Thursday, May 16, 2013

Closure of Gordon Parks Elementary Demonstrates Moral Bankruptcy of Standardized Testing

Today, we saw in graphic form the moral bankruptcy of standardized testing in this country. The State of Missouri closed Gordon Parks Elementary, a specialized charter school in Kansas City, for repeatedly failing the standardized state tests that the state administers.

Gordon Parks is a charter school that specializes in catering to the needs of students in the direst poverty. We all agree on the need to hold public schools accountable. But the problem with standardized tests is that they cater to a one size fits all approach. It doesn't matter if you are the best and the brightest or if wondering where your next meal will come from is much more important than getting an education. Everybody has to take the test and everybody is judged the same. If you score 100, you are a success. If you score 50, you are a failure. The corporations that devise these tests walk away with a tidy profit.

The problem with these tests is that they dishonor the men and women in uniform who have fought for our freedoms throughout our country's history. Our country was founded on the notion that all people everywhere were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, an ideal that we fought a civil war over. After we won the Civil War, we no longer believed that Black lives were only worth a fraction of a White life. So why are we now turning around and assigning a value to human life?

The state's rationale is that only 10-20% of the students were passing the state standardized tests, which have to be given to students no matter what. Well, if these students were to write a test about life in their neighborhood and what they have to go through every day, I'm sure that only 10-20% of us would pass their tests. You see how subjective testing is? All it does is reflect the cultural biases of the corporations who devise these tests.

But when an unholy alliance of politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations come together to profit off the backs of our children, these sorts of travesties of justice happen. The corporations walk away with their profits. The bureaucrats are simply doing their jobs and shutting themselves out from the rest of the world. The politicians say this "proves" that school accountability works. The children are the ones who suffer.

We all agree that schools can and should be held accountable for student performance. The state rightfully has shut down other charter schools that have had gross financial and management issues. But if the schools are on a sound financial footing and they are serving the needs of the students, then they should not be shut down. This sad episode shows that the only people who are properly qualified to determine whether the children are learning properly are the people who actually live and work with the children in question, not some far-off politician or bureaucrat in Jefferson City or Washington and certainly not some corporation in some cozy skyscraper in New York City.

And on top of the fact that hundreds of families are scrambling to find their next meal even more now that the school will no longer be able to feed these kids during the summer, there is the issue of what to do with a building that will now be vacant. In other words, the state is simply creating blight and an eyesore, seeing that there will be one more vacant building that is no longer being used, that will soon (10-15 years) develop leaky roofs and flooding that nobody can afford to fix.

There is a double standard at work here. A few years ago, the state decided to allow Premium Standard Farms, one of the largest CAFO's in the country, to keep operating despite the company having twice submitted to consent judgments in massive environmental lawsuits filed against the company. That is on top of the numerous nuisance lawsuits that the company has lost to neighbors who have to live next to the stink of these hog farms. The rationale was that they were too big to fail and provided thousands of jobs to a blighted region in north Missouri. Furthermore, if they were shut down, nobody knew who would foot the bill for the astronomical cleanup costs that would have followed.

But here, the state is ignoring the economic catastrophe that is sure to follow the closure of Gordon Parks. Hundreds of people will be without jobs; children will be without a place to eat during the summer, and the community will suffer given that schools are the lifeblood of the communities and neighborhoods that they are located in. When hopelessness sets in, that is when the drug dealers move in to sell drugs to our children. And then our politicians wonder why we are not making headway on the so-called "War on Drugs."

Recently, Pope Francis reminded us to be more mindful of the poor living in our midst. It was a powerful call that got a recommended diary at Daily Kos, not normally a friendly platform for the Pope or the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, by its practice of assigning values to human lives, the politicians and bureaucrats and the corporations have done the exact opposite.

 The words of the Prophet Ezekiel are very much relevant to this situation. All it would have taken was one person to "stand in the gap" and take a stand against the moral turpitude that passes for "school accountability" these days. But apparently, nobody in Jefferson City or Washington or Corporate America cares about the kids of Gordon Parks or other such kids around the country.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Underground Landfill Fire Burning 1,200 Feet from 8,700 Tons of Nuclear Waste

An underground fire is burning at a waste dump 1,200 feet away from where 8,700 tons of nuclear waste is stored in Bridgeton, MO near St. Louis; the EPA is cutting and running from the problem, Rolling Stone reports. Our politicians would rather sweep this problem under the rug because it does not fit in with their narrative of more jobs. But the landfill in Bridgeton is burning and the problem is getting worse, no matter how the politicians try to sweep it under the rug.
For the people in Bridgeton, MO, they have to live by it every day. There is odor in the air that people can smell from miles away, which some say is like rotten eggs and others say is like dead bodies according to the Rolling Stone article. The most difficult job in the country must be whoever is in charge of the Bridgeton Chamber of Commerce trying to get people to come and visit their city. Good luck with trying to put one's best foot forward.
The Rolling Stone article reports that as the EPA runs and hides from the problem, people are organizing because they are concerned about the long-term problems. Concerns raised are things like cancer risks as well as property values. The property values are especially a concern; after all, who would want to live in a place that smells like rotten eggs or the stench of decay?
The company that owns the landfill, Republic Services, sent out flyers to residents according to Rolling Stone assuring people that there were no safety risks. But the DNR and DHSS  and the Missouri Attorney General see it otherwise and are now starting to get involved.
Reports from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) indicate dangerously high levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide in the air. In March, Missouri's Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) – which has jurisdiction over Bridgeton Landfill – quietly posted an Internet notice cautioning citizens with chronic respiratory diseases to limit time outdoors. A month after Republic distributed its potentially misleading flier, the state attorney general sued the company on eight counts of environmental violations, including pollution and public nuisance. And this week, as part of a settlement set to be announced Tuesday, Republic sent another round of fliers offering to move local families to hotels during a period of increased odor related to remediation efforts.
What Republic Services and the politicians don't want you to know is that the landfull fire in question is burning close to 8,700 tons of nuclear waste:
Nickel and Chapman are stay-at-home moms; Chapman has three special-needs kids. Neither of them wants to spend her time worrying about a damn landfill fire. But until someone higher up the power chain intervenes, they have sworn to call municipal offices, file Sunshine requests and post notices to the community's Facebook group, no matter how unsettling the facts they uncover. Scariest of all: The Bridgeton landfill fire is burning close to at least 8,700 tons of nuclear weapons wastes. "To have somebody call you at 11 P.M., and they're in tears, concerned for their family, that's heartbreaking," Chapman tells Rolling Stone. "We're doing this because we don't have a choice. If we don't come together as a community and fight, no one's going to do it for us."
Specifically, the Bridgeton fire is 1,200 feet away from West Lake Landfill, where the nuclear waste in question was dumped. Nobody knows what would happen if the fire were to come in contact with the nuclear waste. And nobody at the EPA cares. And that is on top of the difficulty of Bridgeton residents in living normal lives. Attorney General Chris Koster:
"The nearby residents, schools, senior care facilities and a local hospital all have dealt with terrible, ongoing odor problems from the Bridgeton Landfill that have impacted their ability to go about normal activities," Koster said. "For St. Louisans who have not been directly exposed to the site, it is difficult to describe the effects this situation is having on local neighborhoods and businesses. While we have been assured by Republic Services that they have developed a remediation plan and are implementing that plan as expeditiously as possible, it is important that we ensure the corporation’s promises are binding and enforceable in a court of law," Koster added.
Koster said that, in addition to addressing the odor problems and correcting the environmental violations, his lawsuit seeks to provide remedies to help local residents and businesses deal with the ongoing effects of the burning waste. The lawsuit also seeks to ensure that Republic, rather than taxpayers, pays for the costs of experts hired by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to perform ongoing, intensive environmental testing. Koster noted that DNR has committed to share the experts’ analysis and test results with the public as quickly as possible.
A copy of the lawsuit is here. The suit filed by the Missouri Attorney General's Office alleges violations of the Missouri Solid Waste Management, Hazardous Waste Management, Clean Water, Air Conservation, and Hazardous Waste Management Laws as well as claims for nuisance, costs, and natural resource damages.
According to the suit, on December 23, 2010, the defendants first reported to the DNR that the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill was experiencing elevated temperatures on some methane gas extraction wells, evidencing a "subsurface smoldering event." Since December 2010, the event has intensified into a subsurface fire.
By July 2012, the state began receiving numerous complaints from neighboring residences and businesses about the odor emitted by the Bridgeton Landfill. Since that time, the suit alleges that the landfill has continued to create odors that undermine the quality of life for people working and living in the area.
In August 2012, the state began monitoring the air surrounding the Bridgeton Landfill, which Koster says has emitted acetaldehyde and benzene into the air in levels that exceed the EPA's regional screening levels. Despite this, the EPA is sticking its head in the sand and doing nothing about this. After all, government is the problem; therefore, the mentality goes, if I get involved, the problem only gets worse.
By January 2013, black liquid leachate flowed out of the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill onto the surface of the ground, entered a forested area, and an intermittent stream. In addition, it is now flowing into the groundwater according to the suit. The state considers these streams to be state property; therefore, they are very quick to act when pollution of streams is involved.
The suit alleges that leachate violates the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure under the Missouri Hazardous Waste Management Law. Since January, the suit alleges that 150,000 gallons of liquid landfill leachate per day is being generated.
The first count of the suit alleges a public nuisance, which involves interference with the rights common to all members of the community in general to live their own lives given that the fire is creating a "highly offensive odor."
For the first count, the suit seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against the defendants from causing a nuisance and ordering them to pay damages, issuing an injunction ordering the defendants to take all appropriate steps to mitigate the impact of the nuisance on residents, businesses, and patrons including assuring the safety of workers, addressing the needs of those who have medical conditions, and providing methods by which indoor air quality can be protected; issuing a preliminary and permanent injunction ordering the defendants to develop plans for abatment of the nuisance and submit those plans to the state.
The second count alleges burning solid waste in a sanitary landfill, for which the suit seeks fines of up to $5,000 per day, among other things.
The third count alleges odor pollution in violation of the Missouri Air Conservation Act. For that, among other things, the suit seeks penalties of up to $10,000 per day for each violation.
The fourth count alleges exceeding methane gas limits. The suit seeks to require defendants to develop plans to reduce methane levels to below regulatory limits and submit plans to the state for approval; in addition, the suit seeks damages of up to $5,000 per day.
The fifth count alleges causing pollution of waters of the state. The suit seeks to require defendants to develop a hazardous mitigation plan and seeks damages of up to $10,000 per day.
The sixth count alleges improperly handling hazardous waste. From May 15th, 2012 to at least October 26th, 2012, the Metropolitan Sewer District of St. Louis tested leachate from the landfill and determined that it was contaminated with benzene. Sometime during December 2012, the district ordered the defendants to cease discharging landfill leachate into its wastewater treatment system. The suit also alleges that the defendants began shipping untreated or undertreated leachate to American Bottoms Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility in Sauget, IL which the suit says tested positive for benzene on January 24, 2013. The suit also alleges that the defendants, since at least December 2012, violated the law by storing, containerizing, failing to label, and transporting hazardous waste improperly.
The suit seeks to force the defendants to develop and manage the leachate in accordance with Missouri law and seeks penalties of up to $10,000 per day that the defendants are in violation.
The seventh count alleges storing solid waste in a manner that the state says violates the law, creates a public nuisance, and adversely affects public health. For this, the suit seeks to force the defendants to develop a plan and seeks damages of up to $5,000 per day.
The eighth count seeks natural resource damages, cleanup costs, state investigative and oversight costs, and legal expenses plus any other relief that may be just and proper.

Friday, May 10, 2013

SCOTUS Justice Kagan Ridicules Roberts Court's "Make-Believe" Problems

The Supreme Court is certainly not without humor these days. In a dissent worthy of the best writings of the late Molly Ivins, Justice Elena Kagan puts the corporatist Roberts Court to ridicule in her dissent of Genesis Healthcare vs. Symczyk. Ridiculing the Roberts Court for setting up a make-believe problem, she claims in her dissent that they make errors that even a first-year law student would avoid. The ruling was issued on April 16th of this year.
John Roberts seeks to leave his mark on the court. First and foremost, he sees the American Corporation as the ultimate force for good. This is based on his signature decision, Citizens United, as well as his consistent pattern of ruling in favor of the corporation over the individual in suits brought before the body. For instance, there have been four recent cases since March 27th involving corporations versus individuals and Roberts has sided with the corporation in all of them.
Roberts' view is similar to those of John Ashcroft and Donald Trump. On his show The Apprentice, Donald Trump sometimes touts the number of jobs that certain corporations have created in this country. And Ashcroft, during his time as George Bush's attorney general, nearly always sided with the corporation in court cases over individuals.
Roberts' second priority is preserving the Supreme Court as an institution. This is evident in two things. His second signature decision is the one upholding Obamacare. He is pragmatic enough to realize that if the Supreme Court decisions sound too much like propaganda pieces from the Republican Party, it will fatally undermine the legitimacy of the court as an institution. The other pattern that we see is efforts to break up the tribalism within the court. Many of the rulings this term have not broken along the 5-4 lines that many observers would expect. But when a corporation has a case before the Supreme Court, Roberts welds the other four Republican-appointed justices as a voting bloc in an effort to create government by the corporation for the corporation.
This devotion to the cause of government by and for the corporation has led detractors like Justice John Paul Stevens in Citizens United and Kagan in Genesis HealthCare to accuse him of acting sua sponte, or considering matters that were never argued by the parties.
In Genesis, respondent Symczyk brought a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 on behalf of herself and "other employees similarly situated." Genesis subsequently offered a consent judgment to her under the case; however, Symczyk, believing the offer an attempt to pick her off, turned it down. The District Court ruled that since no other individuals had joined her suit, that her suit was therefore moot and dismissed it for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
However, the Third Circuit reversed, saying that her individual claim was moot but that her collective action was not, saying that Genesis' attempt to pick her off went against the goal of collective actions.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that because Symczyk had no personal interest in representing "putative unnamed claimants nor any other continuing interest," the suit was appropriately dismissed.
Genesis would deduct 30 minutes of time worked per shift for meal breaks for certain employees even when the employees performed work during those breaks. Symczyk sought damages for the alleged violations. The offer, which she turned down, included $7,500 for unpaid wages as well as attorney's fees, costs, and expenses as the Court may determine. After Symczyk failed to respond to the offer, Genesis turned around and claimed that because they had offered her complete relief on her individual damages claim, she no longer possessed a personal stake. The Roberts Bloc agreed. However, the danger in this ruling is that it will undermine the Fair Labor Standards Act, the intent of which was to compel wholesale changes to bring large corporations into compliance with the act. Under this ruling, a corporation could offer to settle with someone for the full amount under future actions brought under this act and then turn around and continue the same practices that led to the suit elsewhere.
But Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking for the majority, said that the court was simply doing its job by restricting itself to actual controversies in accordance with the Constitution.
This requirement ensures that the Federal Judiciary confines itself to its constitutionally limited roleof adjudicating actual and concrete disputes, the resolutions of which have direct consequences on the parties involved. A corollary to this case-or-controversy requirement is that “‘an actual controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed.’”
If an intervening circumstance deprives the plaintiff of a “personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuit,” at any point during litigation, the action can no longer proceed and must be dismissed as moot.
Thomas then reasoned that since nobody else had joined the suit, the collective action clause did not save Symczyk:
In the absence of any claimant’s opting in, respondent’s suit became moot when her individual claim became moot, because she lacked any personal interest in representing others in this action. While the FLSA authorizes an aggrieved employee to bring an action on behalf of himself and “other employees similarly situated,” 29 U. S. C. §216(b), the mere presence of collective-action allegations in the complaint cannot save the suit from mootness once the individual claim is satisfied.
Thomas then turned to similar cases decided in the past. The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that since an independent class action has been certified, the class action takes on a life of its own even if Symczyk's case had become moot. And the court has ruled in the past that if Symczyk's individual case had not been moot, then her case would still be active even if the courts were to deny class action. But Thomas argued that the Fair Labor Standards Act did not apply:
Under the FLSA, by contrast, “conditional certification” does not produce a class with an independent legal status, or join additional parties to the action. The sole consequence of conditional certification is the sending of court-approved written notice to employees, see Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., supra, at 171–172, who in turn become parties to a collective action only by filing written con- sent with the court, §216(b). So even if respondent were to secure a conditional certification ruling on remand, nothing in that ruling would preserve her suit from mootness.
Thomas said that settlement offers such as the one made by Genesis do not foreclose others from filing their own suits:
While settlement may have the collateral effect of foreclosing unjoined claimants from having their rights vindicated in respondent’s suit, such putative plaintiffs remain free to vindicate their rights in their own suits. They are no less able to have their claims settled or adjudicated following respondent’s suit than if her suit had never been filed at all.
However, the unintended consequence of this ruling will be to clog the courts with lawsuits. Collective suits under the Fair Labor Standards Act as well as Class Action suits were specifically designed to avoid the clogging of courts with many similar actions that set no valid legal precedent. But Justice Elena Kagan, speaking for the minority, opens with this broadside:
The Court today resolves an imaginary question, based on a mistake the courts below made about this case and others like it.
She accuses the majority of substituting political activism for determining the facts of the case at hand:
Embedded within that question is a crucial premise: that the individual claim has become moot, as the lower courts held and the majority assumes without deciding. But what if that premise is bogus? What if the plaintiff’s individual claim here never became moot? And what if, in addition, no similar claim for damages will ever become moot? In that event, the majority’s decision—founded as it is on an unfounded assumption—would have no real-world meaning or application. The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so. That is the case here, for reasons I’ll describe.
Feel free to relegate the majority's decision to the furthest reaches of your mind. The situation it addresses should never again arise.
She then takes both lower courts to task:
That thrice-asserted view is wrong, wrong, and wrong again. We made clear earlier this Term that “[a]s long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in the outcome of the litigation, the case is not moot.”
In other words, implying that Roberts is breaking his own precedent, contrary to what he promised the Senate during his confirmation hearings. Kagan then takes the court to task for what she says are mistakes that even a first-year law student would avoid:
By those measures, an unaccepted offer of judgment cannot moot a case. When a plaintiff rejects such an offer—however good the terms—her interest in the lawsuit remains just what it was before. And so too does the court’s ability to grant her relief. An unaccepted settlement offer—like any unaccepted contract offer—is a legal nullity, with no operative effect. As every first-year law student learns, the recipient’s rejection of an offer “leaves the matter as if no offer had ever been made.”
She reasoned that since Symczyk's suit was not negated by the settlement offer, she still had a personal interest in the case:
Symczyk’s claim was not moot, and the District Court could not send her away empty-handed. So a friendly suggestion to the Third Circuit: Rethink your mootness-by-unaccepted-offer theory. And a note to all other courts of appeals: Don’t try this at home.
The consequences, she says, involve plunging into a world of make-believe:
Still, you might think, the majority’s approach has at least this benefit: In a future FLSA case, when an individual claim for damages in fact becomes moot, a court will know what to do with the collective allegations. But no, even that much cannot be said for the majority’s opinion. That is because the individual claims in such cases will never become moot, and a court will therefore never need to reach the issue the majority resolves. The majority’s decision is fit for nothing: Aside from getting this case wrong, it serves only to address a make-believe problem.
The spirit of Molly Ivins lives on.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

656 Wind Turbines Represent $1.9 Billion Record Iowa Investment

Today's Des Monies Register has a front page headline in its print edition -- 656 wind turbines are coming to Iowa that will bring a $1.9 billion windfall to the state. The front page has a quote from Nathaniel Baer of the Iowa Environmental Council: "I think it is a welcome development for wind energy, the Iowa environment, and the economy." With the feds stuck in sequestration mode, state and private authorities are stepping up and providing an economic windfall to Iowa.
The company in question, Mid American, is a utility company serving 714,000 customers in the Midwest. They have invested heavily in wind power in Iowa since 2004:
MidAmerican Energy began installing wind turbines in 2004 and is a recognized leader in the use and development of renewable energy. No other U.S. rate-regulated utility owns more wind-powered generation capacity. In December 2010, MidAmerican Energy announced it would add 593.4 megawatts of new wind-powered generation in Iowa. The projects included the 443.9-megawatt Rolling Hills wind project, located in Adair, Adams and Cass counties; the 119.6-megawatt Laurel wind project, located in Marshall County; and the 29.9-megawatt Pomeroy wind expansion project, located in Pocahontas and Calhoun counties. The final portion of the 593.4-megawatt expansion project was placed in-service by year-end 2011.
In 2012, MidAmerican Energy solidified its No. 1 ranking when it completed a 407-megawatt wind expansion project in Iowa.
State and utility leaders say that their latest move will hold down utility bills and create new jobs in the state at a time when the country and state needs them most. This debunks the claim made by some that more wind will lead to higher utility bills for customers. The American Wind Energy Association, in figures quoted by the Register, notes that Iowa has 5137 megawatts of wind power, third in the nation. Iowa has 25% of its power generated by wind, first in the nation. And there are 6,000 to 7,000 jobs created by wind, primarily at wind manufacturing plants. Wind power has bipartisan support in Iowa, a rarity in politics these days; Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad, an institution in Iowa, says that is the largest investment ever in the state.
MidAmerican, in figures quoted by the Register, said that the project would create 460 construction jobs, 48 permanent jobs (a big boost for the small communities where they are located), lower power rates in order to attract more companies to the state, greener power, $3.2 million in annual lease payments to farmers, and $360 million in additional property taxes to the 14 counties which will benefit.
MidAmerican was able to do the project at no additional cost to customers thanks to the Wind Energy Tax Credit. According to a sideline article, this issue helped propel Obama to victory in the state of Iowa, despite the Register endorsing Mitt Romney. Romney had opposed the extension of the credit.
Not only is Iowa's wind-friendly policy leading directly to the creation of thousands of jobs, it is indirectly leading to the creation of many more. The Register article notes that Facebook is building a $300 million data center in Altoona thanks to the state's green power and is also looking into building its own wind farm. Facebook has pledged itself to getting to 25% wind power. The $300 million that Facebook is investing, as the Register notes, is just the first phase.
The National Renewable Energy Labratory provided statistics to the Register that show that Iowa is the 7th windiest state in the union and has the capability to add on 44 times the amount of wind power that it currently uses. In other words, Iowa has the capability of getting to the point where it can derive all of its power from wind. Another issue commonly brought up is bird kills. However, Iowa has solved the problem of bird kills by building its turbines in a ridge formation instead of a grid formation. The Register quotes the Iowa DNR as saying that birds are much less likely to be killed by wind turbines than by windows or power lines.

2013 Farm Bill would Cut $20 Billion from Food Stamps

The Farm Bill currently under consideration in the House would cut $20 billion from the Food Stamp program in a plan endorsed by both the House Ag Committee chairman, Frank Lucas, and his Democratic counterpart Collin Peterson. On the program Agritalk, one of the largest farm talk shows in the country, Lucas said today that eligible people would not get a dime less from the Food Stamp program. He said that the savings would come from making sure that the people getting assistance actually were eligible for food stamps.
Both Peterson and Lucas said on the show that the 2013 Farm Bill would likely get challenges from both the left and the right once it hits the floor of the House. They said that they were simply trying to find some middle ground and trying to get something done before the August recess so that planters would be able to make decisions about crops knowing what the picture would be like.
Lucas said in Politico that the cuts in question were similar to the type of requests made by the President, who wanted to see $38 billion in 10 years savings. Last year's version, which failed to pass, had $16 billion worth of cuts.
He said his $38 billion target owes a lot to Obama, and once the president set that 10-year target for agriculture savings in his own budget, Lucas wanted to match it. “I was compelled to match his number. I’m saving $38 billion from the farm bill process,” Lucas said. “Yes he [Obama] is certainly focused on the side of the equation that raises the food not the consumption. I’m trying to be a little more equitable in my reform.”
The New York Times reports that some Republican legislators want even deeper cuts:
During a committee vote last year, Mr. Lucas sided with Democrats and a few Republicans in defeating amendments to cut food stamps even more deeply, including one by Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas, that would have doubled the cuts in the program to $33 billion.
In the meantime, the Times article notes that the Senate ag committee is chaired by Kirsten Gillibrand, who only wants $4 billion worth of cuts. One of the difficulties in getting such a bill passed will be reconciling the House version with the Senate version since the two bodies are very far apart on figures. And the deeper the cuts to Food Stamps, the more likely that such a bill will draw a Presidential veto. Gillibrand, in the Times article, says that she will fight food stamp cuts again:
Ms. Gillibrand fought against cuts in the food stamp program in the Senate bill last year and proposed instead cutting the federal crop insurance program, which pays farmers for drops in crop yields or revenue. ***
“So I don’t know under what world our colleagues think these cuts are acceptable, but tightening our belts around the waists of children and veterans and active duty service members is not how we should be balancing our debt and deficit,” she said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
But Ryan Alexander of Taxpayers for Common Sense writes in US News & World Report that the cuts don't go far enough especially in the face of the sequester:
While the rest of the government is bracing for sequestration cuts, the agriculture sector is asking for more money to be plowed into commodity price supports and federal crop insurance, a program that subsidizes nearly every business risk an agribusiness may face. The crop insurance industry deserves special recognition for brazen behavior: its lobbyists are also pushing the inclusion of expanded crop insurance subsidies and new entitlement programs to further guarantee profit margins and income levels over the next five years (called "shallow loss" programs), something that no other industry would dare ask for in this fiscal environment.
Lucas said on Agritalk this morning that he was doing all he could to find middle ground on the 2013 Farm Bill despite the sequester. He said that his main focus was the multitrillion dollar deficit and doing his part to bring it down. But the risk in making cuts to Food Stamps is both political and economic -- more voters want Congress to focus on the economy than they do on the deficit. And the economic risk in cutting food stamps is that there will be a corresponding drop in economic activity that would lead to fewer jobs being created or retained.

House Hearings in Progress on Biometric ID's

House hearings are in progress today on biometric ID's, which would be used for Social Security cards. The plan is part of Congress' comprehensive immigration reform plan which would tighten border security and create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently here in this country. The plan is being pushed by Senators Chuck Schumer and McCain.
Pro:
The website Biometric Update, one of the leading news sites for the industry, published an opinion piece supporting the use of biometric ID's for Social Security cards.
McCain and Schumer discussed their position in a roundtable with Politico. The biometric ID component would replace voluntary programs like e-verify. McCain and Schumer say that this would ensure that employers only hire people who are legally entitled to be here in the US.
The Biometric Update site continues:
Currently, Social Security is subjected to a wide range of fraud, due to the ease of obtaining a forged driver’s license in order to receive a fraudulent Social Security number. Social Security numbers can also be obtained and used illegally through identity theft. Senator Schumer acknowledged that the only way to combat fraudulent use is if the government issues a non-forgeable card, leveraging technologies such as biometrics.
However, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2009 that prosecutors cannot use identity theft laws to prosecute immigrants who use false Social Security numbers to get jobs.
The question in the case was whether workers who use fake identification numbers to commit some other crimes must know they belong to a real person to be subject to a two-year sentence extension for “aggravated identity theft.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in a concurring opinion that a central flaw in the interpretation of the law urged by the government was that it made criminal liability turn on chance. Consider, Justice Alito said, a defendant who chooses a Social Security number at random. “If it turns out that the number belongs to a real person,” Justice Alito wrote, “two years will be added to the defendant’s sentence, but if the defendant is lucky and the number does not belong to another person, the statute is not violated.”
This, the Times article notes, was used in the Postville (IA) case to imprison hundreds of people the government says were here illegally for five months under plea deals before deporting them.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in his opinion for the court, said the case should be decided by applying “ordinary English grammar” to the text of the law, which applies when an offender “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.” The government had argued that the “knowingly” requirement applied only to the verbs in question. Justice Breyer rejected that interpretation, saying that “it seems natural to read the statute’s word ‘knowingly’ as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime.”
He gave examples from everyday life to support this view. “If we say that someone knowingly ate a sandwich with cheese,” Justice Breyer wrote, “we normally assume that the person knew both that he was eating a sandwich and that it contained cheese.”
Since prosecutors can no longer use identity theft laws to prosecute immigrants who obtain fictitious Social Security cards except when they belong to a real person, this is why our legislators are proposing biometric ID as a way of getting around the Supreme Court roadblock.
This is a position that is also shared by the President. There are three critical flaws in the e-verify system that is presently used to determine whether someone is authorized to work here in the US. First of all, it is voluntary and not required by law. Secondly of all, according to the Huffington Post, it is riddled with errors; 54% of the time, the system wrongly stated that immigrants were authorized to work here in the US. And only 20 states require its use while there are many municipalities in California which ban its use.
Con:
The Biometric ID site acknowledges that the balance of power currently resides in the hands of the states. The Federal Government tried to pass the Real ID Act in 2005, only to have 13 states comply with it. Currently, Missouri is in an uproar over its Department of Revenue sharing data with the Federal Government in an effort to comply with the mandate and the legislature threatening to withhold all funding. And any Biometric ID provisions of comprehensive immigration reform will likely have trouble passing Supreme Court muster since this is a court that is concerned both with states' rights and privacy rights.
Another problem is privacy rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a dated link that nonetheless still has a good overview of the case against biometric ID's. The link is entitled "Who is watching you?" implying that passing Biometric ID's is akin to bringing about a real-life version of Orwell's book 1984.
The first concern is that privacy violations would be easier and more damaging.
Biometric technology is inherently individuating and interfaces easily to database technology, making privacy violations easier and more damaging. If we are to deploy such systems, privacy must be designed into them from the beginning, as it is hard to retrofit complex systems for privacy.
This is one of the reasons why it would have such a hard time passing Supreme Court muster. In an April ruling, Missouri vs. McNeely, one that was supported by Scalia, the court ruled that due to the intrusive nature of conducting blood tests on DWI suspects, police officers were required to get a warrant and that the totality of the circumstances must be considered. Although the circumstances are different and a warrant would obviously not be required to provide a Biometric ID, the principle is the same -- obtaining bodily characteristics of people in this manner is highly intrusive and such a provision would have a hard time passing muster. Among other objections raised by the EFF:
Biometric systems are useless without a well-considered threat model. Before deploying any such system on the national stage, we must have a realistic threat model, specifying the categories of people such systems are supposed to target, and the threat they pose in light of their abilities, resources, motivations and goals. Any such system will also need to map out clearly in advance how the system is to work, in both in its successes and in its failures.
This is what the current hearings are trying to address.
Biometrics are no substitute for quality data about potential risks. No matter how accurately a person is identified, identification alone reveals nothing about whether a person is a terrorist. Such information is completely external to any biometric ID system.
The Boston bombers, for instance, came here legally. Therefore, they would have slipped through these requirements had they been in place.
Biometric identification is only as good as the initial ID. The quality of the initial "enrollment" or "registration" is crucial. Biometric systems are only as good as the initial identification, which in any foreseeable system will be based on exactly the document-based methods of identification upon which biometrics are supposed to be an improvement. A terrorist with a fake passport would be issued a US visa with his own biometric attached to the name on the phony passport. Unless the terrorist A) has already entered his biometrics into the database, and B) has garnered enough suspicion at the border to merit a full database search, biometrics won't stop him at the border.
For instance, when the 9/11 bombers came to this country, they were not on anyone's radar screens that we are aware of. They came here legally and did not appear on anyone's radar screens until it was too late.
Biometric identification is often overkill for the task at hand. It is not necessary to identify a person (and to create a record of their presence at a certain place and time) if all you really want to know is whether they're entitled to do something or be somewhere. When in a bar, customers use IDs to prove they're old enough to drink, not to prove who they are, or to create a record of their presence.
Would requiring people to prove citizenship or legal authorization be better? That would have its own privacy concerns and compliance issues. Another alternative might be to fix the e-verify system and require its use nationally.
Some biometric technologies are discriminatory.A nontrivial percentage of the population cannot present suitable features to participate in certain biometric systems. Many people have fingers that simply do not "print well." Even if people with "bad prints" represent 1% of the population, this would mean massive inconvenience and suspicion for that minority. And scale matters. The INS, for example, handles about 1 billion distinct entries and exits every year. Even a seemingly low error rate of 0.1% means 1 million errors, each of which translates to INS resources lost following a false lead.
This was written in 2003. So have we progressed to the point where we have reduced the error rate? And what are the contingency plans in the event of a false positive in the system?
Biometric systems' accuracy is impossible to assess before deployment Accuracy and error rates published by biometric technology vendors are not trustworthy, as biometric error rates are intrinsically manipulable. Biometric systems fail in two ways: false match (incorrectly matching a subject with someone else's reference sample) and false non-match (failing to match a subject with her own reference sample). There's a trade-off between these two types of error, and biometric systems may be "tuned" to favor one error type over another. When subjected to real-world testing in the proposed operating environment, biometric systems frequently fall short of the performance promised by vendors.
So any Biometric ID system that is passed would have to have independent verification of its accuracy. This is similar to the FDA, which requires independent verification of safety and effectiveness for new drugs on the market.
The cost of failure is high. If you lose a credit card, you can cancel it and get a new one. If you lose a biometric, you've lost it for life. Any biometric system must be built to the highest levels of data security, including transmission that prevents interception, storage that prevents theft, and system-wide architecture to prevent both intrusion and compromise by corrupt or deceitful agents within the organization.
One passage in Revelation is eerily relevant to this discussion. It envisioned a time in which all people were required to receive the Mark of the Beast; all persons who did not do so could not legally buy and sell. If done right, a Biometric ID law would enhance border security and help protect ID's. If done wrong, it could create a nightmare similar to the Great Tribulation of Revelation.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Adam Kokesh Calls for Armed March on Washington on July 4th

Crooks and Liars reports that former Russia Today reporter Adam Kokesh is calling for an armed march to Washington on July 4th. As quoted in the link:
Kokesh is calling for an armed march on Washington, DC. By armed march, I mean a march from Virginia to Washington, DC with at least 1000 marchers carrying loaded rifles. Being the kind of guy that plans for every contingency, he warns that such a march would be intended to be non-violent, unless...  
On the morning of July 4, 2013, Independence Day, we will muster at the National Cemetery & at noon we will step off to march across the Memorial Bridge, down Independence Avenue, around the Capitol, the Supreme Court, & the White House, then peacefully return to Virginia across the Memorial Bridge. This is an act of civil disobedience, not a permitted event. We will march with rifles loaded & slung across our backs to put the government on notice that we will not be intimidated & cower in submission to tyranny. We are marching to mark the high water mark of government & to turn the tide. This will be a non-violent event, unless the government chooses to make it violent. Should we meet physical resistance, we will peacefully turn back, having shown that free people are not welcome in Washington, & returning with the resolve that the politicians, bureaucrats, & enforcers of the federal government will not be welcome in the land of the free.     There's a remote chance that there will be violence as there has been from government before, and I think it should be clear that if anyone involved in this event is approached respectfully by agents of the state, they will submit to arrest without resisting. We are truly saying in the SUBTLEST way possible that we would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.
Yes, Kokesh calls for peaceful retreat with their loaded rifles, but my gut tells me it's not that simple, nor is it so easy to manage a thousand or more "patriots" with their loaded rifles into simply "peacefully turning back."
Kokesh was terminated from Russia Today due to his support of Ron Paul in the last election. The FEC complaint, in part, reads as follows:
The respondent is Russia Today Television Network (RTTV), funded by the government of Russia and registered as a foreign corporation in the US, which provided air time for one of its employees, Adam Kokesh, to promote and raise funds for a 2012 American presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, in apparent violation of the ban on political contributions and expenditures by foreign nationals. Foreign corporations are prohibited from "contributing, donating, or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly," according to the FEC.
The alleged purpose of Kokesh's activities was to "divide and weaken the GOP," making it more likely that Obama would get reelected. People have the Constitutional right to freedom of assembly for peaceful purposes. However, the question is whether or not a reasonable person would interpret Kokesh's actions in that light, given that his marchers will be armed with loaded rifles. Thus it seems as though the government has a compelling public safety interest in stopping the march. All it would take is, out of these 1000 people with no military training, one person to do something wrong and the whole scene would erupt into chaos.
And another question about whether Kokesh's intentions are peaceful was raised by Salon, which reported:
“It’s time to abolish the US federal government,” he tweeted  yesterday [May 2nd]. Today [May 3rd] he tweeted this:     When the government comes to take your guns, you can shoot government agents, or submit to slavery.— Adam Kokesh (@adamkokesh) May 3, 2013
Only Kokesh himself knows the answer to that question.