Archive for July, 2014

Not your grandfather’s America

There is a lot of talk these days about wealth and income inequality. Two items I heard on NPR’s Here and Now this afternoon drove home just how bad the problem is.

The first piece concerned the report released today by the Trustees of the Social Security about the system’s solvency. The good news is that Social Security is solvent until 2030 and Medicare until 2033. The first is unchanged while the second has improved by a year because of the Affordable Care Act. As guest Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University’s School of Social Work and founder of Social Security Works, Social Security would be permanently in the black if the cap on contributions, currently 6.2% of income up to $117,000, were eliminated. But the real shock was his explanation of how the trust came to be underfunded. Between 1949 and 1979, two-thirds of income growth in the US went to those in the bottom 90% of earners. Consequently, Social Security receipts grew apace with overall income. Since 1980, however, two-thirds of income growth has gone to the top 1% meaning that Social Security has benefited hardly at all from higher earnings because most of the increase was above the contributions cap. Also, he pointed out that prior to 1980, the average wage earned could count on retiring with significant equity in a house and with a private pension, meaning that Social Security was only part of his or her overall retirement portfolio. Today, defined-benefit retirement plans, i.e. private pensions, are all but extinct and the 2008 economic crisis wiped out much of the middle class’s home equity. Consequently, retirees will be relying more on Social Security at a time when its funding is not increasing. In other words, what your grandfather counted on for his retirement has been stolen from you by the very wealthy through the agency of a generation of Reaganomics.

The second story was about the announced acquisition of Family Dollar Stores, Inc. by Dollar Tree, Inc. In case you are not familiar with those companies, they are part of a retail market segment called “extreme value” aimed at the very poor—people who can’t afford to shop at Walmart. What was shocking about the piece was the interview with Howard Davidowitz, retail consultant and founder of Davidowitz & Associates, Inc. about the implications of this sale. It was, he said, a very great thing for investors because these stores represent the fastest growing market and most profitable segment of the retail industry. He positively crowed about how the target market for these store has grown “tremendously” because one in six Americans now lives in poverty, up from one in 12 six years ago. Clearly, for people like Mr. Davidowitz, poverty in America is wonderful profit-making opportunity.

Unless you are Mitt Romney, this is not your grandfather’s America.

The elephant in the room

I have corrected this post to reflect the fact that Mr. Cline is no longer with the firm to which I referred and does, in fact, practice criminal law. My apologies for that error.

 

Last March in a well-to-do neighborhood just outside of the City of Binghamton, a daughter and a son of prominent local families were found brutally murdered in her house. The prime suspect, not surprisingly, was her estranged husband who happens to be African American. At the time I questioned whether he could get a fair trial in Broome County. My concern was motivated, in part, by the seemly endless outpouring of truly vile racist comments on local media websites by people using such screen names as Bull Conner, DellaBeckwith, Emmitt Till, and Nate B Forrest, accompanied by avatars that would have been shocking in 1960s Alabama. And those comments, more often than not, garnered significant numbers of “likes.” I would not have been terribly surprised had the accused been lynched.

More than a year later by the luck of the draw I was called and selected to be an alternate juror at the trial of the estranged husband. My observation was that the Broome County Sheriff’s Department, supported by the New York State Police, did a competent job collecting and analyzing evidence at the scene but that the prosecution did a poor job of assembling the evidence into a coherent narrative. Rather, they focused on specific parts of the story, leaving huge gaps between them.

The defense attorney was a public defender who, while admitted to the bar in 1992, appears to have only recently changed the focus of his practice from medical malpractice to criminal law. To say that his defense of the accused was inept is being generous. He utterly failed to mount a credible rebuttal to the state’s case.

The irony is that the prosecution showed that the defendant’s race was completely irrelevant within his circle of friends. I certainly detected no bias among the members of the jury or from the police. The only time race seemed to come up was during jury selection when the county attorney pressed the one black potential juror about whether, being a minister, he could convict someone of murder. It sounded to me as though he was most concerned about the possibility of jury nullification. In any event, that black juror was seated as an alternate.

At the end of the trial, I came out of the experience no longer questioning whether a black man could get a fair trial in Broome County but wondering whether anyone could. And that is the real elephant in the room.

Justice

For the past two weeks I have sat as an alternate juror at the trial of Aaron Powell for the murder of his wife and a friend of hers. As an alternate I did not participate in deliberations or vote on the verdict. I was, frankly, surprised that the jury returned a guilty verdict as quickly as they did because I am not convinced that the prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps had I been a member of the jury I might have been persuaded otherwise or I would have convinced the other jurors of my concerns, or maybe we would still be in deliberations. For a number of reasons, this was a very high profile case on which the media reported at length. While serving on the jury I was prohibited from reading that coverage. I am now catching up on that coverage and comparing it with what I heard in the courtroom every day. It should come as no surprise that the two often diverge, especially with regard to emphasis. Once I have have had to time organize my thoughts I will post my observations on this blog. I want to make clear ahead of time that these are my own opinions and, although they are based on what I heard from the attorneys and the witnesses, are not intended to impugn the integrity or thoughtfulness of the jury. Rather, they reflect what I think to be a certain laxity in the criminal justice system. Whether or not my views have merit will become clearer when the case is heard on appeal.

Trivia with a side of jingoism

Yesterday evening my wife had gone to Ithaca to practice with her a capella trio so I decided to stop into a local tavern, Irish Kevins, for a beer and a bite of dinner. As usual the beer was great (Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, perfect for a hot night) and the food—I had the Reuben—was good if a bit greasy as one expects bar food to be. Three of the four large TV screens showed the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays listlessly scoreless halfway through their game (the Rays would win 2-1) while on the other the New York Mets were slowing succumbing to the Atlanta Braves. The bar was mostly full and, as 8 PM drew nigh, the high-top tables began to fill with groups of four to six. Tuesday, it turns out, is Trivia Night at Irish Kevins.

Now, I enjoy a game of trivia as much as anyone and considered joining in. But this game of trivia was unlike any I have ever seen. The host called out the first question, “What day of the week is named after the Norse goddess of love?” and immediately thereafter blasted the place with Lee Greenwood’s execrable God Bless the USA, the Reagan-era Horst-Wessel-Lied of gun-toting rednecks who would no more actually join the military than vote for Jane Fonda. As someone who wore our country’s uniform for seven years I find that song deeply troubling. I did not serve to defend the Christian religion or to promote the delusion that Americans are freer than the citizens of our peer countries. The entire notion of American exceptionalism sickens and frightens me because it is little different than the theory of Übermenschen that led to the deaths of tens of millions of “inferior” people before and during World War II. As it did in Germany, such jingoism appeals to the fears of the undereducated who are dangerously prone to march to the call of demagogues.

Still, I expect to return to Irish Kevins for the beer and food—and perhaps the baseball. I will just avoid Trivia Night. Anyway, the questions are far too easy. The second was “What does the ‘E’ in the name of the animal-rights group, PETA, stand for?” In case you are wondering, the answers (no, I did not wait for the host to confirm them) are 1) Friday and 2) Ethical. Just avoid 1) Tuesday and 2) Jingoism.