Thursday, November 7, 2013

Policy-schmolicy... Show me the money!

Last Tuesday was election day in many parts of the country. Right now, you may be celebrating or thumping your head on your desk in disbelief. But were those election results proof that, like it or not, the country favors certain policy positions? Maybe not.

I’m going to list the top two contenders in a variety of races. I’m not going to tell you their views on taxes, guns or abortion.  I won’t say whether they have a position on gay marriage or marijuana. I won’t even tell you to which political party they belong. I’m just giving you their names. Oh and I'll tell you one other thing about them. 

See if you can pick the winner of each race.

Governor of Virginia
Terry McAuliffe—raised $35 million
Ken Cuccinelli—raised $20 million

Lieutenant Governor of Virginia
Ralph Northam—raised $2.3 million
E.W. Jackson—raised $1.2 million

Governor of New Jersey
Chris Christie— spent $11.5 million on TV and radio ads
Barbara Buono—spent $2.1 million on ads

Alabama 1st Congressional District primary
Couldn’t find actual figures for this race, but here's a spending ratio
Bradley Byrne—2
Dean Young—1

Mayor of New York City, New York
Bill de Blasio—$1.4 million in bundled contributions
Joe Lhota—$481,000 in bundled contributions

Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Martin Walsh—raised 1.8 million but got close to $3 million from outside groups
John Connolly—raised 1.9 million, got less than $1 million from outside groups

Mayor of Kentwood, Michigan
Stephen Kepley—raised $33,239 
Sharon Brinks—raised $28,482

If you guessed that the top candidate in each pairing won, you’re right! 

Regardless of the issues, the demographics of the electorate, or the competency of the candidates, the person with more money at his disposal won. Does that sound like your idea of democracy?

It doesn't have to be this way. Groups like Wolf-PAC are working to get a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, forever severing the connection between money and politics. Maybe then, our representatives will actually represent us.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest?

Republican Ken Cuccinelli is running for Governor of Virginia, and it doesn’t look good for him. As of last week, he was trailing his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe by eight points, and that deficit has been steadily increasing. 

You could argue that the good people of Virginia don’t agree that criminalizing sodomy (including for heterosexual couples) should be a top priority. Perhaps they likewise don’t think that God should punish the U.S. for allowing abortion, or that Obamacare should be repealed. They may not want a leader who doesn't accept the science on climate change or one who is against equal rights. And of course, there is the whole Virginia gift scandal, aka bribery problem. But for whatever the reason, Cuccinelli doesn’t look like he’s going to come out on top.

But don't despair, there is one way Cuccinelli could salvage the election, and that is to make sure that as few people as possible cast a vote. Cue the voter suppression. Over the past week, the Republican controlled state Board of Elections has rushed to purge nearly 40,000 voters from the rolls. 

Naturally, the Democrats are fighting this, though without much success. They’ve already lost one court challenge to restore all the purged names to the voter rolls, and the election is only a few weeks away. 

So, who was in charge of defending the disenfranchisement of 40,000 Virginians? Why, that would be the job of the Virginia Attorney General. You may have heard of him. 

His name is Ken Cuccinelli.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Do you believe in paying your bills?

Do you believe in paying your bills? I'm not asking whether you tend to be frugal or lavish with your money. I'm also not asking what kinds of things you think are worth buying. I'm just asking, after you've agreed to buy something, do you think you should have to pay for it?

Well, if you said yes, you agree with me and with the majority of other Americans. Unfortunately, many members of Congress simply don't agree. They are now mourning the fact that they didn't get to turn the United States of America into a country of deadbeats.

So who are these people?

In the Senate, 81/100 people voted to reopen government and pay the bills we already owe. Every Democratic or Independent Senator voted yes.

Eighteen Republicans thought defaulting on our loans and telling the entire world that we're a bunch of losers who can't be trusted would have been just great. One Republican wasn't sure and did not vote.

How about the House? 

There, the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling passed 285 to 144. Who were those 144 people who emphatically stated 'hell no, we don't believe in fiscal responsibility!'  I'll give you a hint. Like in the Senate, all the Democrats voted yes. 

Yup, 144 Republicans voted no, which means that 60% of the Republicans elected to Congress shouldn't be trusted to buy used cars.

Because let's face it, what's less fiscally responsible than refusing to pay your bills?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why should I be mad about the government shutdown?

Why should I be mad that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is in charge of monitoring oil transportation, is shut down? I don’t live near the 16,000 gallon oil spill in Oklahoma
or the 210,00 gallon oil spill in Arkansas 
or the 840,000 gallon spill in North Dakota 
or any of the other spills that occurred this year.

Why should I be mad that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is shut down? Not only do I not live near any oil spills, I also don’t live near any of the 500 toxic waste sites that are no longer getting cleaned.

Why should I be mad that the Veteran's Administration can no longer offer survivor benefits to the family members of people killed in action? I don’t have any family members fighting abroad.

Why should I care if the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are drained? I'm not trying to get into any clinical trials.

Why should I be mad that the Department of the Interior, which maintains the National Parks is closed? I’ve already been to Yellowstone. And Yosemite.

Why should I be mad that supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is suspended? I'm not trying to feed children on a minimum wage salary.

Why should I care if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food inspectors are furloughed? I've never been one of the 48 million Americans who are sickened each year by food-borne illnesses.

Why should I care if the Consumer Product Safety Commission is crippled? I don’t need any toys or car seats.

Why should I care if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is shut down? I don’t live in Tornado Alley or the hurricane prone regions of the country.

Why should I be mad that the National Science Foundation is closed? Other countries will still be able to make medical and technological advances.

Why should I be care if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is shut down? I've never had a problem with a nuclear reactor.

Why should I care if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is shut down? I don’t need to climb any ladders at work.

Why should I care if the Department of Homeland Security is shut down? Or the Department of Justice? Or the Department of Labor? Or NASA? Or any of the dozens of other government agencies that the Republicans have taken from us?

Because I have two things they lack: empathy and forethought. The Republicans who caused this totally unnecessary debacle should try them sometime.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

McDonald’s tries to be helpful

Low wage workers all over the country have been going on strike for better pay and working conditions. Not surprisingly, corporations do not want to give in to those demands. They've come up with a number of arguments for not raising the minimum wage, but McDonald's has provided my favorite so far.

Forbes calculates that a single childless person will net $1,160 per month by working full time at minimum wage ($7.25/hour). That’s with no vacation or sick days (and who are we kidding, these are minimum wage workers after all).  That may not seem like enough money to live on (less than $14,000 per year), which is why fast food workers have been striking for a $15 per hour wage. However, fast food corporations maintain that the wages they currently pay their workers are perfectly adequate. They argue that all their employees need is a proper budget, which the helpful folks at McDonald's have provided.

You can see a sample of their budget below. 

Notice anything striking?  

First, you may observe that the budget starts with the $1,105 you’d earn by working full time at McDonald's. This is about what Forbes calculated you’d net by working a forty hour week. So far so good. Right under that is the line where you can add the income from your second full time job. Yes, McDonald’s cheerfully suggests that you’ll have no trouble making ends meet as long as you follow their budget and work two full time jobs. You’d need to work over seventy hours per week to earn the $2000 a month you'll need to survive on their budget. On the other hand, McDonald's could pay their workers the $15/hour they're asking for.

You may also notice that the budget allows $50/month for heating. And that's on the revised budget. Earlier versions assumed you'd be paying nothing for heating. Just to be clear, this is not the budget for Miami Beach McDonald’s employees. This is for the whole country. Those of you who live in colder climes can judge for yourself whether this seems reasonable. $600 for rent seems optimistically low as well, especially considering that the nationwide average rent in 2012 was over $1000 per month. To avoid going over budget on rent, you’d better hope your McDonald's franchise happens to be located in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Like any good employer, McDonald's offers its employees a choice of health plans. The cheapest possible plan, which covers that employee alone and no family members, is $12.58 per week. That comes to a little over $50 per month. Take another look at the handy budget provided by McDonald's and you'll see that they allot $20 a month for health insurance. Apparently, McDonald's doesn't expect any of their low wage employees to be able to afford the McDonald's health plan. Perhaps the $20/month is intended to go toward replenishing a first aid kit.

So, the budget is a tad unrealistic. You can always rearrange the amounts to suit real life circumstances, right? For example, employees could take money for health insurance out of their monthly food allotment. Oh wait, there is no monthly food allotment. Food, clothing and household items all have to come out of the extra money you’ll save by working two full time jobs and living in a heatless warren over someone’s garage.

At this point, you may be thinking that the people making these low wages are mostly kids living with their parents anyway. They don’t need to buy health insurance or pay rent, they’re just looking for a little extra iTunes cash. Think again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics over 50% of low wage workers are over age 24. Nearly a quarter of low wage earners have children to care for and 10% are single parents. I guess McDonald's believes that it's not all that hard to raise a family on the wages they're willing to pay as long as you're willing to forego luxuries like eating every day or spending time with your kids.

No one is suggesting that learning to budget is not a useful skill, but McDonald's budget is a slap in the face to poor people. They and other companies pay their workers so little that no amount of budgeting or penny pinching will allow them to feed and clothe their children without government assistance, and then those companies pretend that the problem lies with those employees.

Finally, even if you have no sympathy for American workers, think about this. Do you really want your food prepared by exhausted discouraged people in poor health with nothing to lose? I thought not.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

What’s the matter with North Carolina?

North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature has been extremely busy this year, and not in a good way. Here’s what the representatives of that fine state are serving up for their constituents.

Voter Suppression:
The Supreme Court recently gutted the historic Voting Rights Act (see my post for background on the Voting Rights Act and the scope of that Supreme Court decision).

As everyone except five of the Justices foresaw (and that’s giving them more credit than they perhaps deserve), immediately after the ruling, states began flagrantly changing their voting laws. Not to be outdone, North Carolina passed a whole slew of ‘reforms’ intended to make voting more difficult.

Why do I make that claim? Judge for yourself. To begin with, North Carolina enacted strict photo ID laws which may keep over 300,000 eligible citizens from voting. These laws are designed to prevent in-person voter fraud and work on the same principle that enables my wind charms to repel leprechauns. 

Keep in mind that not just any photo ID is acceptable for voting in North Carolina. You can only use a driver’s license, a passport, military or veteran’s ID or a tribal card. No student ID cards. This will make it much harder for students to vote, but Republicans believe that preventing a largely Democratic demographic from voting is a small price to pay to remove the nonexistent threat of in-person voter fraud. 

Don’t think photo ID requirements are the only obstacles put in the path of North Carolinian voters. The Young Turks gives a great run down of what’s been passed in that state. The first minute has the list of changes, the rest is explanation and discussion.

As you can see, between making it harder to register to vote, curtailing early voting, and allowing more intimidation at the polls, the North Carolina legislators are doing everything they can to ensure that as few people as possible cast a vote.

I just want to comment on one new provision. Before this bill, if there were long lines at a polling place, that precinct could be kept open until everyone who was already in line had voted. No more. Now, if you haven’t made it to the ballot box by the time the polls close, you’re out of luck. This is not an unlikely scenario, by the way. During the last election, there were some very long lines to vote. 

Poll waiting times

2012 Presidential Election wait times

Note that these are just median wait times, meaning half the people waited longer, sometimes much longer. How hard do you think it’s going to be for North Carolina to orchestrate the distribution of their polling places so that people only end up getting shut out in Democratic leaning areas?

Closing polling places exactly on time won’t disenfranchise nearly as many people as some of the other changes will, but it goes to the core of this entire legislative package. There is no reason to close polling places in people's faces, or to cut down on early voting, or to eliminate registration drives in schools except to be malicious and to hope that you can prevent people from voting.

Anti-gun control laws:
Congratulations, North Carolinians. You can now bring your loaded weapons not only onto colleges and universities, but also children’s playgrounds, as long as you keep them locked in your car. You can also bring guns into bars and restaurants (though owner’s are allowed to forbid this if they choose). Cities, townships or other subdivisions are prohibited from passing new rules or regulations about concealed carry.

It’s not a free for all over there though. It’s still illegal to bring a gun into the Governor’s mansion, State Capitol or Courts of Justice.  How nice for North Carolina's officials. I’m sure that’s a relief to parents. The creepy guy watching their kids at the playground may only be a few feet away from the gun in his car, but at least the Governor is safe.

Abortion restrictions:
We can’t close without talking about abortion. North Carolina recently passed a motorcycle safety bill. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with abortion. Obviously, motorcycle safety has nothing to with abortion (one hopes). That didn’t stop North Carolina’s legislators from including the following provisions:

  • Insurance plans participating in the new Health Insurance Exchanges cannot pay for abortions (which is interesting because North Carolina is one of the many states refusing to participate in those Exchanges anyway).
  • A doctor has to inform the woman that she’ll be having an abortion 24 hours before she can have the procedure. Just to make sure she clearly understands why she's there.
  • A doctor has to be present during the abortion, even if it consists of handing the woman a couple of pills. 
  • Perhaps most insidious, the bill includes TRAP laws designed to force abortion clinics to close.

A little less than one page about motorcycles was tacked onto the end of this five page bill. Democratic State Rep. and motorcyclist Beverly Earle commented:
I want to let my motorcycle buddies know when I vote against this, it’s not because I don’t care about their safety.
North Carolina already has a law requiring women to have medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds. It was part of North Carolina's 2011 Women's Right to Know Act. I guess women in North Carolina have the right to know that their male GOP legislators don't think they should be able to decide what goes into their bodies.

To sum up, North Carolina has passed a trifecta of bills designed to make its citizens much less safe and much less able to complain about it at the polls. However, these gross violations of the public trust have not been lost on North Carolinians, who have been participating in ‘Moral Monday’ protests organized by NAACP President Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, since April 29th. Each week, citizens gather to protest a particular North Carolina bill and they won’t be running out of things to protest any time soon. The 13th Moral Monday of the year will be held tomorrow.

Moral Monday 13 flyer

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Good news about Obamacare

The latest news about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is that it might actually be even more affordable than we thought. To be fair, many of the provisions in Obamacare haven’t kicked in yet and until they do, the impacts of those laws are mainly speculative. However, one key aspect, the Health Insurance Exchanges, are just coming into fruition and the news is very good.

Health Insurance Exchangesor Marketplaces, give individuals and small business owners options for picking from a pool of health insurance plans. In coming years, states must either offer their own Health Insurance Exchange or allow the federal government to offer one in their stead. There were fears that insurance costs would skyrocket once states were forced to offer these plans. Not so much.

It’s hard to compare rates across states, especially since these plans aren't even available in most places yet (and different states have different metrics for explaining costs), but here’s what New York, Colorado and California are expecting to see.

In Colorado, about a dozen insurance companies will offer over 200 different health care plans. As an example, a 27 year old living in Denver would pay between $200-$375 per month for a‘silver level’ plan (about 70% of health costs are covered). A family plan (2 adults and two minor children) would cost between $700-$1360 per month. That doesn't sound that great, does it? However, those are the unsubsidized prices. People who make up to 400% of the federal poverty level will qualify for subsidized coverage. So, if our 27 year old were only making $25,000 per year, he or she could knock $158 off that price. A family of four making $80,000 per year would get a monthly credit of $539 toward their family insurance plan. Suddenly, these plans are looking extremely affordable for most people.

In California, our hypothetical 27 year old will pay about $150/month and our family of four will pay $633/month for health insurance.

Finally, New York just announced that individuals and families could expect to cut their insurance costs in half once their exchanges start operating next year.

To put all this in perspective, in 2010, the average monthly insurance cost for a family was over a $1000

I should also note that these prices are for people who can't get insurance through their jobs or through Medicare or Medicaid. To make insurance affordable to the poorest citizens, Obamacare also provides a provision to expand Medicaid to everyone making up to 133% of the federal poverty line. The Rand Corporation estimates that if all 50 states adopt this change it will save them a cumulative $18 billion per year.

There are hundreds of provisions in Obamacare. Some that have already gone into effect include free cancer and diabetes screenings, blood tests, prenatal care and well-baby visits. Young adults can stay on a parent’s insurance plan until they're 26, even if they're married. An estimated 3 million young people between the ages of 19 and 25 have gained health insurance thanks to Obamacare.

Perhaps most importantly, you can no longer be denied coverage for having a pre-existing condition. Not only does this give people options for getting health insurance for the first time, but it also frees people from being trapped in jobs they may not like. What do I mean by this?

Suppose you work at a company that provides health insurance and you develop a heart problem. Try as it might, your insurance company can’t quite declare your new condition to be ‘pre-existing’ so you get treatment. Now let’s say you’d prefer to leave this company. Perhaps you’re exposed to dangerous or unpleasant work conditions, or you don’t like the pay, or you just want to try something else for a change. Can you leave and get another job? Before Obamacare, the answer was most likely no. You would have been trapped at that company by your need for health insurance. The same is true if it's your spouse or your child who has a pre-existing condition. Thanks to Obamacare, it's much easier for people to contemplate changing jobs if they want to.

Don't get too excited about these changes yet though. The Republican party is doing everything in its power to see that Obamacare is repealed, or at the very least, postponed. House Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare over three dozen times in the past few years. Since some of the provisions are not set to become law until 2022, it will take a rather extraordinary run of good luck for the entire plan to be implemented, and even then it might not be available in all states. 

As of now, 27 states are refusing to offer the insurance exchanges, all but one of them (Montana) run by a Republican governor. And this is true even though the federal government is offering grants to help states plan and implement the changes. Fourteen states are currently refusing to expand Medicaid and several more might refuse, even though they'll lose over $8 billion in federal funding and leave 3.6 million Americans uninsured by doing so. Guess which party governs those states.

Elections have consequences. This is yet another thing to keep in mind next time you go to the polls.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Voting rights and the prison system

In my last post, I wrote about the Voting Rights Act and the way it is supposed to prevent disenfranchisement. Turns out you don’t need to require picture IDs or restrict polling hours to take away people’s vote. You can let the prison system do it for you.

Right now, twelve states permanently disenfranchise people who are convicted of a felony. In 19 more states, you lose your right to vote during not only your incarceration, but also during any parole or probationary period as well. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) allow felons to vote by absentee ballot while in jail. This means that if you want to limit voting in a certain demographic, you can’t do better than to ensure that large numbers of that group end up in jail. And that’s exactly what some states are doing.

In 2010, 7.7% of African American citizens could not vote in the U.S. due to a felony conviction. In Florida, 10.4% of all potential voters and 23.3% of African Americans were permanently disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. That’s stunning! Nearly a quarter of the African Americans who live in Florida will never be able to vote.

Okay, so black people who are convicted of crimes lose their right to vote. That doesn’t mean there’s any racism involved, does it? I mean, the same laws apply to everyone, right? You know where this is going.

Take a look at the following two charts. The first is marijuana usage:


And the second is the arrest rate for using marijuana.


Notice anything striking? 

There are far too many other examples of overt racism in the justice system to mention them all, so I’m just going to highlight two more.

In New York City, thanks to the Stop-and-Frisk program, a police officer who reasonably suspects a person can stop that person, question him and even search him. Stop-and-Frisk may soon be overturned in the courts due to a class action lawsuit citing racial profiling. Let’s see if the racial profiling argument has any merit.

In 2012, NYC police used Stop-and-Frisk over 500,000 times. 89% of the people they stopped were innocent of any wrongdoing. Of the people stopped, 55% were black, 32% were Latino and 10% were white. To put this in perspective, in 2010, 33.3% of NYC residents were white, 25.5% were black and 23.6% were Hispanic. This means that while blacks only make up about a quarter of the population, more than half the people stopped by police were black. I just showed you the marijuana usage rates comparing blacks and whites. Does it make sense that five times as many black people were up to no good as white people? If you selectively pick on and screen minorities, you’re going to end up convicting mostly minorities.

Finally, let’s talk about Stand-Your-Ground (SYG) laws. In essence, these laws remove a person’s ‘duty to retreat’. If you’re in a potentially dangerous situation and you can defuse it by safely removing yourself, you normally have a duty to do so. With SYG, a person is no longer required to retreat from a situation even if doing so would have prevented bodily harm. I think SYG is a terrible idea that gives bullies and would-be vigilantes free reign to pick fights and then kill people, but that’s not the point I want to make here. The question is whether there’s a racist element in SYG. One more graph for you guys showing how likely a killing is to be found justifiable.


Minorities, and in particular blacks, are much more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be convicted, and face longer prison sentences than whites. As a consequence, they are much more likely to be stripped of their voting rights. If that wasn't the plan all along, it's certainly working out that way.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Voting Rights Act, it's been nice knowing you

The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to eviscerate a crucial part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The VRA was renewed four times in 1970, 1975, 1982 and most recently in 2006 when it passed the House of Representatives 390-33 and the Senate 98-0. Yet, our Supreme Court saw fit to strip it away. You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it was a terrible decision.

First, some background. Prior to the VRA, states could and did enact a variety of discriminatory tactics such as imposing poll taxes or literacy tests. In case you think a literacy test is a reasonable requirement for a voter, here are some examples of tests administered selectively to black applicants in Alabama.

  • Naming all sixty-seven county judges in the state.
  • Naming the date on which Oklahoma was admitted to the Union (remember this test was for Alabama residents).
  • Declaring how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.

The VRA prohibited these kinds of schemes. 

So what exactly did the Supreme Court decide? Their ruling was actually devastatingly pointed, eliminating only one critical section of the VRA.

Section 4 of the VRA provides a formula for deciding which regions of the country require closer scrutiny when it comes to election laws. Districts with a history of discriminatory voting practices are put on a list. Section 5 of the VRA states that any districts that fall under Section 4 jurisdiction cannot change their voting laws without pre-clearance from the U.S. District Court. If a state fitting the Section 4 criteria wanted to suspend early voting, require voter ID or change voting districts, they had to submit those changes for Federal approval before enacting them.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4, claiming that the rules for determining which counties are subject to preclearance were outdated. Note that Section 5 still holds. That is, there is still a provision for requiring some counties to get pre-clearance before changing their election laws, it’s just that there are currently no counties on that list. Of course, Congress could easily fix this problem. They just need to pass new laws establishing which regions should have pre-clearance. Laugh along with me.

Here’s a little sample of the ‘logic’ the five Justices (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) used to overturn Section 4.

Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, “[v]oter turnout and registration rates” in covered jurisdictions “now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years

This reminds me of Rand Paul claiming that we no longer need a Clean Air Act because, thanks to that Act, the air is now clean.

Leaving aside the ridiculousness of the argument, were the Justices correct in stating that “40 year-old facts [have] no logical relationship to the present day"? Tell that to the states chomping at the bit to push through new voting laws. As of last month, six states required photo ID to vote. Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, that number will double by 2014.

Like literacy tests, requiring ID to vote doesn’t sound that bad until you dig a little deeper. Let's look at an example.

The day of the Supreme Court ruling, Texas announced that they would immediately pass the voter ID requirements that had previously been stalled by the VRA. Among the acceptable types of ID are driver's licenses, passports, personal ID cards, election certificates and even handgun licenses, if issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), but not school or college ID.

Two things about this. First, while a non-driving voter ID card is often free, the certificates you'll need to get that ID are not free. Driver’s licenses, birth certificates and passports all cost money. Just to be clear, it is still illegal to impose a poll tax on prospective voters.

Second, the people needing these voter IDs do not have driver's licenses and presumably cannot drive. They have to find a way to get to an office that might be many miles away and is only open weekdays from 8-5Even collecting the paperwork required to get a voter ID can be a quagmire. Before the 1970s, many rural people were born at home with the assistance of a midwife who didn’t issue a complete (or sometimes any) birth certificate. Sorting issues like this out can take a lot of time and visits to many far flung offices.

But really, how many people could voter ID laws impact? Doesn’t nearly everyone have some type of acceptable ID? I'm glad you asked.

According to the ACLU

  • 11% of US citizens – or more than 21 million Americans -- do not have government-issued photo identification.
  • As many as 25% of African American citizens of voting age do not have a government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of their white counterparts.
  • 18% of Americans over the age of 65 (or 6 million senior citizens) do not have a government-issued photo ID.

In Texas, nearly 800,000 registered voters do not have a valid driver's license, 38% of them Hispanic. 

By the way, in case anyone was laboring under the delusion that these laws, while unfair, do serve a purpose, consider the results of recent study:

In-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent. Only 10 such cases over more than a decade were reported.

In Texas alone, 800,000 people could be disenfranchised to prevent imaginary crimes.

Requiring voter ID is just one type of discriminatory tactic that states with Republican legislators and governors are jumping to enact. States can and do redraw voting districts to favor one party, decrease or eliminate early or extended voting opportunities, reduce the number of polling places in minority districts in the hopes that long lines will discourage voters, and make it harder to register new voters. All of these practices were subject to VRA pre-clearance rules before the Supreme Court's ruling.

Thanks to our Supreme Court, it's now open season on voting rights.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yes, women are paid less than men

To begin with, let's dispense with the idea that we no longer have income inequality in the U.S. I know, you're thinking, surely women aren't still being paid less than men for doing the same job! After all, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law 50 years ago. Problem solved, right?

If you think so, take a look at this 2009 graph from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

No matter how you break it down (by ethnicity, education level, type of job, etc.), men make more than women. On average, women make 77 cents per every dollar earned by men based on annual earnings and 81 cents per dollar based on weekly earnings.

That's because it has been next to impossible to enforce the Equal Pay Act and a recent Supreme Court decision has made it all the harder.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. In that case, a female supervisor (Lily Ledbetter) complained that she was being paid less than men for doing the same job (she was also being sexually harassed, but leave that aside). The court ruled that she had brought her suit too late. She should have complained within 180 days of receiving her first unfair paycheck. Never mind that the employees in her company were forbidden from discussing, let alone comparing their wages. According to the Court, by the time Ledbetter discovered that she’d been discriminated against, it was too late to sue. They reached this decision despite the fact that she was still being paid less than men at the time of her lawsuit!

Things improved slightly in 2009, when President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Among its provisions, it resets the 180 day filing limit with each discriminatory paycheck, not just the very first one. This means that, going forward, women may have an easier time suing if they find out they’ve been discriminated against. Further attempts to equalize pay have fallen flat. In the past few months, the Paycheck Fairness Act was killed in the U.S. House of Representatives and Governor Rick Perry vetoed the Texas version of the Lily Ledbetter Act.

So we've established that women are paid less than men and that this isn't likely to change anytime soon. Now for the fun part where I get to speculate on why income inequality persists. 

You may be surprised to learn that I don't think this discrimination is entirely due to any specific animus against women. I think companies will gladly pay anyone as little as they can and women in our society simply have less power than men do. This is corroborated by the fact that minorities also make less than white people. In other words, it’s nothing personal, companies just take whatever advantages they can. 

It is specifically against women in that little girls are often discouraged from pursuing higher paying technology and engineering jobs. Even worse, adult women are often overlooked for managerial and executive positions. This perpetuates the lack of power women have to fix the system. 

Since people don’t like to admit that our culture systematically preys on the weak, they come up with excuses for why women get paid less than men. Here are a couple of them.
  • Women in their childbearing years are more likely to leave the workforce. Companies that go to great lengths to train employees for specific jobs don’t want that time and money to go to waste on employees who may leave soon after completing their training. 
There are two problems with this argument. First, while this may be an argument against hiring certain people, it isn’t a reason for discriminating against people who already have the job. No one is suggesting that a woman who works part time earn as much as man working full time. We’re talking about people doing the exact same job, but receiving less pay depending on their chromosomes. 

Second, and more importantly, it isn’t even true. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, men and women change jobs at roughly the same high rate. 
Individuals born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 11.3 jobs from ages 18 to 46 (a job is defined as an uninterrupted period of work with a particular employer).
On average, men held 11.5 jobs, and women held 11.1 jobs from age 18 to age 46.

So, the idea that women are more likely to leave employers in the lurch is unfounded. Men may not be leaving for the same reasons as women, but that shouldn't make any difference to an employer.
  • As secondary wage earners, women don’t need the money as much as men do. 
Again, not true. In 40% of households with children, women are the sole or primary breadwinners. 63% of these families are run by single mothers. Contrary to popular mythology, women aren’t earning a little extra on the side, they are responsible for financially supporting their families. Not only are women doing the same jobs as men, but they are using their incomes for the same purposes. 

There really aren’t any rational reasons for paying some people less than others. The simple truth is that this kind of discrimination continues to happen because it can. Employers will get away with as much as we let them. How long that remains true may depend on who we elect to represent us and to fill our courts in the coming years.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lucky for you, the U.S. is not a Christian nation

In the United States, we’re supposed to have a strict separation of Church and state.  Our founding fathers specifically established our country as a secular nation that was neutral on religion. The very first part of the first amendment reads, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ No where else in the Constitution (our system of laws) is religion mentioned (artfully crafted messages to King George don’t count).

In other words, the government is not allowed to tell us how or when to worship.

Nonetheless, some people wish the United States were not a secular nation. They’d like the U.S. to adopt a national religion, which they think will be theirs. I say, let’s play along. 

If we’re going to establish a state religion, the obvious question is: which religion should it be? Traditionally, that answer was ‘whatever the leader’s religion happens to be’. However, we live in a democracy so perhaps it should be majority rule. Fair enough.

At first glance, it may seem as if the majority of citizens would welcome the United States officially adopting the Christian religion. According to the latest data by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that group makes up 78% of the populace, if you count all Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and their offshoots. However, the dissimilarities between those groups is so great that it would be meaningless to lump them together. We're going to have to be a little more specific if we expect our citizens to follow any particular set of laws. 

Within Christianity, the largest religious affiliation is Protestant (44%). Great, we’re all Protestants. Of course, different Protestant denominations have quite different rules. I mean, do we all have to speak in tongues like the Pentecostals? Can we not go to the doctor like Christian Scientists? Do we have to be pacifists like Quakers? Or what about one of the other two dozen Protestant denominations? They disagree on some pretty fundamental things, like whether gay people can be ministers, whether you can shop on Sunday and whether your faith requires you to handle venomous snakes. Maybe we need to look at the biggest subgroup within Protestantism and go with that. That means we all get to be Baptists (11%). I hope nobody minds that we will no longer be baptizing infants.

Except, hold on a minute, if we’re no longer considering all Protestants as one block, that gives Catholics (24%) a considerable lead. In fact, even the unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic and ‘nothing in particular’-16%) outnumber the Baptists. Since we said we’d go with majority rule, I guess the United States will be a Catholic country. Evolution and cosmology are in, contraceptives and divorce are out. 

The 76% of the country who aren’t Catholic probably aren’t going to be too happy about this, and I suspect that a fair number of people who are Catholic won’t be that excited about it either, once the government starts enforcing Catholic dogma. But there’s one thing I do know. Religious people will find the new regime a lot more oppressive than we atheists will. 

Don’t forget, once the government establishes a religion, all citizens would be expected to follow that religion. If that’s not the one that you happen to adhere to, you could be in big trouble. Face the consequences of the state for failing to obey their religious laws, or face the consequences set forth by your particular religion.

Even if we went with majority rule, at least three quarters of the country would be deeply unhappy with any particular set of enforced dogma. The fact that there are so many factions within each denomination (which I didn’t even address) suggests that only a tiny minority of people would actually agree with any particular state religion.

As an atheist, I may consider being forced to attend Mass to be a nuisance and a waste of time, but I won’t lose any sleep over it. Depending on the penalties, I may even choose to lie and pretend that I find the rituals meaningful. Again, it’s no more than an annoyance to me. If you’re forced to practice a religion that you strongly believe will result in divine retribution against you or your loved ones, can you say the same?

The great thing is that, thanks to the wisdom of our founding fathers, we don’t have to have these battles of conscience. As long as the government is secular, we can all practice our own religions as we see fit. Once again, neutrality means we all win.