Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Advice To Zimmerman If Texas Beckons


George?  Is this the same George Zimmerman from that nasty Florida case?

Well, what a coincidence.

News is starting to spread here in north Texas that you were stopped for speeding Sunday on Highway 80 in Forney, just east of Dallas.  Now, George, "Highway 80" is the name of the road, not the speed limit, OK?

We do have some mighty high speed limits here in Texas, but ain't none of them around the Dallas area.

You were driving a gray Honda pickup truck that a dispatcher confirmed is your personal vehicle.  And you notified the cop who pulled you over that you were traveling with a gun in the glove compartment.

That wouldn't be the same personal vehicle you were driving that night you spotted Trayvon Martin, is it?  And that's not the gun you, um, shot him with, is it?

I know you're probably sick and tired of having people ask you about Trayvon Martin, but I also know you've admitted to the media that you're going to have to live with that teenager for the rest of your life, considering what you did to him, and how our nation has reacted.

And I can understand that maybe you've come to Texas - or were at least driving through our big state - in an effort to put some geographic space between that tragedy and your future.  If you are thinking of making a life for yourself here in north Texas, the welcome you received from the cop - who let you off with just a warming - may not be reflective of how everybody here thinks about you.  But the odds that it's shared by more people than not are probably higher here than in other parts of the country.

It's pretty obvious - at least to me - from the video of your traffic stop that the cop was on good behavior when he pulled you over, and then when he realized who you were, he realized he needed to be on his absolute best behavior.  At that moment, when you prompted his recognition of your name and face, he probably figured that some time soon, the dashcam video he knew was rolling in his squad car would be all over the Internet.  And he was right.

Yeah, a lot of folks here in Texas are likely willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and it's not simply because we're white, and you're half-Hispanic.  Not everything is about race, after all... but have you seen the dashcam video?  When the cop gets in his squad car, he describes you to the dispatcher as a white male.  I wonder if that was a Freudian slip on his part?  A copy of that cop's report on your traffic stop is now online, too, and according to your Florida drivers license, you're listed as a white male.  Who'd have thought such an innocuous notation would contribute to the racist vitriol now associated with your name?

Anyway, like I was saying, if you're scouting out possible places to re-establish your life here in north Texas, you'll probably find that our heat is somewhat similar to Florida's, although not as humid.  It's been pretty humid here so far this summer, but that's only because we've had an unusually decent amount of rain.  This year, things are mostly still green, too, which usually, by the end of July, isn't the case.

During this past year, we've heard over the news practically everything there is to know about you.  Then again, I doubt there's anyplace in America where you could find a community that doesn't know all of that stuff.  Here in north Texas, we've got a huge population spread out over a considerable chunk of prairieland, which may make it easier for you to both blend in, yet find a bit of privacy.  I don't imagine you're terribly wealthy, after having to pay for all those lawyers, and I'm not certain about your marital status, and shucks - I said I know a lot about you, but I don't even know if you have any kids!  You don't, do you?  That could make your house-hunting even easier, since you wouldn't have to consider school districts, which tends to complicate things, the bigger the city.

No matter where you go in north Texas, to rich white neighborhoods or minority ghettos, you're bound to find some rednecks with some pretty racist attitudes, and that may or may not be OK with you.  I hope it's not.  You'll also find that a lot of us aren't convinced one way or the other about the racial profiling some people insist you perpetrated against Trayvon.  Since I'm white, I can't say any police department here has ever profiled me - except to look at me as a white male, and maybe assume that my skin color is sufficient proof that I'm not about to commit a crime.  But we've had accusations of racial profiling here, and like yours, they've not been clear-cut.  So in terms of keeping a low profile, I highly recommend you do that, even here in north Texas.

I'd also recommend that if you really are a bigot at heart, you just keep on driving, clear on outta town.  Just because people like me are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt after your jury trial doesn't mean we're going to stand by and let you prove us wrong.

If, however, you want to make amends somehow, and even reach out to the black community - something that might be nearly impossible for you to do in the racist climate of Orlando, I'd like to think north Texas is as good a laboratory for racial dialog as anyplace else.  Unfortunately, we have an ugly history of racial segregation here, and even considerable parts of both Dallas and Fort Worth are defined more by skin color than anything else.  Well - I guess they can also be defined by the amount of wealth people have, but it gets complex quickly when you realize that our wealthy neighborhoods are pretty white, while our ghettos are mostly black and Hispanic.  Our middle-class neighborhoods are becoming quite mixed, though, and since that's probably what fits your budget, you'll have a decent selection to choose from.  East Dallas, the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, parts of Arlington, Irving, the Mid-Cities, north Fort Worth, Carrollton, and Mesquite would make good places to begin your housing search.

Shucks, even Forney, where you were pulled over, might be a good fit for you, but I personally view towns in our exurbs with muted affinity, since I'm not a fan of sprawl.  Of course, a lot of it depends on if you're looking for a job here, and where that job is located.  The further out and away you are from the central parts of our Metroplex - what we call this metropolitan area of Dallas and Fort Worth - the longer your commute.  And while our gas prices are probably cheaper here than in Florida, rush hour traffic can be a nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, the worst of yours is hopefully over, but it could come back with a vengeance if you abuse our relatively liberal gun laws here in the Lone Star State.  When the cop warned you about playing with your gun during the traffic stop, he was serious.  We're big on concealed-and-carry here, and hunting is as big a sport as football, which is saying something.  But gun safety and responsible gun ownership are huge deals to most Texas gun owners, because they don't want to give any gun-control advocates a reason to clamp down here like they have in other parts of the country.

Obey the law, and you'll be fine.  Of course, that's pretty much the way it is anyplace, but at least, here in north Texas, if you're trying to turn over a new leaf, or simply fade into the woodwork, even people who despise the George Zimmerman the media has told them about may change their tune if the person they see in you isn't the person they saw on television.

Our winters will be a whole lot more brutal than any you've experienced in Florida, 'cause some of them arctic blasts from Canada can blow through here like you wouldn't believe.

Oh - and one other thing.  If you're going to move to north Texas, driving a pickup truck is a good thing.  But you won't build much credibility by driving that gray thing you got pulled over in.  Trucks in Texas basically consist of the Ford, Dodge, or Chevy variety - not a Honda.

After all, you've got your reputation to consider.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Floating Eminent Domain for Underwater Domains

You only thought the mortgage meltdown was behind us.

Turns out, now some municipal bureaucrats have cooked up another way to cook the mortgage books.  And they're winning converts to their scheme thanks to pervasive, persistent, and populist anger towards banks.  Banks and other financial players that helped perpetrate the greed that turned up the heat on flimsy mortgages to begin with.

This time, banks are the ones balking at the new mortgage math, as cities try to salvage entire neighborhoods where residents are underwater, and hanging out to dry.  Basically, some mayors want to use the highly controversial tactic of eminent domain to seize homes that have drastically dropped in value, and re-sell them to the same home buyer, but at a price reflective of the city's new economic reality.  It's hoped that erasing the debt between what was paid for the house and what it's now worth will help encourage home buyers to stay and work on paying off their (new) loan.

In other words, home buyers who can't afford their current mortgage, and whose home's value has dropped below what they still owe on it, may be able to have their city sever their mortgage contract through eminent domain and basically write up a new deed of sale.  Along the way, what's considered an inflated dollar value for the house magically disappears!  Cities in California, Washington, New Jersey, and Nevada are considering such an unprecedented use of eminent domain with the hope that wiping out a lot of "bad" debt can help stabilize neighborhoods where foreclosures and abandoned homes are a blight on the community.

The only problem with this scheme is that, in a mortgage, money just doesn't disappear, does it?  Robert Hockett, a law professor at Cornell University, has written an article for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on the use of eminent domain to invalidate mortgages, and its title is "Paying Paul and Robbing No One."  But that's not true, is it?  If somebody loaned X amount to a home buyer, that amount can't get renegotiated to a lower amount without somebody losing money.  And since many people, particularly in areas of the country that have been hit particularly hard by the mortgage meltdown, believe financial institutions bear the responsibility for selling home buyers houses they couldn't afford, it's the financial institutions that should bear the loss.  Having it all sound like a community improvement plan helps make it less irresponsible an idea than it is.  For his part, Hockett, who champions the idea mercilessly, is convinced that it's all perfectly legal, that the ends justify the means, and that banks should even be glad somebody wants to take sub-prime loans with a high probability of default off of their hands.

Of course, pulling the rug out from underneath banks and mortgage servicers by such an unconventional use of such a powerful tool as eminent domain is doing nothing to reassure the financial services industry of these cities' respect for basic contracts.  If a municipality is willing to treat something like a mortgage so cavalierly, why should any bank write mortgages for anybody in that town?  Or indeed, even as banks have been jolted by Detroit's bankruptcy filing, might a city's future ability to borrow be compromised if commitments can be voided so blithely?

Eminent domain, of course, is bad enough when used to condemn private land for a stadium, or a roadway, or an airport.  But usually, some shared benefit for the public at large can be found in what otherwise would be considered a brazen land grab.  Plus, with eminent domain, fair market value is paid to the holdout landowner, and that value pushes the upper reaches of what's reasonable to expect for the property.

And that's the catch with this new trick.  With property values tanking after 2008 and the commencement of our Great Recession, it's the fair market value that's complicating this issue, both for whatever company holds a property's mortgage, and the people who are supposed to be paying it off.  Unfortunately for many home buyers in places like California and Nevada, they paid inflated prices for negligible domiciles through sketchy mortgage contracts infused with extra fees, variable rates, and balloon payments.  Now those inflated prices have deflated, leaving home buyers "underwater" in their mortgages.

Advocates for distressed homeowners say that many of them were sold mortgages they didn't understand.  Or they were bedazzled by brokers banking on the borrower's gullibility, and are now holding the bag for - in many cases - hundreds of thousands of dollars in value that has evaporated from their purchase.

Why blame home buyers for paying too much for these homes?  Why blame them for the housing bubble?  Why let entire neighborhoods suffer for the financial shenanigans of shifty bankers?

America's mortgage meltdown had several causes, some of which are better understood than others, but all of which point to unreal expectations by home buyers, sellers, and their agents.  People abandoned common sense and bought more home than they could afford.  Speculators greedily snapped up properties only to hold them until they could be re-sold at a profit, thereby shrinking the market of homes for genuine buyers of limited means, and artificially inflating home values.  Unconfirmed reports of the federal government trying to move residents out of rapidly-deteriorating public housing complexes led to suspicions that Washington pressured banks to loosen lending restrictions to working-class minorities so they'd be able to move out and up from their starter homes - to make way for the folks from public housing (who'd be resettled with Section 8 vouchers).  Banks discovered that they could bundle sub-prime mortgages and sell them off to greedy investors who wouldn't even bother to read the fine print.  Home buyers would eventually learn that they had no idea who held their mortgage anymore, since it had been bundled and sold off so many times.

What some municipalities want to do now is go in and restore some sanity that was missing during the build-up to the housing bubble's pop.  And yes, on one level, it's easy to feel sorry for people who overbought, overpromised, overdreamed, and are now facing crippling financial problems.  It's easy to understand how municipalities want to preserve neighborhoods, and keep home buyers from struggling in the face of massive debts, or simply walking away, and leaving houses to languish.

But between what a distressed home buyer paid for their house, no matter how unfair or unrealistic a price it was, and what it's worth today, there lies money some lending institution somewhere paid out.  And that's a debt that somebody needs to pay.  Can it simply be written off, or walked away from?  Let's assume that banks and their lending practices were entirely predatory, racist, and even criminal.  Why hasn't anybody been arrested, tried, and convicted of any of those crimes?  Banks have been fined, yes, but isn't it uncanny how those fines have been political stage dressing instead of raw trials in a court of law?

Our mortgage meltdown should be serving as a warning for future home buyers that the financial services industry is not on their side.  They're going to tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to know.  And, guess what?  It also reminds us that a lot of inequity flourishes in this life.  And, too, that some cities are simply more expensive than others, for a whole host of reasons that have little to do with mortgage brokers and big bad banks.  Maybe moving on up in the American dream of homeownership is going to be much more difficult in some cities than others.

Of course, it's all too little to late for many home buyers, according to advocates of using eminent domain to fight inflated mortgages.  But isn't the growing trend of ignoring contracts and belittling one's financial obligations becoming a bit worrisome?  If you're one of those people lamenting the loss of those days when a humble handshake could seal a deal, imagine what today's global banks are worrying about with their databases of mortgages coming up for possible deletion!  It's kind of like trickle-down economics in the era of government bailouts; a politically-savvy way to try and find the biggest entity that can absorb the fiscal mistakes a smaller entity can't.  It worked for the automakers and big banks; now it's the individual homeowner's turn.  And this time, individual homeowners can have their revenge on those big bad banks.

No matter where you live, the fair market value of your home in 2007 likely wasn't what its fair market value is in 2013.  Sometimes values increase, and in rare instances, they sometimes decrease.  For people whose homes shot up in value leading up to the mortgage meltdown, did their lenders come knocking on their door, demanding a cut of their home's appreciation?  What's different, now that appreciations have turned into massive depreciations, other than the fact that for home buyers, financial accountability has also turned from a profit to a liability?

One thing that hasn't changed is this:  two wrongs never make a right.  Even when you want your house to stay your home.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Who's Your Daddy? Charity as Imagination

Brother, can you spare $316 billion?

They say charity begins at home.  And for proof, just ask Warren Buffett's three children, who between them, are in the process of setting up charities to give away just about all of the legendary multibillionaire's wealth.

The $316 billion figure represents the amount of money all Americans gave to charitable causes in 2012, which makes philanthropy a booming industry in its own right, employing an estimated 9.4 million altruists.  Almost one third of that figure was given to religious institutions, and represents more than double the amount given to the next closest category, which was education.

And no, that's not mostly Buffett money, either!  While "the Oracle of Omaha" may be worth a reputed $53 billion, and has announced plans to redistribute that money to causes he cares about, that redistribution is actually being done in dribs and drabs.  For example, Warren has so far pledged roughly $2 billion in stock to his son, Peter, and Peter's wife, who started the NoVo Foundation.  However, only a relative trickle of five percent of the stock per year is donated to NoVo to be cashed in.  And, while $100 million annually is a generous gift by any measure, compared to his many billions, though, it's easy to see that ol' Pops isn't letting go of his wealth - or the power it affords him - very quickly.

Still, 100 million smackers every year puts Peter and his wife in a rarefied orbit, and has emboldened him to pen an op-ed for the New York Times giving us a peek inside the world of mega-philanthropy.  It's a world where power brokers like his dad talk in terms of global solutions, strategic planning, and, as Peter wryly says, "philanthropic colonialism."  Basically, it's where a bunch of privileged people who've basically earned their money through various forms of subjugating and exploiting other people and resources figure they know best about how to restore a bit of dignity and empowerment to those they've left behind.

To a hard-core right-wing audience, Peter's assessment of mega-wealth and mega-charity may sound like left-wing propaganda, but you have to admit:  he's got some valid points to make.  First of all, wealth is rarely built in a vacuum.  And incredible levels of wealth rarely get amassed without any collateral damage of some sort.  In any economy, not everybody wins.  In education, not everybody gets a perfect SAT score.  Not everybody has equal access to natural resources, or political influence, or even healthcare.  Even when decent laws set out respectable conditions for healthy competition, not everybody plays by the moral structures that serve as boundary lines.  People test limits to see what they can get away with.  They seek vulnerabilities they can leverage against their competition, and also against whomever might be dependant - however primitively - on the economic systems that have been determined to be vulnerable.

It's part of the reason why Christ says we'll always have the poor with us.  Some people are poor because they are lazy, or otherwise immoral.  But other people are poor because they are disenfranchised for a variety of reasons beyond their immediate control, and even regardless of their faith in Christ.  Sometimes, charity work comes in a humble response to conditions in which we see God's grace particularly active in our own lives, forcing us to acknowledge that we really don't deserve the luxuries we've been given.  Other times, our charity may stem from guilt about how we've obtained those luxuries.  Or a mindset that we truly know better how to fix something than poorer people do, as if poverty equates to a lack of wisdom.  Or even frustration that particular forms of poverty risk suppressing our own happiness.  Perhaps some people can give selflessly of themselves without any ulterior motives, but don't you suspect those people are distinctly few and far between?

For his part, Peter Buffett writes that in his meetings with other power brokers, he hears pseudo-altruists asking about returns-on-investment when it comes to funding proposals, trying to turn charity into a business proposition, at least in terms of matching the dollars spent with measurable outcomes.  And although the attitude behind that may smack Peter as being fairly presumptuous, there's little wrong with trying to keep from throwing good money after bad.  Running some due diligence on a human development project halfway across the world is more prudence than profiteering.  In addition, some people worry about destroying ancient cultural legacies and practices with Western money, but frankly, the reason some cultures around the world are as needy as they are likely involves practices that we in the West long ago determined to be counterproductive no matter where you live.

Peter decides that he's "not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism."  He believes we have a "crisis of imagination" when it comes to solving problems because too many solutions are based on market-driven factors that, in the end, create consumers (or even products) out of people we think we're helping.  He loves the word "systemic," and it's all over his website for NoVo, but he professes an inability to grasp how systemic change can take place to create the type of organic, fundamental improvements that so many people groups around our planet need.

NoVo's primary emphasis is on helping to protect and empower young girls, a group of people in every culture the Buffett family has identified as the world's "largest undervalued asset" and the key to its future.  And to a certain extent, they're correct.  Even in the United States, with our Barbie culture, young girls are generally not encouraged to aspire to much more than trophies men can ogle or manipulate.  Of course, I think sexual promiscuity and abortion - two key planks of the liberal platform - are primary ways men exploit women, but you can't tell people like Peter Buffett that.  Ironically, despite all its talk of female empowerment, NoVo proudly sponsors abortion on its website, which surely is as catastrophic a practice for unborn girls as anything that can happen to them post-birth.

Indeed, if the Buffetts and NoVo are looking for a form of humanism to break the crisis of imagination in addressing human suffering, maybe they're overlooking that $101 billion people of various faiths contributed to their preferred religious institutions last year.  What might our planet be like without all of that money being in circulation, even if a disproportionate amount of it gets spent right here in the good ol' US of A?

Yeah, not much of that $101 billion probably went overseas, and most of it probably went into big buildings and sprawling salaries for our homegrown evangelical industrial complex.  And yeah, the short-term missions projects many evangelicals fondly assume equates to cross-cultural ministry may send wealthy Americans on tax-deductible vacations to exotic places we wouldn't ordinarily spend our own money to travel to.  And yes, the chances are virtually nil that any of the $101 billion was spent on the types of programs social liberals like the Buffetts consider worthwhile.

But if you're talking strategic humanism, what's more strategic than a person's worldview?  Trivialize organized religion - any organized religion - all you want, but ever since the Book of Acts, in the New Testament, Christianity has been going, sending, doing, teaching, helping, and praying.  Not always selflessly, or sacrificially, or even effectively, but on those three scores, the Buffet family can't claim anything better, either, as Peter testified in his op-ed piece.

We evangelicals have our problems, and the Buffetts may not consider the centuries of our Christian witness to have been worth a lot, but Christianity is replete with examples of charity that people like Buffett seem incapable of replicating.  Even many of us contemporary Christians recoil at the thought, but it's at least something we'd consider.


It was Jim Elliott, martyred by a South American people group to whom he was extending compassion, who famously wrote, "he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

A crisis of imagination?  Not when your Father has more than mere billions.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

41's Platoon and Sports Palace Gossip

Twenty-six good men.

The first President George Bush, Number 41, must have recently hired a new PR firm.  He's been in the news a lot lately, with his flashy new socks, an awards ceremony at the White House, and then yesterday, photos of him all over the media with his head shaved in support of a little boy being treated for leukemia.  The little boy is the son of a member of Bush's taxpayer-funded Secret Service detail, and one of the photos shows the detail - which actually, isn't a detail, but a platoon.

Twenty-six guys!  All guarding the former president and his wife at their luxurious island compound in Maine during summers, and their winter home in Houston.

Saddam Hussein is dead, and he was the only person we ever knew of who wanted Bush dead.  So, while I don't begrudge any former president a Secret Service "detail," whatever goodwill Bush hoped to generate with the head-shaving stunt is lost on me as I gaze that that sea of bald men my taxes are paying for.

Funny how right-wingers aren't up in arms over this photo like I am.

Sandy Green?

Speaking of being up in arms, I was driving near Cowboys Stadium here in Arlington yesterday evening, and I noticed all of the side streets were blocked off, which they normally are when an event is being held at our enormous landmark.  Whether it's a Dallas Cowboys home game, a rock music concert, a basketball game, or a college football game, Arlington police close off residential streets so they don't get clogged with cars whose drivers don't want to pay something in the neighborhood of $50 to park on stadium lots.

Not being a sports nut, I figured there must be a rock concert or something.  As I learned later, however, it was a pair of soccer matches: the semi-final round for the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament being held across the United States.  Last night, four national teams competed for the two spots in the final match, which will be played in Chicago on July 28.  For the record, the United States and Panama advanced to the final and will be playing on Soldier Field's legendary gridiron.

Well, at least they'll be playing at Soldier Field in Chicago.  Who knows what they'll be playing on.  Last night, they were playing here in Arlington at a widely-heralded stadium that the Dallas Cowboys' owner, Jerry Jones, likes to boast is the most meticulously-run sports palace in the world.  He and his wife plunked down millions of their own personal money for permanent public artwork in the stadium, and he spared no expense in the building's design or construction.

But last night, soccer fans were aghast to see strips of faded, parched grass rolled out onto the bare concrete floor of the stadium's playing surface, with green-colored sand stuffed in cracks and gaps between the rolls of turf.  Sports fans today have been talking more about the appalling turf than the game itself.  Indeed, the reason I now know that a prestigious soccer tournament took place there last night is because this morning, as I fired up my laptop and began surfing the news, I saw stories by reporters howling in dismay at the embarrassment of such shoddy sod.

Turns out, it appears that Jerry Jones may have had little to do with the selection and installation of the grass used for the two matches.  CONCACAF is the organization responsible for the execution of its branded events, and it's not like they were dealing with soccer neophytes at Cowboys Stadium.  We've had a number of international soccer matches at the stadium without any grass controversy, and they're big money-makers for Jones, who's trying to lure north Texas' burgeoning population of Hispanics into his football palace not just for "futbol," but America's sports cash cow of the same name.

In fact, speaking of Jerry Jones and money, Cowboys Stadium may have been where the Gold Cup semi-finals were played last night, but Cowboys Stadium no longer exists today.  At noontime, Jones, along with an AT&T executive and Arlington's mayor, announced that new naming rights for the stadium have been purchased by the communications giant, which already owns naming rights on other sports venues across the country.

Something tells me that one of the first things AT&T told Jones after the press conference today was that now, since their name is on the stadium, there'd better not be any more green sand fiascoes.

Bankrupt In More Ways Than One?

And speaking of sports palaces, word is leaking out of beleaguered, bankrupt Detroit that the city is going to pay $284.5 million to a Michigan billionaire so he can build a new home for the Red Wings hockey franchise that he owns.

The total cost of what's expected to be a sprawling multi-use project close to downtown Motown is $650 million, so Detroiters are getting a bargain, if you believe city officials and the state's governor, who complained that the only critics finding fault with this deal "are people from outside of Michigan."

Well, duh!  Isn't it obvious by now that Michigan residents in general, and Detroit residents in particular, tolerate way too much funny money math?  With a city that is supposedly $18 billion or so in debt, and facing the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, perhaps only Michigan taxpayers can laugh about spending nearly a third of a billion more on a hockey house.

Hey - believe me:  I know how much those folks up there love their hockey.  My brother and his family live in suburban Detroit, and they're all nuts about the sport.  But fan loyalty aside, and considering that Joe Louis Arena, a supposedly legendary home for the Red Wings, was only built in 1979, and is actually owned by the city of Detroit, which will either have to find a new tenant for it or - what else, considering this is Detroit? - tear it down, how does this really figure into the logic of new life for Detroit's financial future?

It's widely known outside of political circles that sports venues do not create good-paying permanent jobs, nor do they warrant the economic development hype politicians like to sell to a gullible, emotionally-driven taxpayer base.  It's hard for anybody to not want something new and shiny if they're being told they're not really paying for it.  For proof, look at the irresponsible fiscal mindset that has already helped mire the Motor City in its debt quagmire.

And speaking of irresponsible, today Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn added fuel to a fire nobody has yet lit regarding a federal bailout of Detroit.  Nobody in Michigan or Detroit has officially asked for a federal bailout, nor has Kevin Orr, the city's state-appointed manager.  The Obama administration has been cool - almost icy - to the idea of a federal bailout.  But still, Republican agitators can't resist bucking for popularity points back home by waving a red herring over Detroit's demise with talk of a federal bailout.

Something tells me that Michigan's governor and Detroit's city council don't understand the folly the rest of America considers Detroit to now be.  Yes, it's juvenile and premature for Republicans across the country to lob partisan boulders at what few windows remain unbroken amongst Detroit's blight.  However, the city's politicos might not be so jubilant as plans progress for a new hockey arena, and Detroit's creditors - and detractors - continue to pontificate over the scraps left on the city's once formidable dinner table.

Kinda like the affable former president - confined to a wheelchair, no less - supposedly needing a small army of bodyguards.

Then again, maybe it's just me being cynical.  Hey - if somebody else is paying, why should we care?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Weiner Poses Awkward Scenario for Fidelity

Is he his own worst enemy?

New York City's Anthony Weiner was forced to admit yesterday that yes, he'd conducted yet another sexting affair including a lewd photo of himself with a woman who was not his wife, even after he'd supposedly apologized for doing the same thing and resigning from Congress in contrite disgrace two years ago.

Throughout his public life, even as a city councilmember from Queens, Weiner has enjoyed a news-making reputation of being hard to work with, a hothead, and of being spoiled and petulant.  However, even his detractors didn't suspect him of being as foolish as yesterday's admissions make him appear.  After some gossip websites began posting snippets of explicit text messages between Weiner - sometimes using the pseudonym "Carlos Danger" - and at least one woman, the formerly disgraced Congressman currently running for New York City Mayor scrambled the media for a quick news conference with his wife, the plainly embarrassed Huma Abedin.

Yes, he not only didn't tell the whole truth the last time, but apparently, he thought he could get away with it.  Attempting to cushion the news, Weiner says that he warned the media a while ago that more bad stuff was out there.  Of course, he wasn't going to clear the air back then if he didn't have to.  Which makes one wonder if this is finally the end, or if there are even more extramarital shenanigans that might come to light in the future.

And, ever the gallant man that Abedin hoped she was marrying, but wasn't, Weiner today partly blamed Abedin - and the stress of having to try and reconcile with her after the first time he got caught sexting - for this latest bout of sexting, which he says ended last summer.

Wow, what a catch, Huma!  And what a catch he'd still make for the City of New York, huh voters?

Not so much, New Yorkers are beginning to realize, even after they gave him a huge surge in the Democratic primary polls after his late entry into the mayoral race against front-runner Christine Quinn.

Quinn herself hasn't yet called for Weiner to back out of the race, but two other Democratic contenders and a Republican have, which is a fairly respectable bipartisan effort in the overwhelmingly liberal Big Apple.  The National Organization for Women, the formidable pro-choice lobbying group wielding great clout in the city, has also called for Weiner to end his campaign.

A lot of observers are marveling at Abedin's resolve to "stand by her man" a second time.  And it's highly probable that her relationship with Bill Clinton's family is providing a considerable amount of context and support for her during days like these.  After all, she's a former confidante of Hillary Clinton's when she was Secretary of State.  She's also a well-educated daughter of privileged Muslim educators, capable of pursuits grander than being the wife of a sleazy Jewish pervert, even if he is the mayor of New York.  Before Abedin's marriage to Weiner, Clinton was quoted as saying proudly of her employee that "I only have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would be Huma."  How likely is it that the goodwill Weiner was barely able to salvage from the Clintons after his first press conference over sexting remains available to him after yesterday's?

Apart from Abadin's remarkable resolve to keep working at her marriage to Weiner, another wrinkle that this sordid scenario presses into the folds of public discourse is the fact that with Weiner's latest affirmation of infidelity, however virtual, his primary opponent in the Democratic race for mayor is none other than a monogamous, married lesbian with absolutely no extramarital skeletons to be found in the closet she shares with her partner, Kim Katullo.  If being physically, morally, and emotionally committed to one's life partner is a solid prerequisite for holding public office, how awkward is it for us conservatives to see a gay couple trump a heterosexual couple in that department?

Now, I'm not saying that I endorse gay marriage, and you'll notice that I'm having a difficult time saying that Quinn and Katullo are married, spouses, or "wives."  However, they've been a prominent item in New York's voracious media for a decade, and it stands to reason that if there's any infidelity taking place in their relationship, we'd have learned about it by now.  And while sexting somebody who's not your spouse isn't the most egregious violation of a lifelong partnership, Weiner's actions betray a blatantly ugly, immature, and risky willingness to sacrifice the profound for the profane.

Suddenly, simply being a lesbian happily "married" to another lesbian challenges traditional notions of mutual respect and admiration.

It's an ugly truth about our debate over gay marriage:  heterosexual matrimony can be woefully abused by its participants, while some homosexual partnerships enshrine the commitment and resiliency God would expect of holy wedlock.  Of course, neither the corruption of heterosexual marriages can negate God's intentions for the covenant, nor can the fullest partnership of two gay people beg a new dispensation for Biblical marriage. Some evangelicals might even want to argue that the relationship Quinn and Katullo share isn't worthy of being classified as anything more than a perversion.  However, one glance at the intentionality between the Quinn-Katullo partnership contrasted with the Weiner-Abadin partnership could either bring into question the definition of "perversion," or remind us that the reason we're having debates over gay marriage within a society that's been jaded by infidelity is because sin really is all around us.

Frankly, if I had to choose between Weiner and Quinn for mayor based on their treatment of their life partner, I'd vote for Quinn.  Not simply despite the fact that she's gay and married under New York State law to a lesbian, but because she recognizes how important such relationships are.  Being mayor of New York puts one in a leadership position over more people and a bigger economy than some nations have.  Few Big Apple mayors have been poster children for morality, but shouldn't voters get to choose the person they can better trust?

In fact, it's people like Weiner who help me understand the frustration that couples like Quinn and Katullo have regarding being legitimately married in the eyes of God.  Then again, when I remember that Quinn and Katullo, like Weiner, and even Abadin, are almost certainly not eager to honor the God of the Bible with how they live their lives, I'm dismayed at how Satan can corrupt so many good things.

I'm also incredulous at Weiner.  Good grief, dude!  Really?  I almost pity Abadin.  And when I look at Quinn, who most likely now will become the next mayor of New York City, while I wish her no ill will at all, I simply can't reconcile her marital status with the truth I believe in the Bible.

But is it wrong for me to at least be glad she's not sexting other people and violating the relationship she has with her partner?

There is only one unpardonable sin, and gay marriage isn't it.  Aside from that, all sins have consequences, but those consequences can vary.  Might New York's mayoral race be providing proof of that?  Fidelity can still mean something, even if we disagree with its expression.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Big Appetite for High-Dollar Big Bellies

One person's trash truly can be somebody else's treasure.

Just ask the people behind Big Belly Solar, a garbage can company.

How much would you be willing to pay for an industrial-strength garbage can that's about four feet high and two feet wide?  With a solar-powered trash compactor built-in, and a computer chip to monitor when the trash needs to be compacted, and when the garbage can is full?

Five hundred dollars, you offer?  How about one thousand?  Two thousand?  No, you need to go a bit higher.  Double, in fact.

Each Big Belly trash can sells for the nifty price of $4,000.  And you wouldn't believe who's buying them at that price, thinking it's a bargain.

You.  And me.  We taxpayers are buying them via our United States Department of Energy, and with stimulus money the Obama administration has been doling out to cities in its bid to jump-start the economy.  You and I have purchased about 200 of Philadelphia's 900 Big Belly cans, and 40 in Raleigh, North Carolina, where for some reason, they cost $7,000 apiece.  We've only bought two of these trash cans so far in Syracuse, New York, but they want us* to pay for 200 more.

Fortunately, although several dozen Big Belly cans have been installed across New York City, including 30 in Times Square alone, their sanitation department in the Big Apple has balked at the price, forcing corporate citizens and special tax financing districts in several neighborhoods to pay for them instead.

Big Belly's corporate office claims that cities can recoup the cost by saving money on work crews that have to check on trash collection receptacles throughout the day.  The solar-powered compactors built into each unit sense when the contents of the container need to be pressed down so that more trash can be collected in one bag, and even notifies a central command center when it's full, thereby reducing the number of trips needed to empty the unit.  Of course, each trash bin has to have extra-duty trash bags, like the household trash compactor in your kitchen does, and you know what happens when you don't use those special bags:  liquids and crumbs end up collecting at the bottom.

Reading the promotional literature for Big Bellies makes you wonder why everybody isn't lining up to pay $4,000 apiece for them.  One of their key benefits supposedly involves the 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses they can create, ostensibly since fossil-fuel-burning garbage trucks have to run collection routes less often.  But do municipal garbage trucks run unique, never-duplicated routes all the time?  When are all of the bins ever 100% full at the same time anyway?  Composting the trash may delay the inevitable need for those nasty fossil-fuel-burning trucks to come lumbering by, but how many cities are going to throw their garbage truck routes out of the window?  Maybe bureaucrats take such statistics on face value, but for $4,000 apiece, I think those of us paying for them want a bit more logic thrown into the mix.

Speaking of logic, some gems of reality can be gleaned from Philadelphia's experience with Big Bellies.  On the surface, the City of Brotherly Love is in love with these high-priced trash bins, but an internal report by the city's controller found numerous problems with their expensive toys.  Among other things, city crews, being on a schedule, went around on regular routes throughout the city collecting the trash from these units, whether the solar-powered sensor was telling them the unit was full or not.  Oops - no savings on either human resources costs or environmental footprints there.

The bins also collected bits and pieces of trash, sticky residue, and other detritus, which requires them to be cleaned out - by hand - on a fairly frequent basis.  Their solar screens get damaged easily, the solar-powered indicator showing the unit's available capacity frequently malfunctions, and Big Belly's corporate folks have no proof that the 10-year life expectancy they claim for their product is realistic.

Indeed, sitting out on a city sidewalk in all weather, exposed to whatever vandalism urban furniture has to endure, having to consume whatever the public puts into it - whether it was designed for that waste or not, being as unreliable as Philadelphia has determined them to be, and being vulnerable to significant damage by wayward cars, Big Belly cans hardly seem more cost-efficient than the basic wire trash receptacles most pedestrians have to use, and for which taxpayers have to pay.

And even if the Big Belly technology worked flawlessly, and their construction was foolproof, there's still absolutely nothing that helps it pick up more trash!  Nothing about the Big Bellies will encourage more people to use them.  Company officials want their customers to think that pedestrians will be so enamored and awe-struck by these computerized trash cans that they'll want to throw everything they can into them.  But frankly, if a slob isn't going to throw their trash into a $100 wire basket, they're not going to pull a handle and insert their trash into the chute of a Big Belly can.

Ah, yes - those handles.  Each Big Belly is self-contained, with a chute you pull open so you can deposit your trash into the container.  But as the Philadelphia controller's report shows, that handle itself may not be something somebody needing to discard trash may want to touch.

Still, there are suckers born every minute, and the guys who invented the Big Belly in 2003 have been able to build a thriving business selling $4,000 garbage cans to them.  Big Bellies can now be found in nearly every state, and thirty countries around the world, with much of their business coming from existing customers who want to expand their use of the well-marketed trash cans.

Fortunately for us taxpayers, we're not having to pay for all of them.  The city of Cincinnati, for example, has a wealthy environmentalist who's paying for theirs, and Boston has inked a deal with an outdoor advertising company who wants to use the sizable dimensions of each Big Belly to sell promotional space.

And it's not like there's no benefit for concealing a city's trash inside a big, solar-powered receptacle.  New York City ran a study and determined that Big Bellies are rat-proof, which is music to the ears of anybody who's walked down a dark sidewalk at night and heard spooky rustling noises coming out of those wire garbage cans.

But four thousand dollars apiece?

Kinda puts a new spin on "disposable income," doesn't it?

* Update:  The 200 extra Big Belly cans for Syracuse may be purchased with funds New York State collects from power generation companies.  The state penalizes companies a dollar amount based on their greenhouse gas emissions, and money from the fund those penalties generate could be used to pay for the pricey trash cans.  So we federal taxpayers may be off the hook there - unless you pay a utility bill in New York State.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Frisk Risk Mars Racial Recognition

Imagine it.

You're walking along, wearing a hoodie.  You're young (remember - we're imagining here) and not Caucasian.  Suddenly, a male with lighter skin than yours demands that you stop and explain yourself.

No, you're not Trayvon Martin, but an even younger multiracial teenager in Harlem named Alvin, walking down 116th Street after visiting your girlfriend, wearing a hoodie in the early June air, and an empty backpack.

And this was your second time today to be stopped and frisked by New York's "finest."

Not because they had a bulletin from the precinct to be on the lookout for somebody looking like you who'd just robbed a bank.  But just because you're not white, and you're young.

If the Zimmerman verdict has proven anything, it's that the death of Trayvon Martin will not be contributing positively to our nation's dialog about racial profiling.  It's been woefully tainted by bias and crippled by a lack of irrefutable proof.  Meanwhile, farther north up the East Coast from Florida, a longstanding police policy that has been vehemently criticized for almost as long as Trayvon was alive has languished outside of the national spotlight.  It's a policy within the New York City Police Department called "stop-and-frisk," in which cops can basically detain anybody they deem suspicious on the spot.  They can frisk a person without reading them their Miranda Rights, or advising them of the crime with which police intend to charge them.

In fact, in the overwhelming majority of stop-and-frisk cases, no crime at all is involved.  Unless, of course, you count the actions and attitudes of the cops.

The practice has been heavily used and debated in the Big Apple for nearly two decades, with minorities and limousine liberals decrying stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional, while whites and the business community generally have been ambivalent about it, since it's been credited with helping give the city incredibly low crime rates.  The city lost a court case over stop-and-frisk ten years ago, but that didn't stop the practice.  Police officials are convinced that those low crime rates are due in no small measure to the success of their widely-used stop-and-frisk initiative.

It hasn't helped discourage the practice having bigoted agitators like Al Sharpton acting as spokespeople against it.  Nor has it helped that the overwhelming percentage of crime in the city is perpetrated by minorities, or that the "gangsta" culture prevalent among minorities intentionally intimidates whites in the city's streets, mass transit, elevators, and parks.  Stop-and-frisk became synonymous with the "broken window" theory, in which it's believed that the best way to increase public safety is nip crime in the bud, starting with the most basic of anti-social events, like a broken window, or a person who "looks suspicious."

Even though plenty of New Yorkers were uncomfortable with stop-and-frisk, it seemed to be working, and hardly anybody except the guys who were being stalked by the police really knew what happened during these stop-and-frisk episodes.  Episodes which took place a staggering 4.8 million times during the past decade.  And which, as statistics are now revealing, provided evidence of a crime - such as illegally possessing a weapon - only 12% of the time.

The Nation, a left-wing periodical based in New York and devoted to helping progressive urbanists feel ever so superior to everybody else, has been an ardent opponent of stop-and-frisk.  In 2011, they produced a video based upon the audio recording Alvin made that day on Harlem's 116th Street of an experience with stop-and-frisk.

For conservatives who had insisted that the NYPD conducted this practice professionally, it was an obscene wake-up call.  Literally:

In terms of their overall objective, please understand that The Nation espouses an exceptionally left-wing political platform with which I cannot agree.  However, it's quite obvious from this video that Alvin is not a pawn in any partisan agenda.  He was not stopped for any reason other than a punitive, vicious form of racial profiling.  There are times in which racial profiling can be relatively benign, such as when my friends and I were accosted for supposedly being rich homosexuals on the subway.  But there was nothing benign, partisan, or moral about how Alvin was treated by the cops.

Which begs the question:  out of nearly 4.8 million stop-and-frisks over more than a decade, how much of an exceptionally brutal example of the practice was Alvin's recorded encounter with it?  Doesn't it seem to you as though this was all part of their day's work for the cops?  Routine?  Kinda fun, even?  In a macho, drunk-on-power kind of way?

How could this continue for so long in one of the most liberal cities in America?  Well, as it turns out, the NYPD didn't pull stop-and-frisk out of thin air.  It's actually based on a Supreme Court decision from 1968 in which the Constitution's Fourth Amendment provision against unlawful searches doesn't apply when a police officer believes a person could be an imminent participant in a crime.  However, that was then - and in Cleveland, Ohio, too, where the Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, originated.  Today, what stop-and-frisk has apparently degenerated into is a thinly-disguised form of racial profiling.  Currently, two bills are before New York's city council that seek to discourage stop-and-frisk, but the bills themselves represent typical political posturing that may not resolve anything.  A federal class-action lawsuit against the city that has been waged since 2008 may be decided by Manhattan Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin as early as this month, with legal experts predicting that Scheindlin will appoint a federal monitor to oversee the city's deployment of stop-and-frisk.  But powerful city officials continue to stake their professional reputations on stop-and-frisk's legitimacy.

Many New Yorkers, including the police chief, and its current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, have opposed any interference in stop-and-frisk since the tactic was introduced back in the early 1990's.  The time right before the city's crime rate began to dip drastically.  That's not coincidence, stop-and-frisk's defenders insist.

Maybe not.  Maybe some form of stop-and-frisk has a place in law enforcement's arsenal, as long the police are acting on credible information, and have specific characteristics for which they're looking relative to that credible information.  Nevertheless, no police department should simply assume that "crime is going to happen" so it's safe to assume that people who fit a broad generalization regarding what typical criminals look like can be harassed in the off-chance they might be walking away from a crime, or getting ready to commit a crime.  Can simply frisking people without a warrant and finding a knife or a gun on them 10% of the time be sufficient grounds for perpetrating stop-and-frisk on an entire race or gender?

According to The Nation's video, and the accounts of other whistleblowers within the police department, an unofficial quota system exists for stop-and-frisk that has likely corrupted the original intent of the practice.  Doesn't it make sense to start there, within One Police Plaza, the department's headquarters, and dis-incentivize stop-and-frisk?  Terry v. Ohio was about "reasonable suspicion," but New York City's version of it looks like "unreasonable racism."

Indeed, what's not up for debate is whether or not the treatment 16-year-old Alvin received from the police on that sidewalk in Harlem is acceptable.  It absolutely, definitely, incontrovertibly is not.  It's not a question of liberal or conservative, black or white, New Yorker or Texan, rich or poor, urban or rural, law or chaos.  It's basic humanity.

This is what many people wanted the Trayvon Martin tragedy to be about.  And maybe many cases of stop-and-frisk aren't as clear-cut as the one shown in this video.  But still, why the disparity in our mainstream media's coverage of both stories?  Was it the "gated community" or "stand your ground" buzzwords?  Was it the fact that Trayvon got killed, whereas Alvin was "only" humiliated?  Was it Zimmerman's gun?  Was it the fact that New York's profilers are intimidating, "professional" cops?  Even in New York City, while stop-and-frisk has generated heated debate, it hasn't been nearly as polarizing as the Zimmerman verdict.  Maybe that's because what happened to Alvin really is the exception, instead of the rule.  And maybe not knowing whether that's the case gives the same ambivalence about the practice to New Yorkers as the Zimmerman case gives to many whites.

That same ambivalence towards racial profiling that blacks have long suspected whites of harboring may have helped fan flames of pain and unrest among blacks after the Zimmerman verdict.  But much of what the Zimmerman verdict lacked in terms of its applicability to the subject of racial profiling is present in sobering abundance as we near a verdict in New York's class action lawsuit against stop-and-frisk.

Alvin's biological father is a cop.  If you listen closely, you'll hear one of the cops in the video even recognize him as the son of a cop.  But by then, the recognition came too late.

Seeing people for who they are can't be all about assumptions.

Update - August 12, 2013:  Judge Scheindlin has ruled stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional, and will appoint a monitor to oversee the city's wind-down of the practice.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Motown's Bust No Blindside


Who's been blindsided by Detroit's bankruptcy filing?  People all over the world have seen it coming for years.  But today, Michigan Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina used the term "blindsided" to describe the reaction of plaintiffs in Detroit's bankruptcy who've appealed to her with allegations that state law hasn't been followed in the matter.

Aquilina's power play, mostly on behalf of civil service pensioners who fear what Detroit's filing may mean to their incomes, will likely come to naught, as the city's seemingly inexorable slide into fiscal oblivion appears all but certain.

Legally, Aquilina and the unionized workers fearing the devaluation of their pensions are claiming that Michigan's governor, Detroit's mayor, and the city's emergency manager haven't worked hard enough to negotiate with them regarding the security of contractual liabilities and what the city can and can't afford to pay out.  But frankly, the fact that for all practical purposes, the city is broke is a well-known fact.  Desperation at salvaging one's primary source of retirement income is one thing, but nobody has been blindsided by Detroit's bankruptcy yesterday.

In fact, depending on the expert you talk to, the city's bankruptcy has been too long in coming.  Having an emergency manager brought in to overrule the notoriously incompetent city council at the eleventh hour should have been all the final warning, horn honking, flag-waving, coffin-polishing encore to the fat lady's singing that anybody needed.

If you don't live in America's rust belt, you may not appreciate either the gravity of the situation there along the Detroit River, or the risk factors Detroit had that might be taking shape in your community.  A number of smaller cities that used to be manufacturing powerhouses could be facing similar peril in the not-so-distant future, although Detroit will likely remain the textbook example of flagrant municipal demise for a long time to come.

Detroit didn't just lose its manufacturing base, and its approximately 200,000 jobs.  It lost over one million residents - a staggering number - to its suburbs and the South.  Unfortunately, while some other large cities facing a similar dilemma managed to replace some of the industrial jobs they were losing with white-collar work, thereby stabilizing their employment market, Detroit apparently sat around waiting for its blue-collar jobs to come back.  The fact that America's Big Three automakers churned out absolute garbage during the 1970's and 80's only sealed the deal against Detroit, forcing car buyers to imported brands, even as union bigshots back in Motown were putting the squeeze on equally-unrealistic corporate executives for ridiculously expensive pay packages.

Ironically, both the unions and car companies claimed to have been blindsided by the disloyalty they themselves engendered among American consumers.  Indeed, Detroit has a history of pretending like years of bad decisions will simply evaporate.

Racism also became part of the city's fabric; its first race riot wasn't in 1963, but in 1863, during the Civil War.  Thanks to its crossroads-type location in the heart of the Great Lakes, plus its easy access to Canada, Detroit was founded as a trading post and followed an entrepreneurial path into the Industrial Age that made it an ideal location for horseless buggy enthusiasts.  After Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line rapidly generated an explosion in the demand for laborers, blacks joined ethnic immigrants from Europe streaming into the city that, for nearly the next century, would dominate the automobile world.

By the 1950's, however, those early car factories were becoming obsolete, as the push for ever-greater efficiencies and modernization sent the Big Three out into what were then wide-open suburbs, or into the Southern states.  Jobs began evaporating back in old Detroit, and the ensuing economic stress encouraged whites to look for scapegoats, fueling racial strife that would climax in the 1960's, when it became impossible to tell if white Detroiters were reflexively following auto jobs out of the city, or were trying to get away from the city's blacks.

What happened next depends on who's telling the story.  To hear some tell it, bigoted middle-class whites preferred to leave rather than cede power to blacks, and took their tax dollars with them because they didn't want to live next door to blacks.  Others claim gross mismanagement of city services, rioting, and increased crime by under-educated and welfare-dependent blacks forced whites and employers to leave.  In reality, it's likely that both scenarios combined in varying degrees to permanently cripple Detroit.  These days, what's left of the city council and its power structure is a sprawling web of dysfunction, incompetence, myopia, and a refusal to acknowledge the reality that new leadership is desperately needed no matter how this bankruptcy case turns out.

The council's current president, Saunteel Jenkins, has only held the position for a couple of weeks, because her predecessor, Charles Pugh, went into hiding after allegations of an improper relationship between him and a male highschooler surfaced.  One councilmember has resigned for health reasons, and another jumped ship to work for the city's emergency manager.  Neither vacancy will be filled anytime soon.  Former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned in 2008 after being charged with a slew of corruption-related crimes, the roster of which has only continued to grow.  Tales of other city hall scandals and abuses of power that border on the farcical have both entertained and enraged Detroit's suburbanites for years, but most of the city's black voters seem blind to it all.

For years, state and suburban leaders have been calling for substantive reform within the city's municipal bureaucracy, yet voters continue to play the victim card long after it lost whatever credibility it might have had in the 1960's.  Debts piled up at rates that alarmed everybody except Detroiters.  Municipal unions pushed for lucrative contracts to maintain a shrinking city with few voters wondering who was going to pay for it all.  It didn't take a genius to see all of the abandoned factories, homes, churches, stores, and theaters - literally walk-away, no-turning-back, unwanted, unneeded, abandoned - and figure a drastic response to the growing crisis was essential.

At this point, it is extremely difficult to maintain a egalitarian mind about the city's leadership and not point to the city's grossly over-burdened welfare system as a reason for a citizenry so dependent on social services to not want proactive change towards a self-sustaining city.  Graduation rates for the city's high schools have risen to 64%, but that's because a shrinking population is being educated on an oversized schooling budget.  Less than nine percent of all criminal cases ever get closed.  These and other problems have not simply materialized during the past decade, or since the Great Recession.  Logic cannot refuse the likelihood that they represent a mindset that has become endemic in the city after years of acquiescence built on the hope - or, more likely, expectation - that somebody else should be fixing these problems.  Maybe the whites who've abandoned the city?  Maybe employers who don't want to invest what it would cost to rehabilitate the dozens of brownfields pockmarking the city?  Maybe the federal government, since it seems to have so much money available to hand out to everybody else?

Should this bankruptcy ever make its way through the courts, and bring the city back out into a debt-free day, that still won't fix what ails Detroit.  In the best possible scenario, all this bankruptcy will do is resolve the payment problems related to its current outstanding debts.  The city will still need to figure out how to pay for successive obligations, such as keeping streetlights lit, and getting functional computers with essential software into the police department.  Private employers in the city are already funding the city's fleet of emergency vehicles, and Quicken Loans billionaire Dan Gilbert is funding programs to buy up as many of the city's crumbling buildings as he can to try and put them on the tax rolls.  Considering the ratio of limited wealth to staggering poverty in Detroit, not many pockets are left to pick for charity.

At some point along the way, might the ordinary voters of Detroit have to wake up to the reality that it wasn't just the meltdown of the Industrial Revolution that's caused their pain?  It wasn't just white flight - or suburbanization in general, which has lured plenty of middle-class blacks tired of fighting Detroit's dereliction.  It wasn't just the miserable winter weather, or the aging infrastructure, or that the state of Michigan or the federal government didn't give them more money.  It wasn't just the banks that they're bitterly deriding today, or even the pension funds, which could only take what the city gave them.

When you take away everything that's caused every other problem Detroit has experienced, and there's still no real way forward, who's left to blame?

Drive the barren streets of what's left of Detroit - if you dare - and you'll probably find at least part of the blame waiting at bus stops, or driving a fancy Cadillac, or holed up in public housing, or maybe mowing a field next to their tidy home, or maybe running a dank store where cheap liquor is the biggest seller, or working as a well-paid clerk in some city office.

No, these aren't people who are black.  Come on - this is no time to be racist.  No; these are voters.

Hopefully, in upcoming elections, they'll want to prove they've learned some valuable lessons about using the ballot box to their community's advantage.

Not simply their political party's.

Update - July 30:  Judge Aquilina's apparent meddling in Detroit's bankruptcy has been put on hold by the Michigan Court of Appeals until after the city emerges from Chapter Nine.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Eulogy for Hope From Zimmerman Verdict

Zimmerman Verdict Series
1. Sourcing Zimmerman Verdict Angst
2. Profiling the Content of One's Character
Today's essay is #3.


May I ask you something?

Why are you reading this?

Why are you reading my blog?  Why do you read anybody's blog?  Why do you consume any opinion articles?

Do you hope to find affirmation for your own opinions?  Do you want to consider viewpoints other than the one you've already developed for yourself?  Are you confident enough in your own opinions that you're not easily swayed by somebody else's, or easily offended?

I think it's good to be confident in one's opinions, as long as they've been based on good authority.  And some opinions are more important that others, of course.  Adherence to the tenets of one's faith, for example, should be less open for re-interpretation or outright revision than, say, whether or not your salary is fair, or if the Texas Rangers really are the best team in baseball, or if North Carolina is a more business-friendly state than Tennessee, or if abortion should be an available option in the case of rape.  Even if somebody else's viewpoint doesn't change your own, you might at least understand how that person thinks (or doesn't!), and you can interact with them more productively.

But if there's one thing I've learned this week while writing, discussing, thinking, and praying about the Zimmerman verdict, it's that many Americans are content to live with their own preconceived notions of reality regardless of how erroneous those notions may be.  People dislike being confronted with facts that challenge what they've already decided.  Emotions can play far greater a role than logic in determining the legitimacy of something.

I wasn't going to write this essay.  I was simply going to move on to another topic.  Something light and breezy, perhaps, or even more heady and serious.  And maybe tomorrow, I will.

But today, as I look around me at what both the mainstream and non-mainstream media continue to regurgitate regarding the Zimmerman verdict, and the discussions taking place in social media and even face-to-face conversations, I'm realizing that nothing is likely to improve regarding race relations in the United States because of this case.

And it's because the minds of a lot of people on both sides of the debate seem a lot more closed than open. 

Hope and Change Elusive In Verdict

Maybe it's just me, but have you noticed that fewer of us Americans demonstrate either the ability or desire to process information?  Stereotypes, laziness, indifference, fear, anger, and pride rule the day.  Even some Christian leaders, to whom we evangelicals have traditionally turned for helpful guidance, seem content to take things at face value.  Perhaps they've filled their schedules with all sorts of worthwhile ministry activities to the point where they only have time to skim the surface of the news happening all around them.  They've managed to learn some facts in the Zimmerman case, except those facts are suspiciously similar to the misguided notions that have been peddled for months by a woefully biased mainstream media.

Or maybe that's just me being hyper-cynical.  But even if this lackluster exegesis of the Zimmerman trial wasn't a figment of my critical imagination, that probably wouldn't be so bad if this was a less volatile issue.  But hardened bigots on both sides of the racial divide see what they want to see in this case, regardless of whether or not it's accurate.  Some of the stuff being written across the vast evangelical industrial complex this past week has either been sloppily nuanced or outright polarizing amongst a religious cohort that has pursued the shallowest of assimilations with different cultures.

Not something we should be perpetuating, by either commission or omission.

Meanwhile, well-intentioned ranks of functionally-racist blacks and whites go about their days in amicable tolerance, trying to get along with one another and hoping some good can come out of it, but not holding their collective breath.  We shake our heads at the tragedy of a dead teenager, but we degenerate into confusion over who - and what - is to blame.  We let our emotions ride on a verdict we didn't swear an oath to make after parsing all of the facts made available to us in a court of law.  We allow televised court coverage, the media, and even opinionators like me to convince ourselves we have the right to extrapolate lessons from this case.  We're loathe to admit that this might be one of those times when it really was simply a misguided confrontation between the victim and the accused - who's presumed innocent until proven guilty, which he wasn't.

Frankly, I thought we were farther along this road towards racial equanimity than apparently we are.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm not the most socially-adjusted person on this planet.  I ask dumb questions, poke around under too many rocks, and say things out loud that others are thinking but are too socially-adjusted to verbalize.  I probably also assume too much.

And you know what that makes me.

Maybe I am more of a bigot than I want to be.  Maybe I'm too transparent in my thoughts.  Maybe it makes a difference in this case that I'm not a parent, and can't imagine the anguish of losing a teenaged son.  I know I have a lot to learn about a lot of things.  That's one of the reasons I explore the variety of topics that I explore on this blog.  I preach to myself as much as I preach to anybody else.   Sometimes this blog is for my own benefit more than anybody else's.

So why do I let myself sink with disappointment when it seems so many people around me are embracing the same old patterns that seldom improve anything for anybody?  Is it because I'm more of an optimist than the cynic everybody else thinks I am?  Might I actually be hoping for too much here?

Race To the Bottom in Detroit

Speaking of cynicism and hope, the city of Detroit today petitioned for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection, making it the largest municipality in American history ever to do so.  Nobody's quite sure how it will work, or what its financial ramifications might be to the state of Michigan, and the country as a whole.  Over the years, it may have lost over one million residents, but it's still a sizable city with 700,000 inhabitants, the overwhelming majority of whom are black.  City services have been cut to the bone, crime is rampant, and corruption - some call it incompetence - plagues practically every department.

I don't travel much, but from what little traveling I have done in my life, I believe the metro Detroit area to be the most racially segregated place I've ever been.  You can practically see the line between white suburbs and black inner city when you cross between the two.  It's not just about race; even longtime suburban blacks have been complaining recently about urban blacks fleeing Detroit for what affordable suburbs there are ringing the ghettos.  There is a definite cultural difference between blacks who've raised their families in some of the blue-collar suburbs and those who are recent arrivals from the tough streets of Detroit proper.

What will Detroit's bankruptcy do to this staunchly-segregated metropolitan area?  City services aren't supposed to suffer from the filing, but chances are, even if they did, things are already so bad, nobody would notice.  Suburban whites are already complaining that the city's atrocious finances are costing their own towns, counties, and Michigan itself, since everybody else has been having to help float the municipal boat of the state's largest city.  And it's never long, when the suburban whites start complaining, before race becomes a part of the dialog.  Just check out the reader feedback portions of any article on about events leading up to this bankruptcy petition.

So?  When banks, lenders, government agencies, courts, bondholders, and all of their lawyers start talking about bankruptcy, there's little room for altruism, emotion, intuition, nostalgia, or even magnanimity.  Bankruptcy is all about facts.  Court is not to determine guilt or innocence, but who gets what and how much.

People may want to hold their emotions close and gloss over the facts in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, but that may be just as effective as citizen stakeholders walking into the Detroit bankruptcy courtroom and hoping Wall Street will give the city the benefit of the doubt.

Then again, it seems like a lot of people don't want to give Zimmerman's jury the benefit of the doubt, either.

They say the truth hurts.  Maybe that's why I feel the way I'm feeling.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Profiling the Content of One's Character

Zimmerman Verdict Series
1. Sourcing Zimmerman Verdict Angst
Today's essay is #2
3. Eulogy For Home From Zimmerman Verdict


We were three young, white, single guys.

Thin, well-dressed, well-groomed.  And yes - even I was thin, back when I lived in New York City!  I used to have a 29-inch waist.  No lie.  Of course, this was over twenty years ago, when even daily pints of Ben & Jerry's couldn't put fat on my bones.

Twenty years ago, too, the Big Apple was a far more dangerous place than it is today.

We left the Yankees game early.  Probably because it was a work night.  Probably because the Bronx Bombers were losing.  Probably because we didn't want to wait for the crush of fans at the Lexington Avenue Line subway platform alongside the venerable stadium after the game ended.

The subway car we boarded was practically empty.  But not for long.  A few minutes into our trip back into Manhattan, as the train creaked and rolled through the notorious South Bronx ghetto, the rear emergency door suddenly crashed open, and into our car swaggered a group of young black men.

And we three white boys were sitting ducks.

Boisterous and emboldened by our presence - and the lack of anybody else's - they hollered and bellowed in a gangsta dialect as they made a big production of coming over to where we were seated.  The three of us whiteys quietly glanced at each other, bracing for anything.  Those guys weren't coming over to chit-chat with us about the score of the Yankees game.  That wasn't necessary.  We all knew the score.

Those of you who've ridden New York City subway cars know there's a metal bar that hangs from the ceiling and runs down the length of the car, parallel to the seats.  Those young men came right where we were sitting, hanging onto the overhead bar, leaning down into our faces.  One of them plunked himself right down beside me, practically sitting on my lap.  I started perspiring.

I don't know how long it lasted, but these punks jeered at us for being rich (even though we weren't), white (which was obvious) and gay (which we weren't - but in New York City, it's rare to see three thin, stylishly dressed young white men together who aren't gay).  The guy who'd sat down next to me rubbed himself against me, and in my mind, I was playing the scenario I'd rehearsed about what I'd do if I was ever mugged:  give them my wallet with the $20 bill inside and the credit card, and hope they don't find the $20 bill, drivers license, and medical insurance card that I'd hidden in the socks I was wearing.  I'd heard that most muggers would be content with a $20 take, and if they roughed you up, most cabbies would still at least take you to the nearest hospital for $20.  The credit card could just be cancelled out, and maybe even used to catch whomever had stolen it.

By this time, my friends and I had been pushed tightly together by our tormentors, who were relishing the fact that we were all now perspiring, trying so hard to look at the ceiling of the subway car and ignore them, even though they were taunting us from mouths mere inches from our faces.  They weren't yelling, just amusing themselves with all the different vulgarities they could come up with for gay people, white people, and rich people.

Suddenly, the subway's passenger doors slid open, and other riders trickled into the car.  This was the signal our tormentors used to effortlessly step back from us and disappear from the subway car, while other people were still boarding.  The three of us silently reclaimed a bit of personal space between us, but remained quiet, not saying a word, nor looking at each other for the rest of the ride.  We were deeply relieved, woefully humiliated, and I can't remember us ever talking about it.  It was just part of what we should have expected, being in another ethnic group's territory.  Plus, it could have been much worse.

Facts Create Context, and Context Matters

As I've struggled for the past two days with the complaints black Christians are making about the insensitivity of us whites towards the Zimmerman verdict in Florida, two disconnects appear to be taking shape.  One of them has to do with the facts of the case, which I believe have been grossly misrepresented by the mainstream media, yet assumed to be accurate by many blacks, for whom television is a primary source for information.  The other has to do with the issue of racial profiling, which, as we all know, has been left utterly unresolved by both the trial and the verdict.

Now, the racial profiling those thugs performed on my friends and me during that subway ride may have been an isolated incident for us, but I tell the story so people will understand that I know what it's like to be racially profiled.  What I don't know about is being racially profiled like that multiple times during my life - or indeed, daily or weekly, but I can imagine how distressing and humiliating it must be.  I remember my brush with it vividly because it only happened to me two times during my three years in New York City (the other was also on the subway, by Puerto Rican and Dominican teenaged girls, who also presumed I was too thin and well-dressed to be straight).  If racial profiling is the issue blacks hoped the Zimmerman case could resolve, please understand that while I can't understand a life of such profiling, I've had a taste of what it's like.

Yet I still insist that this case was never going to resolve the issue of racial profiling, and while I'd like to be wrong about this, blacks who've allowed themselves to hope for even a productive dialog on the subject will only continue to be deeply disappointed.  And while whites may be responsible for some of the pain they're feeling, I believe that the mainstream media is mostly to blame, because they're the ones who turned a shooting in a gated condo community into a circus, full of glittery promises, hollow reality, and bitter endings.

It has been popularly believed that if it wasn't for racial profiling, Zimmerman wouldn't have gotten out of his car and confronted Trayvon Martin.  Yet while Zimmerman used the term "a**hole" while in his car, and then possibly the racially-derogatory term "coon" under his breath while he was on foot, looking for Trayvon, it was Trayvon who used explicitly racial terminology in describing Zimmerman to his girlfriend over the phone.  In terms of racial profiling, Trayvon's attitude was far more cavalier than Zimmerman's, which could speak to what his demeanor may have been like during his physical interaction with Zimmerman.

We also now know that Trayvon used marijuana, was a juvenile delinquent, and did not live at that condominium complex.  All three of those facts likely contributed to behavior witnessed by Zimmerman that combined to paint a portrait of somebody who might be up to no good.  What was the teen's mental state at the time?  How might his belligerent attitude been reflected in how he moved?  Being relatively unfamiliar with the complex, at night, and in the rain, how disoriented might he have been?  And how was Zimmerman to know that Trayvon may have likely been displaying this behavior not because he was trying to evade detection, but because other factors were impacting his demeanor?  Remember, the condo complex had recently experienced other burglaries.  If you were on patrol and saw something suspicious, would you just drive in the opposite direction?

Now, granted, Zimmerman did a number of stupid things.  He called 911, but he was impatient, and didn't want to wait for the police to arrive.  He got out of his car, which during a rain storm at night wasn't a wise thing to do.  We don't know much more than that, except that both Trayvon and Zimmerman had the right to defend themselves, and one of them ended up dead.  And the other one with bloody scars on the back of his head.  Considering all of the facts that were presented to them during the trail, Zimmerman's jury decided that it was reasonable to assume he was protecting himself, and they ruled accordingly.

That's what this case was about.  It wasn't about race, or racial profiling, or even a sweet, naive teenager being gunned down near his home.  The condo Trayvon was going to was owned by his father's current girlfriend, somebody he'd apparently started dating relatively recently, since Trayvon had been living with his stepmother until around that time.  It's entirely probable that Trayvon's troubles at school and use of narcotics stemmed from confusion, disappointment, and insecurity over his father's serial fornication.

Zimmerman obviously is no angel, but how likely is it that he's now going to have to live the rest of his life with Trayvon's death hanging over him because the youth's father didn't take his paternal role seriously enough?  Teenaged boys need their father to be morally stronger than Trayvon's was.

Content of Character Is Also Context

What does that have to do with racial profiling? Well, if we're going to go into the reasons why Zimmerman felt compelled to leave his car and pursue Trayvon, don't we have to consider the reasons Trayvon was acting the way he was to attract such attention from Zimmerman?  Remember, we don't have enough proof that Zimmerman was after Trayvon because he was black.  There's just as much proof that, had the teenager Zimmerman spotted that night been white, and had been acting the same way as Travon was acting, Zimmerman likely would have done the same thing.

But we don't know, do we?  And that is why this case is not a case for proving racial profiling.  Zimmerman was a gun-toting vigilante who was looking for anything suspicious.  When the 911 operator first asked him to identify the suspect's race, Zimmerman said he though it was black.  It wasn't until after he'd gotten a better look that he confirmed Trayvon's race to the operator.  By that time, Zimmerman was well into a state of high alert, and for people like him - see?  I'm profiling Zimmerman now - once you're that far along into a 911 call and following a suspect, race likely becomes a minor detail.


Part of me tells me to simply move on.  Drop it.  That's what plenty of other whites are doing, either out of their own well-worn frustrations over being unreconciled to blacks, or out of a closet racism that says blacks are their own worst enemy.  Part of me rationalizes that, attention spans being what they are, the media will soon pounce on something else, and the Zimmerman trial will become one of those wounds that scabs over, just like so many others.

Meanwhile, another part of me asks if I should ignore the reality that many people are still genuinely suffering over the Zimmerman verdict.  Wouldn't it be unkind - unChristian, even - to let them languish in their emotional pain?  Especially when they're brothers and sisters in Christ?  When one of us hurts, we all hurt, right?  Besides, I don't want to be a bigot in my heart.  Nor do I want other people to think I'm a bigot.

If explaining how the facts in this case doesn't help assuage the hurt blacks are feeling over its verdict, about all I can do is ask blacks not to fall into the same stereotyping traps into which we whites fall all too often.  We need to remember that racial profiling is a two-way street, and something all of us do in a variety of situations.  We also need to remember that different races and ethnicities are not our enemy, but the evil one who makes us think they are.

Didn't Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have it Biblically correct when he elevated the individual above their appearance?

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I'm not some white man rhapsodizing on a standard-bearer for civil rights simply to elicit some emotional affirmation.  If "content of character" is what we're aiming for, doesn't that set the bar a bit higher than the Zimmerman trial?

For all of us?