Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Does It Mean to Be "Poor" or "Broke?"

In the past week, this discussion has come up over and over.  Spurred on by the dueling poverty stories of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden (in the last 15 years, not their childhood), many are taking a closer look at what people mean when they say "poor" or "broke."

In a related and strange statement, the former president's daughter blissfully confessed that she cared little for money.  Of course Chelsea Clinton makes $600,000 per year doing half the work of unpaid or low paid interns.  One does not need to care for money when the nest is permanently and opulently feathered.

Even the federal student loan people got in trouble for a tweet that seemed to minimize poverty. But what is it?

The federal government has a one size fits all measure of poverty.  It considers a family of four impoverished if it makes a little over $23,000 per year or less in every state outside of Alaska and Hawaii.  Cost of living, however, varies widely.  Earnings of $14,000 in West Virginia's most affluent area, Berkeley County, equals nearly $23,000 in Hartford, Connecticut, according to an online CNN Money cost of living adjuster.  Simply put, a dollar goes much farther in West Virginia than in Connecticut for a variety of reasons.

This shows that one cannot put a simple number on poverty, but doesn't explain what poverty actually is, or feels like.

Hillary Clinton described what many Americans occasionally experience regardless of income.  Her family's lifestyle ran their finances briefly into debt.  On one hand, they struggled with mortgages, tuition, and other financial commitments.  Fair enough, until you hear that these were multiple mortgages on multiple mansions.  They did not owe tuition to local state college, but to one of the most costly educational institutions in the world.

Paying bills when revenue dips causes stress and anxiety.  Having to sell a house to pay for bills could cause social embarrassment in their set.  The public, however, rightfully laughed at the Clintons' protestations of poverty.

The Census Bureau reported a few years ago that 30 million, or just under 10 percent, of Americans live in poverty.  They base this on income statistics instead of investigating actual conditions.  If being poor is defined as simply not making a lot of money, then the case gets rested.  Americans, however, assign a more stringent definition to the term poverty.

To most, poverty means real deprivation.  Does a family lack shelter?  Can they not pay for basic utilities? Do they not eat properly because of a lack of resources?  In most cases, the family may not be financially comfortable or secure, but they do eat consistently, they do have shelter, and they not only pay for utilities, but also vehicles (plural), cell phones,  and cable or satellite TV.

Submitted for your approval: if one regularly pays for satellite TV, alcohol, cigarettes, internet, and/or cell phones, one may not call oneself "poor."  If a family is starving and has all these things, it is not poor, but in sore need of re prioritizing.

Some institutions have a vested interest in inflating the poverty number.  More poverty means more money for the poor but also, more importantly, for bureaucrats and non profits that supposedly handle programs to help them. Examining true poverty does not help them expand their agencies, much less solve the real problems.

The more time spent on servicing the financially insecure as if they were poor, the more likely that the truly poor will escape notice.

Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's foray into the verbal forest (and we should not forget that Bill actually did know real poverty as a child) is great for poking fun.  It should, however, lead the country to discuss what poverty really is and examine the policies intended to address it.

Striking Back Against An Evil Empire

Last night a Republican revolution overturned an old order in central Maryland that could put that state's party on the road back to having a voice.

Moderates were sacked (in the medieval sense instead of the football) by conservatives more determined to fight the power of their Ruling Party than cooperate with it.  Delegate Michael Hough won nearly 70 percent of the vote against long time moderate incumbent David Brinkley.  Two of his "conservative team" of delegate candidates won their primaries in the three seat multi-delegate district.  Conservatives also seized command of Frederick County's Republican Executive Committee.

This, paired with Neil Parrott's victory in Washington County, among others, shows that Maryland Republicans will likely continue their march rightward.

Republican rediscovery of conservatism in the nominally Free State can be explained in a number of ways.

First, a handful of Maryland Republicans have honed campaigning to a fine confluence of art and science.  Ted Dacey ran the Hough campaign, whose coattails extended long enough to help elect two more conservative delegates and overturn the Frederick County GOP committee.  Dacey has a quiet and unassuming personality, but is also a tireless organizer and strategist.  He helped to elect his brother as Frederick alderman and has worked many campaigns.  Another up and coming, highly respected campaign leader is Delegate Parrott's campaign manager, Kari Snyder.  Both work endless hours and perform any task to make sure the campaign runs right.

They are only two of a growing army of young conservatives in that state who don't accept the idea that their Ruling Party cannot be dethroned or beaten.

Maryland conservatives also tap into growing discontent with the policies of their Ruling Party.  Issues such as the "rain tax," the "bathroom bill," and other Free State absurdities have turned Republican voters sour on "going along to get along."  Marylanders see their private sector at the state's extremities suffering.  Now they are fighting back.

Resurgence of Maryland conservatism will ignite voters who, otherwise, would see no difference between the parties.  If Maryland's GOP can continue this momentum, it can make more congressional districts and senatorial races competitive.  This will force their Ruling Party to seek more money nationally, taking Democratic resources away from other races.  Also, the failures of Maryland's leftist experiments will get wider examination and discussion.

Maryland's road back from Democratic domination will be long.  They can take heart that West Virginia's Republicans had to struggle and fight to get back to competitiveness, but succeeded against tradition, a corrupt machine, and other factors.  If they can go to the next step with successful outreach, continue to groom successful conservative leaders, and take advantage of the inevitable federal government contraction, Maryland's Republicans have no reason to not count on brighter days ahead.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Time to Reign In SWAT Teams, Restore Spirit of Posse Comitatus Act

In George Washington's Farewell Address at the close of his presidency, he warned Americans to stay vigilant.  Allowing a large military to grow unchecked would undermine liberties and infringe upon rights.

Washington's fears came from the dual role of the military.  It defended the nation, but also could be used to police it.  These lines grew blurred enough during Reconstruction and the Old West that Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.  This act prevented regular military forces from being used for internal policing.  State militia, later National Guard, are exempt as are the Coast Guard. As weapons and tactics of warfare grew more powerful and violent, Congress deemed that they had no place in policing a free society.

In the last century, criminal gangs grew more sophisticated and better armed.  They once hid in the recesses of cities and dominated the traditional vice trade.  After World War II, gangs expanded the drug trade.  More money led to more competition and more violence.  Police and citizens got caught in the crossfire.  For this, and many other reasons, SWAT, Special Weapons and Tactics units, were created.

Elite police units and advanced equipment costs money, but situations calling for their use is limited.  Despite media interest in the most dramatic scenarios, there just are not that many hostage situations, active shooters, or super dangerous gangs and terrorists lying around. Violent crime in the United States has also dropped considerably since the 1990s. So what can a SWAT team do?

According to an exhaustive ACLU study they do routine police work, but with deadly consequences. Only seven percent of SWAT actions responded to hostage or shooter situations. 80 percent of raids were for simple search warrants.  Two thirds of actions were performed as part of a drug search, but anywhere from one third to two thirds of those searches turned up nothing.

Most searches, again around two thirds, involve forced entry.  Officers use a battering ram to burst through a door with minimal warning, often deploy flash grenades, and rely on shock and awe tactics to stun their targets.  Often, possible presence of a weapon is cited as justification but most of the time, none are found.

Police bursting into a home with automatic weapons drawn and almost no warning relies on psychological trauma to immobilize the people inside.  It can also have deadly results.  In a recent case, a flash grenade mistakenly dropped into a baby crib nearly killed the 19 month old inside.

SWAT teams also make mistakes all too often.  Going to the wrong house and using such tactics can get officers and residents shot, or both.  In one instance, a 92 year old Georgia woman was killed in a hail of gunfire after shooting at police bursting into her home.

Problems also come with the militarization of police equipment.  Surplus armored personnel carriers have been granted to police forces across the country, even as National Guard units have lost their own.

No one has explained why Ohio State University's campus police need one.  According to the ACLU, they are almost exclusively used on drug raids.

The ACLU also said that the possible presence of a weapon is no justification to use SWAT. "Given that almost half of American households have guns," they noted, "use of a SWAT team could almost always be justified if this was a sole factor."

The problems with SWAT are profound because use of the teams have gotten out of control.  Local police need latitude to make decisions and respond effectively.  Then again, clearly local authorities in many areas have abused the privilege of having and using such units.

State legislatures across the country need to step in and create guidelines for the use of SWAT teams, then ensure in some way that these actions get reviewed for efficiency, effectiveness, and how well they protect or failed to protect the public.  Our system was never meant to allow routine policing with military equipment or methods.  Time to reign it in a little.

Update:  Salon article about a flash grenade blowing a hole in a young child's chest.  There is right and left agreement that this needs to be curbed.  Time to do it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kitchen Nightmares Crosses the Bar

Over 10,000 words that you cannot say on television and 234 powerful antacids could not keep Gordon Ramsay at the helm of his signature television show.  For Ramsay and restaurateurs around the United Kingdom and the United States, the Nightmares have come to an end.

Gordon Ramsay is pulling the plug on "Kitchen Nightmares."  This ends not only an entertaining series, not only a great place for tips on how to make great food, but also a free business tutorial.

The show debuted on BBC in 2004.  Fox picked up an American version in 2007.  The BBC version simply featured Ramsay giving tough love to bad businessmen, while the bigger budget US program included full makeovers.  In both cases, the core of the show was reforming the business owner him or herself.

Once successful establishments that had fallen on hard times were the staple.  In many cases, the owner simply suffered from laziness, apathy, or depression.  Ramsay described the owners that he worked with in a statement about the show's coming end as "weird and wonderful people."

Other owners had failed to keep up with changing palates and economic environments.  Or they had deluded themselves in some way.  Most of the time, Ramsay was able to fix the food, the business, and also the owner.

Most viewers remember Ramsay for freakouts.  Most food was not fit for a dog (some of it actually induced vomiting.)  Some restaurants had dead rats in the dining area. The cursing, confrontations, and freakouts were for show.  In between the opening shots of rage and the end scenes of hugging and gratitude came sound advice on how to run a business.

These included establishing relationships with customers and also local vendors.  Get a better handle on what the market wants.  Above all, make the restaurant about the customer instead of the ego of the owner.

Ramsay's lessons always implied that no one is entitled to success.  That comes from good judgment and hard work.  All these lessons apply in every field.

The show spawned others of a similar ilk, like Jon Taffer's "Bar Rescue." It differs in that it applies scientific concepts and technology to building a better business.

Together, however, these shows give viewers a glimpse into how hard small business is.  And that is their greatest contribution to television.