advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Protecting The Innocent, Or, Is There A Death Penalty Compromise?

I don’t feel very good about this country this morning, and as so many of us are I’m thinking of how Troy Davis was hustled off this mortal coil by the State of Georgia without a lot of thought of what it means to execute the innocent.

And given the choice, I’d rather see us abandon the death penalty altogether, for reasons that must, at this moment, seem self-evident; that said, it’s my suspicion that a lot of states are not going to be in any hurry to abandon their death penalties anytime soon now that they know the Supreme Court will allow the innocent to be murdered.

So what if there was a way to create a compromise that balanced the absolute need to protect the innocent with the feeling among many Americans that, for some crimes, we absolutely have to impose the death penalty?

Considering the circumstances, it’s not going to be an easy subject, but let’s give it a try, and see what we can do.

Let’s Fix An Error Dept.: Apologies are in order, because in our last story we identified The Riverside Church in Manhattan as the place where George Carlin learned to be Catholic – and that could not have been more incorrect. Bad research was the culprit here, and it’s something that we’ll obviously be working to improve. So, once again: sorry, and my bad.

Now if all the states want to limit the imposition of the death penalty to just the guilty (and after what we just saw in Georgia, that’s no longer 100% certain), one way you could do it would be to make it a lot harder to prove guilt – and that’s what we have in mind for today’s proposal.

As you may recall, we convict today with a “burden of proof” that is described as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”; as we now know, it is possible to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, even when there’s a whole lot of reasonable doubt to be found.

In Davis’ case, he was given a chance on appeal to prove his innocence, and despite this conclusion from the Judge hearing the case…

"Ultimately, while Mr. Davis's new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors…"

…Davis was still executed.

So the way I would get at this problem would be to change the burden of proof in these cases: if you want to execute someone who is facing an aggravated murder or other capital charge, instead of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, I would require “guilt beyond all doubt”.

If you can’t get to guilt beyond all doubt, but you can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then you could impose no sentence harsher than life without parole.

If this proposal had been in effect in Davis’ case, there could have been no execution after he argued that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, because that would have erased “all doubt”; after that he would have had the rest of his life to demonstrate that he was wrongly convicted.

There are going to be a few reasons people might not like this proposal, and I’ll try to address some of them briefly:

Right off the bat, many will complain that because of the new burden of proof it will be virtually impossible to have executions at all; I would tell those folks that if that were to occur…then the system is working. The entire purpose of this plan is to make executions an extraordinarily rare occurrence and to move just about everyone on Death Rows nationwide to a “life without parole” future.

Beyond that, many will say that capital punishment is morally unacceptable under any circumstances, and to those folks I would respond that y’all make a pretty good point…but at the moment there are a lot of Americans who do not hold that moral position – and they have strong feelings too – and unless we can move them to a different point of view, then the best chance we have to prevent the innocent from being executed is to find some sort of compromise like this one.

(Don’t believe me about that “strong feelings” thing? How many of the readers here would be OK with the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden, if he were proved “beyond all doubt” to have been the person behind 9/11?)

A similar line of thought is expressed in the idea that we are seeing more and more voters who do oppose capital punishment, and with a bit of patience, this problem will go away.

After what happened to Troy Davis, I think there’s more urgency now than there was in times past, and that’s because we now see that at least one State will quickly kill a prisoner in order to “clear the case”, suggesting to me that patience is not as good an option as it was before.

Finally, I suspect many will feel that the effort to pass a proposal like this one would distract from the effort to end the death penalty, which is, again, a pretty good argument.

To those folks I would respond that we may get some states to end the death penalty today, but there are a lot of other states that are not going to want to give up the death penalty for some time to come (remember the people who cheered Rick Perry’s execution record?), and if we aren’t going to be able to end the death penalty completely, then I think we have to offer some sort of compromise; a compromise based on the concepts of “killing the innocent isn’t The American Way” or “you could still execute Osama” could appeal to voters who simply won’t give up on the death penalty altogether.

So that’s what we have for you today: even though I personally would prefer that we end the death penalty and just go to life without parole for all these crimes, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that in a lot of states; with that in mind I’m proposing a compromise that would protect the innocent by ending virtually all executions, even as it allows an extraordinarily difficult to reach exception that could satisfy those who absolutely do not want to see the application of the death penalty come to an end.

It’s an imperfect compromise, I’ll admit – but in a big ol’ swath of America that runs from roughly Florida to Idaho, it may be the best compromise we can make right now, and right now, in those places, that might have to be good enough.

Entirely Off The Subject Dept.: We are still trying to get signatures for the petition to change the name of Manhattan's W 121st St (one block from Seminary Row) to George Carlin Street, and we need your help; you can sign right here. The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures by Monday, so...get to it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Fixing The World, Or, Help George Carlin Stick It To God

Once again The Fates have come our way to provide a story, and once again, we have a contender for the “Ironic Story Of The Year”.

It’s got everything you need for serious irony: an irascible comedian who mocked religion at every opportunity, a city that loved him, and the rich coincidence of his having been born at the crossroads of New York City’s communities of religious education.

And that’s why, today, we’ll be talking about the effort to name the street right next to Manhattan’s Seminary Row…Carlin Street.

(And before we go further, a language warning: we’ll be quoting George Carlin liberally, and that means there may be present today certain of the seven words with which he created one of his best known routines. You are now officially warned.)

I’ve begun worshipping the Sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the Sun. It’s there for me every day. And the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, a lovely day. There’s no mystery, no one asks for money, I don’t have to dress up, and there’s no boring pageantry. And interestingly enough, I have found that the prayers I offer to the Sun and the prayers I formerly offered to God are all answered at about the same 50-percent rate.

--George Carlin, from the book Brain Droppings

There is a peculiarity to life in Manhattan that exists nowhere else on Earth: for more than 120 years, two of the world’s most important seminary institutions, the Union Theological Seminary and The Jewish Theological Seminary, have been literally kitty-corner from each other, right there at Broadway and W 122nd St.

It is such a significant part of the culture of the community that W 122nd St is now officially known as Seminary Row, as it has been for over 40 years.

And just one block away is the place where George Carlin grew up, on W 121st. During his childhood the Catholic Carlin was an altar boy, and it has been suggested that all this religious exposure may have impacted his comedy:

Now, speaking of consistency, Catholics, which I was until I reached the age of reason, Catholics and other Christians are against abortions, and they're against homosexuals. Well who has less abortions than homosexuals?! Leave these fucking people alone, for Christ sakes! Here is an entire class of people guaranteed never to have an abortion! And the Catholics and Christians are just tossing them aside! You'd think they'd make natural allies. Go look for consistency in religion. And speaking of my friends the Catholics, when John Cardinal O'Connor of New York and some of these other Cardinals and Bishops have experienced their first pregnancies and their first labor pains and they've raised a couple of children on minimum wage, then I'll be glad to hear what they have to say about abortion. I'm sure it'll be interesting. Enlightening, too. But, in the meantime what they ought to be doing is telling these priests who took a vow of chastity to keep their hands off the altar boys! Keep your hands to yourself, Father! You know? When Jesus said 'Suffer the little children come unto me', that's not what he was talking about!

It’s not just the two seminaries, either, that would have influenced Carlin: Columbia University is immediately next door, as are The Manhattan School of Music/Julliard (The Julliard School later moved to Lincoln Center, but when Carlin lived on the block they had 1800 students enrolled), and The Riverside Church, which is presumably the exact place that set Carlin on his future path.

Fun Fact: Italian game design studio Molleindustria, the same folks who partnered with YesLab to produce Phone Story (the App that was yanked after one day at the App Store because it says a bit too much about how phones are made; it’s still available on the Android market), also created the game Operation: Pedopreist, which is one of several “Radical Games” that you can play online at their website.

So now comes before us Kevin Bartini (he’s the warm-up comic for “The Daily Show”), with an organizing effort to change W 121st to Carlin Street.

Bartini, who told the Village Voice that this is a “no-brainer”, says his interest is motivated not just by the fact that Carlin grew up in the neighborhood; he also wants to acknowledge the influence the neighborhood had on Carlin’s comedy:

“…and the Invisible Man has a special list of ten things that he does not want you to do, and if you do any of these ten things he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, ‘til the end of time – but he loves you.”

A petition is now circulating, and after 6 days 3000 signatures had been collected…but this is George Carlin, and this is New York City, and, dammit, this is America, and I think we can do a lot better than that if we try, so do me a favor, sign the petition, and go show some love to someone who truly deserves the recognition.

You won’t have to wear a suit or a big hat, no one will be bowing or kneeling, and there won’t be a collection plate. Sacramental wine is encouraged; if you’d prefer sacramental pizza I’m sure no one’s going to complain – but if you have ‘em both together, make sure it’s not at a Sbarro or something.

I think we’ve enough for today, and there’s no need to drag this out when you have your mission, so let’s go get those signatures, and let’s get Carlin Street officially on the map.

And just think: if we succeed – it could well have been God’s will.
And what could be more ironic than that?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Not Doing 9/11, Or, Right Now, I’ve Got A Desk To Clear

I’m going to be really honest with you: after all the fights at the mall to get just the right present for everybody and the giant hassle of going to the Post Office so I can get the perfect stamps for my cards – and then worrying that I left someone off the list – I am just not in the mood to do a 9/11 story. And it’s been getting worse every year. I mean, just like the “It’s Christmas Every Day Store”, I know there’s one of the “9/11 Every Day” stores open, in the all-too-human form of Rudy Giuliani, and I’ve learned to live with that, but it seems like they got started with the 9/11 earlier than ever this year – and by the time the TV memorials and analysis and retrospectives are all over, to paraphrase Lewis Black…I’m going to hate freedom. In an effort to stave off this fate, we’ll be headed in a different direction today: I have three stories to pass along; each is important enough that you really should know about them, and yet they’re each very much bite-sized and easily digestible. It’s all good stuff…so let’s get right to it.
ASHES TO ASHES FOREST TO DUST KEEP WISCONSIN GREEN OR WE’LL ALL GO BUST BURMA-SHAVE --Burma Shave sign, 1949, as quoted in the book Verse By The Side Of The Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.
So let’s start with AIDS. If you have it, you need AIDS drugs – but you might not be able to afford ‘em. So what do you do? Well…one obvious choice is to die, slowly – but another is to seek help from the State. In most States, that is done in a fairly routine matter, but in some Sates it is not; for some of the folks in these States, instead of drugs, they get a waiting list. And since AIDS doesn’t really recognize waiting lists…this is bad. (Fun Fact: See if you can guess where the 12 States who have waiting lists are located; if you guessed more or less the Old Confederacy, you get a cookie. Of the 9200 Americans on waiting lists, only about 225 live above the Mason-Dixon Line; almost 6000 are in Florida and Georgia alone.) But it can be fixed, for about $105 million, if we lean on the right people, and as our friend D. Gregory Smith over at Bilerico tells us, Congressman Denny Rehberg (MT-01) is one person to be leaning on. A petition is circulating that you can sign to help move this along, or you can call Rehberg’s DC office Monday at (202) 225-3211 – and whichever one you do – or both – you’re going to be doing a whole lot of folks you never met a whole lot of good. So now that you’ve done your part to help out those who need it…how about a bit of a thought experiment? You are no doubt aware that you’ve been subsidizing, with your hard-earned tax dollars, the use of fossil fuels – and in fact, if you’re a typical American, you spent just about $500 over the past five years to do just that. Of course, over the same time period you’ve been subsidizing solar power as well, and here’s where the thought experiment comes into play: Try to imagine how much you’ve spent on that subsidy. Whaddaya think? $250, $150, $900? $825, $3350, $847.63? How about none of the above. How about…wait for it…$7.24. That’s right: at the same time you’ve been handing over an extra $100 a year to oil companies…for no particular reason…even as the price of oil keeps going up…you’ve been providing about a $1.40 a year to encourage the rollout of a technology that can potentially pay for itself, might just help get us off oil as a transportation fuel, and could even provide a few million jobs along the way – and as we all know, if we build “solar stuff” in the USA and throw it right up on our roofs, then it’s gonna make it pretty tough for OPEC or China or whomever to raise the price of the Sun as we back away from oil and build out electric cars. Pretty much all of this argument is presented in one handy graphic by the folks at 1 Block Off The Grid, an organization that seeks to put solar electricity generation on your roof, and I became aware of this because it was Tweeted to me (and to be honest, I get enough Tweets a day that I’m not going to go back and figure out who it was (mea culpa) – although I can tell you that Roger Ebert posted the handy graphic at his blog on the “Chicago Sun-Times” site; he’s also Tweeted on the subject. That’s two out of today’s three stories down, and the last one is a good one: If you don’t know The Yes Men by now, you should; they’re a modern version of the “Merry Pranksters” who blow minds by helping corporations stumble over their own deep embarrassments - very publicly. Here’s the most recent example: Peabody Energy mines coal that is associated with air pollution that is threatening the lives of the kids who live near…well, air, anyway, and The Yes Men did a little collaboration with a group called Coal is Killing Kids that involved creating a fake “health campaign” supposedly orchestrated by Peabody (the “Coal Cares” Project). The fake announcement said that Peabody would begin giving free inhalers to kids living near coal-fired power plants – and to make asthma more fun for the kids, “fake Peabody” announced their new line of kiddie inhalers: “the Bieber”, “My Little Pony”, “Baby’s First Inhaler”, and, of course, the “Harry Potter”. There’s also a webpage with fun activities for the kids (try the wordsearch…or perhaps you’d rather color in “Puff” and “Ash”); just swing on by to join the fun. Naturally, the real Peabody had to deny everything, and they’re not at all happy about it – and that is what equals victory in these “assaults of embarrassment”. (There was an additional, coincidental, victory: Scholastic Books decided to sever their ties with the coal industry, and CoalCares helped; as a result coal industry-funded curricular materials will no longer be distributed to schools.) Now the reason all this happened is because The Yes Men have decided they couldn’t fix the world all by themselves, and they’re sort of “growing the brand” by launching the YesLab (it’s another collaboration, this time with New York University). Are you in New York on the 14th? Attend the launch event. It’s free, and it will be fun. But amidst all the fun and frivolity, there’s a serious side here: this thing is not going to be cheap, and while I almost never ask you to donate to anything – even me – I am going to ask you, if you have a few extra bucks, to help out the YesLab, which you can do by hitting that “Donate” button on the left side of the page. So that’s it for today: you can help fix the world, you can help spread the word about energy subsidies for fossil fuels, and maybe you can help someone get off a waiting list that, at the moment, is leaving them waiting for death. Or, I suppose, you could go pop on the TV and watch the rest of that 72-hour 9/11 marathon that’s been on every single channel in the world – but with my 9/11 cards now sent out and the presents all delivered…I know which one I’d prefer.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Bilking The Sophisticated, Or, Check It Out: We’re Suing Banks!

I took a break to enjoy the holiday, as I’m sure many of you did, but my inbox kept busy, and on Friday came a doozy, courtesy of the Washington Post.

You remember that little bit of a banking crisis we had a couple of years back, where banks around the world might have possibly, maybe, just a little, conspired in a giant scheme to package toxic mortgage loans into Grade A, investment-ready securities instruments, which then blew up in everyone’s faces to the tune of a whole lot of taxpayer bailouts?

Well all of a sudden, it looks like an agency of the Federal Government is looking to do something about it, in a real big way.

Last Friday the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced they’re suing 17 firms (I’ll give you a list, bit it’s pretty much all the usual suspects); depending on who you ask the Feds are seeking an amount as high as $200 billion.

As Joe Biden would say, it’s a big…well, it’s a big deal, anyway, and that’s why we’re starting the new week with this one.

“An artist is only answerable to himself. He promises nothing to the centuries to come save his own works. He stands caution only for himself. He dies childless. He has been his own king, his own priest, and his own god.”

--Charles Baudelaire, as quoted in the book Cezanné and Beyond, edited by Joseph J Rishel and Katherine Sachs

So what do we know?

As we said, on Friday the Washington Post and others reported that there were a series of lawsuits filed by the FHFA in their capacity as Conservator of the assets of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac against darn near everyone.

The FHFA is alleging, to make a long story short, that everyone involved misled Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac (the “Entities”, in the words of the lawsuits), to some extent, and that the misleading involved making representations to the Entities about the various metrics related to what Fanny and Freddy were buying from these banks.

For example, it’s alleged that when certain banks sold batches of mortgage loans to the Entities, they lied about how many of the owners were actually living in the homes; that makes a difference when you’re trying to figure out how likely a borrower is to pay back a loan.

It appears that a defense the banks will offer is that Fannie and Freddy were “sophisticated investors” who should have known the risks buried in the batches of loans they were buying (and they were sophisticated investors: they bought, literally, trillions of dollars worth of loans) – but if it can be proven that the banks were lying about what was in the loan packages, that defense might not do so well in front of a jury.

Everyone involved” includes Bank of America (B of A), Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Countrywide (which means B of A is actually being sued twice), Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, the UK’s HSBC and Barclays Banks, France’s Société Générale, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Nomura Securities (representing Japan), and GE and GM (GE Capital is a surprisingly large and varied business; GM got in the banking business to finance auto sales, and you may today know them as Ally Bank).

Of course, Wall Street is also part of “everyone”; that’s why the list also includes Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch (which means, thanks to acquisitions, that B of A is actually getting sued three times). The City of Memphis also proudly makes the list, thanks to First Horizon.

Some notable names not on the list? Key Bank and Wells Fargo, who seem to have escaped action so far; there’s also UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland), who was already served with a similar lawsuit in July.

It is difficult to determine exactly how much money is involved, as various sources disagree, but we know that Deutsche Bank is being sued for about $14 billion, all by itself. (B of A is being sued, all told, for a bit over $50 billion; they’ve already paid out more than $12 billion this year to settle another similar claim.)

Felix Salmon, at the Seeking Alpha website, has created a chart that seeks to measure who is in the most trouble here; by his measure JP Morgan Chase is far and away at the top of the list…except that the current incarnation of B of A represents three of the top eight spots on his list, which suggests the FHFA is targeting them for the most recovery. (Salmon used the number of individual defendants, how many pages were in the lawsuit, and whether the suits seek punitive damages as his yardsticks; from there he calculated a score that makes up his rankings.)

All this had to happen right now, it appears, because a statute of limitations is in play; the WaPo reports that a failure to file the suits would have meant the FHFA would have lost the ability to recover those monies. (It’s also reported that pre-lawsuit negotiations were stalling, and those negotiations will presumably continue, with a series of impending court dates to help, shall we say, sharpen the focus.)

Now that is pretty much all the story I have for you today on this one – except for a bit of a “discuss amongst yourselves” to finish things up:

It has been suggested that the FHFA is in an inherently conflicted position in all these cases. That’s because the agency is acting as both the regulator of these banks and the “victim” as we seek any monies that may be due from any fraud.

So what would be a better situation?

Should the FHFA continue to regulate the banks they’re suing as a victim, or should another regulator be put in place…or should another Conservator be appointed, leaving the FHFA as “just a regulator”, and not a victim?

It’s a question worth about $200 billion, more or less – and even in these times, that’s still a lot of your money.