had demonstrated and that he himself had championed while in private practice.
When the final version of Reg AB II came out last year, disclosure rules advocated by many within the agency had been stripped out. Of particular concern: Banks could continue to sell asset-backed securities to institutional investors on the private market with no new disclosure requirements.  
The SEC can be a stepping stone to white-shoe firms for some, but the prime MBA and Securities legal talent bypasses the government and goes into the private sector, where they're paid far, far more. The agency can't afford to hire the best and brightest from Harvard, so they naturally genuflect when talent such as Higgins' appears to save the day.  As Reuters' investigation, also published in Pro-Publica, points out, the percentage of Financial services veterans on the Federal Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which sets accounting standards for public companies, went from 0% to 25% between 1993 and 2006 (the article also describes how the efforts of Robert Herz, former Chairman of the FASB, advocating for tougher accounting rules before the Financial Crisis, were stymied and evaded by the financial industry to the point where Herz was essentially forced out in 2010, only to see his successor handpicked by the industry).

The SEC claims that the decision regarding Reg AB II was made before Higgins' tenure at the agency and that he was not personally responsible for the decision.  For purposes of understanding the fallout from the symbiotic, perpetually revolving-door relationship between the SEC and the financial industry, whether he personally signed off on the Final reg it would seem to be irrelevant. He signed 46 letters to the SEC seeking to curb it and was clearly influential in its drafting. He was then put in charge of its issuance and implementation. Higgins was tapped by SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White. White's husband was a partner at one of the country's top law firms, Cravath Swaine and Moore:

Higgins was close to White’s husband, John White, a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP who had himself chaired the SEC division when Higgins was head of the ABA committee, according to people who know both men.
So while Higgins was writing letters to his friend Mr. White of the SEC urging the abandonment or wholesale watering down of disclosure provisions regarding asset-backed securities, Mrs White was angling for the top job at the SEC. One month after she succeeded to the SEC throne, she tapped Higgins to lead the issuance of the very Rules he had opposed.  

Hey, it's an intimate club.

While the market for asset backed securities is today is not comparable to what existed before the crisis, the regulatory framework (or lack thereof) that caused the crisis in the first place has essentially survived unscathed, due to the lobbying efforts of the banks and their incestuous relationship with the SEC and FASB.  Nor is the problem limited to the banks, as hedge funds and private equity funds have resumed their off-the-books dealings with comparable ferocity.

The result has been predictable, Despite the support of SEC staff and the ratings agencies, despite the support of investors who want more Disclosure of off-the-books financial instruments, the SEC's Rulemaking has since ground to a halt and there are virtually no new Disclosure rules regarding the same type of asset-backed securities whose implosion caused the Financial Crisis to begin with:

On August 27 last year, 52 months after the original draft proposal of Reg AB II was floated, the SEC adopted the final version. The 683-page rule detailed a raft of new disclosure requirements for asset-backed securities - but only for those registered with the SEC for general offer to the public. For the same securities sold on the private market, disclosure requirements remained scant.
As a result, the Banks are pouring more and more into such investments:
“What’s playing out is exactly what we were worried about,” said Sheila Bair, former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. “Most everything is going into these private markets where regulations require little visibility of what’s happening.”

With their access to off-balance-sheet entities largely preserved, the banks continue to hold vast sums of securitized loans offshore and off their books. Together, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bank of America Corp, Citigroup, Wells Fargo & Co, Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Morgan Stanley hold nearly $3.3 trillion of securitized loans in off-balance-sheet entities.

Meanwhile the average bonus for all Wall Street employees jumped 15% in 2013 to $164,000, their highest level since the Financial Crisis.
                             
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