Category - USA: Domestic Issues

Indiana’s Pence to sign bill allowing businesses to reject gay customers

CNN, By Eric Bradner, March 25

Washington – Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is set to sign into law a measure that allows businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers in the name of “religious freedom.”

The move comes as Pence considers a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — and just a year after Pence and socially conservative lawmakers lost their first policy battle against gay Hoosiers. In 2014 they had sought to amend Indiana’s constitution to ban same-sex marriages — but were beaten back by a highly-organized coalition of Democrats, traditionally right-leaning business organizations and fiscally focused supporters of Pence’s predecessor, former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels.

This year, though, the Republican-dominated state House and Senate both approved the “religious freedom” bill, and Pence plans to sign it into law in a private ceremony Thursday, his spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

CBS: Salesforce CEO Says Company Is ‘Canceling All Programs’ In Indiana Over LGBT Discrimination Fears
WISH: San Francisco mayor bans publicly-funded travel to Ind. over new law
Think Progress: When ‘Religious Liberty’ Was Used To Justify Racism Instead Of Homophobia
Reuters: Angie’s List halts expansion of Indianapolis headquarters over new state law that targets gays

Governor signs law making Utah only state with firing squad

AP, March 23

Salt Lake City – Utah became the only state to allow firing squads for executions Monday when Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law approving the controversial method’s use when no lethal-injection drugs are available.

Herbert has said he finds the firing squad “a little bit gruesome,” but Utah is a capital punishment state and needs a backup execution method in case a shortage of the drugs persists.

“We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty, and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued,” Herbert spokesman Marty Carpenter said. “However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch.”

It’s illegal to prevent workers from talking about wages. T-Mobile did it anyway.

A judge has thrown out large sections of T-Mobile’s employee handbook for having a chilling effect on union organizing.

Washington Post, By Lydia DePillis, March 19

Carolina Figueroa works at a T-Mobile call center in Albuquerque, N.M., in the bilingual retention section, trying to talk Spanish-speaking customers out of canceling their accounts. She likes her job, and the pay is decent — $18.50 an hour after eight years working there, plus health coverage, which covers the bills for her and her young daughter.

There’s only one problem: the employee handbook, which covers some 40,000 employees across the country. As long as she’s worked there, workers at the call center have been discouraged from discussing wages and working conditions, through provisions that bar things like disclosure of employee information, making disparaging statements about the company and pursuing wage complaints through anyone other than human resources. Employees can be disciplined or fired for violating any of the rules.
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McConnell Urges States to Help Thwart Obama’s ‘War on Coal’

New York Times, By Coral Davenport, March 19

Washington — Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has begun an aggressive campaign to block President Obama’s climate change agenda in statehouses and courtrooms across the country, arenas far beyond Mr. McConnell’s official reach and authority.

The campaign of Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is aimed at stopping a set of Environmental Protection Agency regulations requiring states to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Once enacted, the rules could shutter hundreds of coal-fired plants in what Mr. Obama has promoted as a transformation of the nation’s energy economy away from fossil fuels and toward sources like wind and solar power. Mr. McConnell, whose home state is one of the nation’s largest coal producers, has vowed to fight the rules.

Since Mr. McConnell is limited in how he can use his role in the Senate to block regulations, he has taken the unusual step of reaching out to governors with a legal blueprint for them to follow to stop the rules in their states. Mr. McConnell’s Senate staff, led by his longtime senior energy adviser, Neil Chatterjee, is coordinating with lawyers and lobbying firms to try to ensure that the state plans are tangled up in legal delays.

Al Jazeera: A frenzy over fracking in Washington
NBC: California Governor Calls Out McConnell for Coal Letter – video; “…borderline immoral”

Trillion Dollar Fraudsters

New York Times, By Paul Krugman, March 20

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.
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Florida employee ‘punished for using phrase climate change’

In a complaint against the state, worker says he was accused of violating policy and instructed to get a mental health evaluation after mentioning climate change

The Guardian, By Katherine Krueger, March 19

New York – An employee of Florida’s environmental protection department was forced to take a leave of absence and seek a mental health evaluation for violating governor Rick Scott’s unwritten ban on using the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” under any circumstance, according to a complaint filed against the state.

Longtime employee Barton Bibler reportedly included an explicit mention of climate change in his official notes from a Florida Coastal Managers Forum meeting in late February, during which climate change, rising sea levels and the possible environmental impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline were discussed.

On 9 March, Bibler received a formal reprimand for “misrepresenting that ‘the official meeting agenda included climate change’”, according to a statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), a nationwide non-profit that champions public employees’ rights and providers resources and guidance to whistleblowers using its network of members across the country.

Bibler was instructed to stay away from the office for two days and told he could return to work only after a mental health evaluation from his doctor verified his “fitness for duty”, the complaint said. In the letter to Florida’s inspector general, Candie Fuller, the state’s Peer director calls for a full investigation to the matter.

Racist, homophobic texts by San Francisco police trigger case reviews

Los Angeles Times, By Joseph Serna & Lee Romney, March 17

A slew of racist and homophobic text messages exchanged between San Francisco police in a fellow officer’s corruption case has forced prosecutors and defense attorneys to review an estimated 1,000 criminal convictions for potential bias, officials announced Tuesday.

The messages were revealed in a motion by the U.S. attorney’s office opposing bail for Ian Furminger, a former San Francisco police officer who was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison on various corruption-related charges and was scheduled to surrender next month pending an appeal.

The texts, sent between 2011 and 2012, allegedly involved four other officers and denigrated minorities and gays.

“In order to ensure our criminal justice system is fair and equitable, my office is conducting an immediate assessment of every prosecution within the past ten years where these officers were involved,” said San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon in a statement.

Public defender Jeff Adachi on Tuesday estimated that could amount to at least 1,000 cases among the five officers. Officials identified more than 120 in just the last two years, he said.

Judge clears way for Seattle’s minimum wage

Al Jazeera, March 18

A federal judge on Tuesday cleared the way for Seattle’s new minimum wage law to take effect as planned next month, rejecting claims by franchises of big national chains that it discriminates against them.

In his 43-page decision Tuesday night, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones rejected all of the arguments brought forth by the International Franchise Association, which represents national chains ranging from fast food joints to hotels.

“Although plaintiffs assert that they will suffer competitive injury, loss of customers, loss of goodwill, and the risk of going out of business, the court finds that these allegations are conclusory and unsupported by the facts in the record,” he wrote.

“This is a great day for Seattle’s fast food franchise workers,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement Tuesday night. “This ruling ensures that on April 1st, the minimum wage will go up for everyone in our city.”

Class and the Classroom

How Elite Universities Are Hurting America

Foreign Affairs, By George Scialabba, March / April 2015

One of the most fruitful ideas to emerge from twentieth-century social theory is Max Weber’s notion of the “iron cage” of purposive rationality. Weber argued that once some principle of organization—market competition, say, or ideological orthodoxy—has achieved dominance in the spheres of production and governance, the rest of a society’s institutions find themselves gradually but inexorably adopting the same principle. In an ideology-dominant society, everything fluid turns to stone; in a market-dominant society, everything solid melts into air.

Not everything, of course. The iron cage is, like most other useful theoretical notions, an ideal type. All societies retain protected (or neglected) spaces where not-yet-rationalized traditions and communities flourish. Still, although the mills of rationalization turn slowly, they grind exceedingly fine. In time, Weber believed, every practice or institution in a modern society, regardless of its original purpose, experiences an irresistible pressure to adapt to the society’s fundamental organizing principle.

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Protesters stage anti-robot rally at SXSW

USA Today, Jon Swartz, March 15

Austin, TX — “I say robot, you say no-bot!”

The chant reverberated through the air near the entrance to the SXSW tech and entertainment festival here.

About two dozen protesters, led by a computer engineer, echoed that sentiment in their movement against artificial intelligence.

“This is is about morality in computing,” said Adam Mason, 23, who organized the protest.

Signs at the scene reflected the mood. “Stop the Robots.” “Humans are the future.”

The mini-rally drew a crowd of gawkers, drawn by the sight of a rare protest here.

Warning – Treacly auto-start video at the link. Also, USA Today.

Obama adviser behind leak of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal

NY Post, By Edward Klein, March 14

It’s the vast left-wing conspiracy.

Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett leaked to the press details of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail address during her time as secretary of state, sources tell me.

But she did so through people outside the ­administration, so the story couldn’t be traced to her or the White House.

In addition, at Jarrett’s behest, the State Department was ordered to launch a series of investigations into Hillary’s conduct at Foggy Bottom, including the use of her expense account, the disbursement of funds, her contact with foreign leaders and her possible collusion with the Clinton Foundation.

Six separate probes into Hillary’s performance have been ­going on at the State Department. I’m told that the e-mail scandal was timed to come out just as Hillary was on the verge of formally announcing that she was running for president — and that there’s more to come.

Explaining Life Insurance

In our capitalist economy, it is assumed you are going to spend your working-life saving or investing, or otherwise accumulating “wealth” before you quit working or die. It is assumed you will accumulate enough of the wealth-stuff to become secure–so secure that you won’t need life insurance anymore.

Did you know that?

Let me back up and explain.

I was 53 yrs old before a financial planner actually explained insurance to me in this light, but by then it was too late. Lord knows insurance agents never said so clearly. I had already spent thousands for life, AD&D and Disability Income policies in my early working years. I needlessly spent thousands out of fear (or at least “high anxiety” of the Mel Brooks order).  And guess what? The financial planner sold me some more life insurance!

So it recently came to pass, as I was sorting through my remaining policies, that noticed their expiration dates. I realized before my son graduates from college, I will have no significant life insurance coverage unless I “convert” them to some unknown fixed price policy.  Although I haven’t asked an insurance agent about it, I suspect the conversion I will be able to afford will be nothing more than a burial policy of between $3,000 and $5,000.  I also realized this: sometime between now and then, I am going to have to explain life insurance to my son.  When I do, I want to relieve him of the “high anxiety” issues he might unconsciously be inheriting from me in the same way I inherited them from my parents. Trouble is: that might be hard to do.

So here is how I intend to explain life insurance to my son.

There is an old adage says: “When you buy life insurance, you’re betting the insurance company you are going to die before they get all your money, but they are betting you’ll live.”  You have fear (“high anxiety”). They have actuaries–odds makers. Their actuarial tables represent the odds of The House winning the bet. They are pretty sure they will win most of the time, or at least enough of the time to keep their companies afloat and pay off whatever they agreed to if you should die prematurely, at least according to their tables.

Their actuarial theory is that your life is like a bell-curve. When you are young, you don’t have much, but you don’t need as much either, so your obligations are low. You get older, get married, get a house and kids–you get into your prime earning period and you fear your death or disability would seriously leave your dependents strapped with long term mortgage payments, no money for college, etc., so you run out and buy bigger insurance coverage. Toward the end of your life, the theory continues, your kids go out on their own, the house is paid for, you start spending your savings, your IRA money, living off investments—who needs insurance then, right?

But if you are convinced you will not complete the full ride on the curve, you may have a willingness to choose policies with higher benefits and higher premiums—and live to make all the payments! Insurance companies can stack the odds in their favor by increasing your fear-factor and prompt higher payments for bigger or more elaborate coverage.

All-in-all, it is a wonderful theory but I think it is predicated on undependable premises given the modern age of the 1% vs the 99%. The 99% do not accumulate wealth simply because they can’t. And that, dear friend, is why insurance has become so perplexing because it more-and-more resembles how my parents viewed the world through the lens of the Great Depression.

My father and mother came from a generation that did not–could not–think this way. They came up in the Great Depression, so everyone from millionaires to mineworkers suddenly found themselves with absolutely nothing as a result of failed capitalism. And in a time of despair, they could not envision a future that might be any better.  Sure they hoped it would get better and eventually it did; however, they were knocked off-balance hard enough never to fully recover–at least my parents were.  They came to see insurance as a legacy (a “just-in-case it happens again” cushion) for their kids. More–they thought of it as an obligation. And we kids grew up thinking that way too.  The hazard is conceiving of life insurance as a legacy, a gift, or inheritance. Insurance companies love to sell it to you with that gloss and shine, but their actuaries still don’t rate your fears as highly.

From this simple premise have come a myriad of slick life insurance policies weighted in favor of the insurance company. Term Life, Universal Life, Whole Life policies–annuities, premiums, “surrendering” your policy, “converting” your policy, “exclusions”, “annuities”—all the jargon that goes with insurance is really confusing and intimidating. But the final analysis is the same: they have designed policies which minimize their risk of losing money on the bet you will die before they think you will, and maximizing the amount of money you will pay over term of the policy.

So you have to ask yourself: why am I buying life insurance anyway?

Well, mainly it is out of fear. You fear your loved ones will be without some money if you die, and the more they depend on you, the more you have a responsibility to provide a cushion at your death. “Burial policies” are a kind of minimum—policies that basically pay the undertaker to put your rotting corpse decently into the ground or an urn.  And they are “cheap” as insurance policies go. About the rest of them, I am not so sure.  I do know that it is harder to accumulate “wealth” in an era when wages have not kept up with inflation and jobs are scarce, and becoming scarcer. I do know the cost of education and health care are going up. And I know your social security is not going to be as generous as your father’s .  Who knows? Maybe your father’s high anxiety was just ahead of its time.


NYU Graduate Students Win Historic Victory

After over a year of tense negotiations, a tentative agreement is a major win, and the result of a renewed push to mobilize the Manhattan campus.

The American Prospect, By Kate Aronoff, Macrh 13

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee of the United Autoworkers, or GSOC, reached a historic, tentative agreement with administrators at New York University, averting a strike that was scheduled to begin just hours later. After over a year of tense negotiations, the agreement is a major victory for graduate students and the result of a renewed push to mobilize the Manhattan campus.

As GSOC member-organizer and sixth-year sociology Ph.D. candidate Daniel Aldana Cohen put it, “We definitely have the feeling that organizing is working right now.”

Under the prospective new contract, NYU will cover 90 percent of graduate workers’ health premiums, and provide basic dental insurance along with wage increases for Ph.D. students. The agreement further includes a 75 percent subsidy for child care, plus bonuses and back pay for some workers.

Last spring, the administration’s “basic offer was to take the situation that already existed at NYU and put the word contract on it,” according to Cohen. The agreement remained largely unchanged until early Tuesday morning, when—after five hours of negotiation—NYU representatives agreed to a compromise.

Cruel and Inhuman: UN Slams US as Only Nation that Sentences Children to Die In Prison

Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez notes US policy violates international human rights law.

Common Dreams, By Sarah Lazare, March 10

A United Nations human rights expert strongly condemned the U.S. on Tuesday for being the “only State in the world that still sentences children to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole,” thereby imposing cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.

Juan Méndez, the Special Rapporteur on torture, made the comments in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva—building from his previous censure of cruel incarceration practices in a nation that locks up more people than any other country in the world.

Méndez noted that the U.S. practice of imposing life sentences on children in cases of homicide violates international law on numerous fronts, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Life sentences or sentences of an extreme length have a disproportionate impact on children and cause physical and psychological harm that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment,” he wrote.

Al Jazeera: UN expert slams US as only nation to imprison kids for life without parole

How to Die of Dumb

Truthout, By William Rivers Pitt, March 8

Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma since 1994, took to the floor of the Senate the other day with a snowball in a bag. Because it was cold in Washington DC, he said, because there was snow on the ground, that proves climate change is a hoax. “In case we had forgotten,” he said, pulling the snowball from the sack, “because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, do you know what this is? It’s a snowball, just from outside here. It’s very, very cold out.” He went on to denounce what he called the “hysteria on global warming,” and then threw the snowball at the presiding officer.

James Inhofe – who believes snow in DC disproves climate change – is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, because of course he is. He won with 57 percent of the vote in his last re-election campaign, because of course he did.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky since 1984, has been urging state officials all across the US to refuse to comply with the new EPA rule on carbon emissions that was championed by the Obama administration. The rule requires existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions by 30 percent, based on the 2005 requirements, by the year 2030. Senator McConnell is having none of it. “Think twice,” he said, “before submitting a state plan, which could lock you in to federal enforcement and expose you to lawsuits, when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground and when, without your support, it won’t be able to demonstrate the capacity to carry out such political extremism.”
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