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“When We Do Unto Others”: Good News, Maybe; Firing Squads Are Not Tourist Attractions

We should have seen this coming, I suppose.

We are, after all, the can-do country. Nobody is going to tell us what we can and cannot do, even as they make it impossible for us to do what we used to do before they said we couldn’t do it anymore. If this sounds a bit muddled, welcome to the desperate illogic behind our devotion to capital punishment.

It turns out the collective conscience of the civilized world does not share our affection for government-sanctioned murder. We don’t call it that, of course. We refer to it as the “death penalty,” as if calling murder something other than murder makes it all right when we do unto others precisely what we’ve insisted they shouldn’t have done to someone else.

For many years, our weapon of choice has been lethal injection, a deadly cocktail of paralytic and anesthetic drugs, combined with potassium chloride. The idea is to make death look peaceful so that no one involved in the process has to go home feeling like he or she just killed somebody.

Over time, prisons have to come to depend on third-party providers for their lethal injections. Until recently, that is, when suppliers announced they would no longer provide the primary anesthetic for executions. So now, here we are, facing a nationwide shortage of drugs needed to do the deadly deed.

Here comes Utah, where the state legislature has just received the governor’s blessing to bring back firing squads if lethal drugs aren’t available.

A modern-day firing squad is not the stuff of old movies, where the condemned man stood spur-to-spur and ramrod straight, puffing on a last cigarette dangling from his lips. Associated Press reporter Brady McCombs describes with horrifying detail just how these executions unfold in Utah.

The prisoner is strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart.

Let’s all take a moment and imagine that.

About 25 feet away, five shooters hide behind a wall and slide their .30-caliber rifles through slots. The gunmen are volunteers. As McCombs reported, so many gunmen volunteer that priority goes to those from the area where the crime was committed. Sort of like squatter’s rights, with ammo.

One of the guns is loaded with a blank. This apparently is meant to protect any shooter later seized by conscience over his eagerness to volunteer to kill an unarmed man strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart. Nothing shoos away a dark moment of the soul like the reassurance that we will never know for sure if our bullet blew up the heart of a fellow human.

Utah State Rep. Ray Paul sponsored the bill to bring back the firing squad. He assured the Associated Press last year that this isn’t nearly as awful as it sounds to those whose own hearts fibrillate at the thought of a person strapped to a chair with a target over his heart. Here, in the United States of America.

Paul’s advice: Settle down, all of you.

“The prisoner dies instantly,” he said. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you’re dead. There’s no suffering.”

Lest he sound callous, he added this: “There’s no easy way to put somebody to death, but you need to be efficient and effective about it. This is certainly one way to do that.”

(Psst, Team Paul: You really need to work on messaging.)

There’s a glimmer of hope for those who oppose this barbaric practice.

It’s called tourism.

Consider the following sample of headlines on Wednesday, March 25.

The Salt Lake Tribune: “Does firing squad law tarnish Utah’s image?”

ABC News: “Critics worry firing squad law will tarnish Utah’s image.”

U.S. News and World Report: “Critics worry decision to bring back firing squad as execution backup will hurt Utah’s image.”

Dare I suggest a theme here?

Could it be that people who like to swoop down glistening ski slopes and explore the cavernous wonders of nature aren’t keen on states with firing squads manned by an overabundance of volunteer gunmen?

Might they might even take their billions of tourism dollars elsewhere?

David Corsun is director of the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. He told AP — go AP, by the way — that large organizations tend to avoid states that are drawing flak for recently passed laws. I may enjoy a little too much his conclusion about Utah’s post-firing squad tourism prospects: “Unless it’s Smith and Wesson,” he said, “I don’t think they are going to be racing to that controversy.”

So, maybe—just maybe—the one thing that can stop Utah’s firing squads before they start is the almighty dollar.

As motives go, not particularly inspiring, but let’s commiserate another day.

 

By:Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist and an Essayist for Parade Magazine; The National Memo, March 26,

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Death Penalty, Lethal Injections, Utah | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Don’t Want You”: Indiana ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Lets Businesses, Individuals Decide Who Gets Equal Treatment

Indiana’s state motto is “The Crossroads of America.” This week, two important roads in American politics and jurisprudence are crossing in Indiana.

One of those roads is the ongoing quest to give real protection to the rights and liberties of racial and religious minorities, women and gay people.

The other path, a reactionary one, wants to vastly expand one particular American right, the free expression of religion, to allow businesses and individuals to pick and choose who they think deserves equal treatment.

Indiana’s House and Senate have passed an Orwellian-named “religious freedom” law that Republican Governor Mike Pence said he would sign [Ed. note: Pence signed the bill into law on Thursday morning]. The bill protects businesses and individuals from having to do things — and to obey laws — that would be a “substantial burden” on their religious freedom.

Gay marriage is the most visible and politicized arena where this rights conflict is being fought. Some businesses and individuals say it would violate their religious freedom if they had to, say, provide flowers, pastries or appetizers to a gay wedding. Indiana’s new law agrees and would protect them.

This is a radical new understanding of the right of religious expression that would trump the civil rights of others.

The Indiana law is the wholly predictable and unfortunate consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell last summer. In that famous case, the Supreme Court said that by forcing Hobby Lobby to provide its employees with health insurance that covered some forms of contraception, the Affordable Care Act violated the company’s religious rights.

One odd facet of the decision is that for-profit companies have the same religious rights as individuals, something common sense has a very hard time with.

More importantly, the court majority in Hobby Lobby said religious freedom no longer only meant protecting how one worships in private and in church, but also means protection from any compromise of beliefs that may come up in the public world of business and everyday life. “In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent.

Dissenters correctly predicted that the decision would set the table for a continuing course of new litigation, new laws and new ways to justify old discrimination. That is exactly what is happening.

If it is legal for a company to refuse to cover contraception in its insurance plan, couldn’t a Christian Scientist company refuse to provide health insurance at all? If it’s okay to refuse catering services at a gay wedding, what about at an interracial marriage? They violate some religious beliefs, too. What if a corner store owned by Muslims didn’t want to serve Jews, or vice versa?

It isn’t hard to make this a long list. Indiana is on the verge of sanctioning and empowering this very un-American mutation of a fundamental American principle.

Earlier this week, Senator Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign at a convocation service at a Christian fundamentalist university. What a powerful message that sends to Americans who aren’t Christian — Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists and, the biggest category of all, “none of the above.” The message is simply: We don’t want you.

Indiana is at a crossroads and is about to send that very same message, enshrined in a law.

 

By: Dick Meyer, Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC; The National Memo, March 27, 2015

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Religious Freedom | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Your Dollars At Work — For The Rich”: We’re Not Talking Trickle Here, We’re Talking Cascading To Privatize Everything

Conservative pundits and politicians routinely divide our U.S. economy into two totally distinct spheres. We have the noble private sector over here, they tell us, and the bumbling, bloated public sector over there.

In reality, of course, we have just one economy, with the private and public sectors inextricably entangled. Each year, in fact, hundreds of billions of tax dollars end up flowing directly into the private sector.

The federal government alone, a new Congressional Budget Office report calculates, annually spends $500 billion — that’s half a trillion dollars — to purchase goods and services from private companies. State and local governments spend many billions more on top of that.

We’re not talking trickle here — we’re talking cascade, as our elected leaders rush to privatize services that public employees previously provided.This massive privatization of everything from prisons to public schools hasn’t done much of anything to make the United States a better place to live.

On the other hand, this privatization has paid off quite handsomely for America’s most affluent. They’re collecting ever more generous paychecks, courtesy of the tax dollars the rest of us are paying.

In Washington, D.C., for instance, top officials of the private companies that run many of the city’s charter schools are taking in double or triple what traditional public schools take in, or even more.

The CEO at one company that runs five of these charters, The Washington Post recently reported, pulled in $1.3 million in 2013. That’s nearly five times the pay that went to the top public official responsible for the District of Columbia’s 100-plus traditional public schools.

America’s taxpayer-funded military contractors would, of course, consider that chump change. The CEO at Lockheed Martin, for one, personally pocketed over $25 million in 2013.

So do you like this idea of executives in power suits raking in multiple millions of your tax dollars?

Rhode Island state senator William Conley sure doesn’t. He and four of his colleagues have just introduced legislation that would stop the stuffing of tax dollars into the pockets of wildly overpaid corporate executives.

Conley’s bill directs Rhode Island to start “giving preference in the awarding of state contracts” to business enterprises whose highest-paid execs receive no more than 25 times the pay of their median — most typical — workers.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, only a handful of top corporate executives ever made more than 25 times the pay of the average worker. Today, by contrast, only a handful of top execs make less than 100 times median pay.

If Conley’s bill becomes law, the ramifications could be huge.

That’s because we may soon know, for the first time ever, the exact ratio between CEO and median worker pay at every major American corporation that trades on Wall Street.

Five years ago, legislation that mandates this disclosure passed Congress and made it into law. Intense corporate lobbying has been stalling its enforcement, but the stall may soon end. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission finally appears ready to issue the regulations needed to enforce full pay ratio disclosure.

CEO-worker pay comparisons for individual companies will likely start hitting the headlines the year after next. With these new stats, taxpayers will be able to see exactly which corporations feeding at the public trough are doing the most to make America more unequal.

With this information, average taxpayers could then do a great deal. They could, for starters, follow Senator Conley’s lead in Rhode Island and urge their lawmakers to reward — with our tax dollars — only those corporations that pay their workers fairly.

 

By: Sam Pizzigati, Columnist, OtherWords; Associate Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies: The National Memo, March 25, 2015

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Corporations, Economic Inequality, Taxpayers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why The House Republican Budget Plan Matters”: Predicated On The Assumption That Low-Income Families Have It Too Easy

“A budget is a moral document,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said two weeks ago. “It talks about where your values are.”

Those comments from a conservative member of the House Budget Committee happen to be entirely accurate. Indeed, Woodall’s description serves as a reminder of why it matters that House Republicans passed their budget blueprint late yesterday.

Normally quarrelsome House Republicans came together Wednesday night and passed a boldly conservative budget that relies on nearly $5 trillion in cuts to eliminate deficits over the next decade, calls for repealing the health care law and envisions transformations of the tax code and Medicare.

There were a variety of competing plans, but the approach endorsed by the House GOP leadership narrowly prevailed – overcoming 26 defections from within their own ranks.

Republican leaders, who’ve had some trouble corralling GOP votes for GOP bills in recent months, breathed a sigh of relief, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was seen hugging members of his whip team in celebration last night. It was a reminder of just how far expectations have fallen – House Republicans have their largest majority in generations; they struggled mightily to narrowly pass their own budget plan; and this is somehow seen as a great victory for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the rest of the GOP leadership team.

The Senate Republican majority will now try to wrap up work on its budget blueprint – which will include key differences – before members eventually head to a conference committee to hammer out a bicameral agreement.

Note, budgets cannot be filibustered and are not subject to a presidential veto. In fact, much of this process is symbolic – a congressional budget does not lock in spending levels for policymakers; the appropriations process does. The entire budget fight is a less case of understanding what will happen and more a case of appreciating what congressional Republican would like to see happen if all the power were in their hands.

But if the practical effects are limited, why should people care? Because “a budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are.”

This recent analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities struck a chord.

The budgets adopted on March 19 by the House Budget Committee and the Senate Budget Committee each cut more than $3 trillion over ten years (2016-2025) from programs that serve people of limited means. These deep reductions amount to 69 percent of the cuts to non-defense spending in both the House and Senate plans.

Each budget plan derives more than two-thirds of its non-defense budget cuts from programs for people with low or modest incomes even though these programs constitute less than one-quarter of federal program costs.

Right. If “a budget is a moral document” that reflects lawmakers’ “values,” the House Republican budget approved yesterday tells us, in frightening detail, that GOP morality is predicated on the assumption that low-income families have it too easy – and high-income families have it too tough.

It matters, of course, that Republicans had to rely on ridiculous budget tricks to give the appearance of responsibility. It also matters that they prioritized increased spending on the issue they care about (the military) over fiscal concerns they sometimes pretend to care about (the deficit).

But as the dust settles on yesterday’s floor drama, what remains are GOP “values” on full display. In 2015, Republican members of Congress believe in taking families’ health care benefits away. And scrapping Medicare altogether. And slashing food stamps. And making it harder for young people to go to college. And eliminating environmental safeguards. And freeing Wall Street of pesky oversight and layers of accountability.

In this “moral document,” GOP lawmakers spelled out their priorities for all the world to see. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters yesterday that when he talks to voters about the specific provisions of the Republican budget plan, the public balks – Americans assume he’s exaggerating, because the idea that GOP officials would actually vote for such a radical scheme seems “absurd.”

But the truth is, the Republican budget is real, it is cruel, and as of yesterday, it has passed.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 26, 2015

March 27, 2015 Posted by | GOP Budget, Poor and Low Income, Spending Cuts | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Political System Owned Outright By The Wealthy”: In A Citizens United World, We Should At Least Know Who Is Buying Our Politicians

In 1899, an ultra-wealthy Montana copper magnate named William Clark wanted to be one of the state’s U.S. senators. In those days, senators were elected by state legislatures, so Clark tried a straightforward tactic: mass bribery. He gave $10,000 to every legislator who would take it, which worked like a charm. Unfortunately for Clark, the Senate got wind of this, and refused to seat him. He resigned, though he tried again without the overt bribery and won in 1901, when he served a full term.

Mark Twain wrote of Sen. Clark: “He is said to have bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment. By his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell. His history is known to everybody; he is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag…”

Such stories inspired some of the original reforms against organized money in politics. Indeed, Clark was almost singlehandedly responsible for the direct elections of senators.

But we should not be too self-righteous when it comes to poor old William Clark. Not only is the problem of political corruption fast returning to its Gilded Age nadir, in some respects it is actually worse than in Twain’s day. Then as now, our political system is essentially owned outright by the wealthy. But today we have allowed them to hide their identities behind legal chicanery.

Removing the money from politics altogether is a worthy goal. But until then, simple transparency about who is buying which politician would be an excellent stopgap measure.

It was Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote the Citizens United decision, which abolished limits on independent political spending by unions and corporations and sparked a stupendous growth in shadowy nonprofits allied with various parties and candidates. The decision’s most famous line is this: “Independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption.”

I would like to direct Justice Kennedy’s attention to this story by Michael Isikoff, about a Wisconsin hardware store magnate named John Menard, Jr. When Menard wanted to help Gov. Scott Walker (R) defeat a hard-fought recall attempt in 2012, post-Citizens United groups were a handy weapon of choice — especially 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which do not have to disclose their donors:

He wrote more than $1.5 million in checks to a pro-Walker political advocacy group that pledged to keep its donors secret, three sources directly familiar with the transactions told Yahoo News.

Menard’s previously unreported six-figure contributions to the Wisconsin Club for Growth…seem to have paid off for the businessman and his company. In the past two years, Menard’s company has been awarded up to $1.8 million in special tax credits from a state economic development corporation that Walker chairs, according to state records. [Yahoo News]

According to Isikoff, Menard has also benefited from regulatory laxity under the Walker regime — the Wisconsin government had previously levied stiff fines against him and his company for “illegally dumping hazardous waste.” In a telling coincidence, an old William Clark mining site is now one of the biggest contaminated Superfund sites in the country.

These documents were obtained as part of a state investigation into whether Walker’s campaign committee actually violated the few remaining stipulations of campaign finance law. But this says more about the carelessness and arrogance of these people than the laws themselves — it is pitifully easy to do an end-run around disclosure or non-coordination requirements.

Justice Kennedy’s assertion that a tsunami of corporate money cannot even create the appearance of corruption is so preposterous it surely has to be willful ignorance. Nevertheless, I defy him to argue with a straight face that Isikoff’s story is not the foulest of quid pro quo corruption.

And even if he can manage that, it is utterly indefensible for the ultra-wealthy to purchase state governments whole without disclosing who is doing the purchasing. An email sent to Walker by one of his aides stressed the importance of secrecy to the scheme: “Stress that donations to WiCFG [Wisconsin Club for Growth] are not disclosed and can accept corporate donations without limits… Let them know you can accept corporate contributions and it is not reported.”

So if the conservative majority on the Supreme Court insists on government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich, there’s precious little the citizenry can do about it. But can we proles at least know which plutocrat deserves our cringing deference?

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, March 26, 2015

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Citizens United, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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