Tuesday
Sep252018

Men in Robes

 Or, “Exactly what were you expecting?”

The Catholic Church is self-destructing nicely, thank you. The Pope and his partners in clerical clumsiness are flailing about as the charges pile up. More and more nations and U.S. states are initiating investigations into church malfeasance on the issue of sexual abuse. It turns out that an alarming percentage of the priesthood has been either sexually assaulting children or covering up for those pedophiles.

To which I say, “Exactly what were you expecting?” The Catholic Church has celibate clergy, a priest shortage that makes each robed individual vital, a history of insularity, second class status for women, and a doctrine of papal infallibility that sheds its aura on every priest. The thing that both emerges from these factors and binds them together is the idea that the robe never really comes off. The priest is anointed, special, separate, and above. A priest has personal authority and an embodied sanctity. A brief review of history will remind us that human beings generally don’t behave well when handed this kind of social power.

This was driven home to me again when I read about the head of the Shambhala organization, a Tibetan Buddhist group with 165 centers around the world. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has stepped away from his leadership position after a number of allegations surfaced about his sexual misbehavior. These ranged from infidelity to rape.

Sakyong, by the way, is a word akin to “king.” Mipham inherited the leadership of the group from his father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded the organization. Mipham’s photograph is still displayed in a place of honor in the various centers. (A friend familiar with Shambhala’s history opined that Chogyam “would have been MeTooed if it had been around back then.”)

When I first visited a Shambhala center, Karme Choling in Barnet Vermont, I was intrigued by two doors on the front of the main building. One was a normal exterior door. About 20 feet to the right of it was a highly decorated door. It had bright paint and complicated trim work. There was a note on it. The note said that the fancy door was only for the use of the Sakyong. (I was telling a friend of mine about this recently and we both simultaneously exclaimed, “Fuck THAT!”) So here was a beautiful, perfectly good door left unused 99.99999% of the time, waiting for the appearance of the king.

Exactly what were they expecting? It is completely unsurprising to me that he was a sexual predator. I look at the door as a symbol from two angles. One, what would deference like this do to someone’s personality? Two, what psychologically normal man would accept the idea of his own personal fancy door? If I was leading some organization and people offered me my own personal door that is never used in my absence I’d find it preposterous and embarrassing. Most people would.

Beyond these examples, what I see is that the more charismatic the preacher, the more that the church gains its identity from an individual, the greater the incidence of crime, both sexual and financial. The evangelical movement and the mega-churches with their mega-pastors have been in the news as well.

I am so sick of men in robes. Put a robe and a funny hat on a guy and people line up to bow down. The stories I have heard about priests, pastors, masters, gurus, senseis, and shamans abusing their power have filled me with a natural suspicion of men in robes.

Now we are watching the spectacle of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings. He was a clerk for Judge Alex Kozinski, who resigned after allegations surfaced that he had spent his career sexually harassing female employees. Judge Kozinski served on the federal bench in the 9th Circuit and was a reliable conduit for clerkships with the Supreme Court. His approval could mean a huge boost to a young lawyer’s career. His personal approval. Kavanaugh himself has acted as a “feeder” of clerks to the recently retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. A couple of Yale professors were known to have advised female law school grads that Kavanaugh preferred a particular “model” look.

In contrast to the gurus, there is my own father. He was a judge for a couple of decades. He spent his workday wearing a robe. While he wore it, people were deferential. They stood up when he entered the courtroom and spoke to him in respectful tones. Here’s the important part, though; at the end of the day he took the robe off, hung it in a closet, and returned to being a regular guy. He was a husband, a father, a friend, just like all the other men in the neighborhood.

His power at work was significant. He changed the course of people’s lives. Even so, he worked within a body of laws. These laws were not in his power to change. The ordinary people within his jurisdiction, through their legislators, had the power to change the rules that guided and restrained his actions. For that matter, a clerkship with him was not the golden ticket to success. His power did not reside within him, personally, and that’s the key.

We hate bureaucracy. We like it when people can cut through the complexity and get things done. Mostly we don’t understand the law. Still, it’s the price we pay for a (moderately) just and (moderately) stable society. A mafia boss would be really convenient to have around, if he’s on your side. Likewise a dictator or any strongman. But, being such, they tend to be on their own side. Complex, pain in the ass laws and agonizingly slow bureaucratic processes stand between us and tyranny.

It is human nature to exalt a spiritual leader. It’s basic psychology. It is necessary and proper, therefore, to build accountability into any religion. Religious leaders need to be accountable to public rules and public scrutiny, and those rules need to be established and changed by the laity. What’s more, humility needs to be built in. Religious leaders should use the ordinary door, sit at the same table, and get in line with everyone else. Otherwise, what exactly do you expect?

(Note to readers: I always like these essays to be spread around. Right click on the title of the post, hit "Copy link location" and paste the link into a Facebook post or a tweet or whatever. I'll be most grateful)

Wednesday
Aug292018

It Talks

Your favorite Minor Heretic is not a joiner. I am not someone who enjoys political organizing, meetings, phone banking, or any of that. I went to a couple of Indivisible meetings in my area and left wanting to sniff glue. Nothing against the fine people who organized them; I just don’t have enough patience.

Still, I felt as if I had to do something. I’d feel like an idiot sitting on the sidelines while the majority in U.S. House (and, perhaps, the Senate) was being decided. Especially if it went the wrong way.

Thankfully and unfortunately, the answer is simple: Money. It talks. It makes the world go round. It’s what I want. Get back, keep your hands off of my stack. And so on.

The question is, where to give? I figured that directly to candidates is the most efficient way. But which candidates? Some districts are 100% solid Republican or 100% Democratic. It’s kind of pointless to donate to those.

I looked around online and found some candidates who are 1) decent Democrats, and 2) in races where the predicted margin is tight; 47% to 53% or similar. These are races where a few bucks could make a real difference.

If you want to do the deep dive you can go to 538.com and see what Nate Silver’s crew have calculated. Here are the 25 races they think are most likely to tip the House Democratic. A surprising number of House and Senate races are 99-1 for one party or the other.

From a variety of sources I came up with the following list. I include the candidate websites so that you can check them against your own moral compass and donate directly if you choose. I took a little money out of my savings and split it among them. I figure that if the House doesn’t flip, at least, then my savings won’t do me much good in post-democracy oligarchic America.

Candidate

Website

Senate/House

State

District

Beto O'Rourke

https://betofortexas.com/

Senate

TX


Kyrsten Sinema

https://kyrstensinema.com/

Senate

AZ


Jacky Rosen

https://www.rosenfornevada.com/

Senate

NV


Antonio Delgado

https://www.delgadoforcongress.com/

House

NY

19

Tammy Baldwin

https://www.tammybaldwin.com/

Senate

WI


Claire McCaskill

https://clairemccaskill.com/

Senate

MO


Jared Golden

https://jaredgoldenforcongress.com/

House

ME

2

Anton Andrew

http://www.antonandrew.com/

House

PA

160

Melissa Shusterman

http://www.melissashusterman.com/

House

PA

157

Harley Rouda

https://harleyforcongress.com/

House

CA

48

Bill Nelson

https://www.nelsonforsenate.com/

Senate

FL


 

You can go to actblue.com and create an account. This will streamline your donating to Democratic candidates.

A warning: You will have to go through your emails and unsubscribe to the deluge of fundraising requests you will get. They always have an unsubscribe link at the bottom. They cease instantly, though.

If you are an extrovert and eager to get out there canvassing and calling, please do. If you live in a place with solid Democratic legislators then try the Sister District Project to support Democratic candidates elsewhere. In Vermont, also try Lean Left VT.

Whatever you do, don’t sit this one out. Thank you from the bottom of my heretical heart.

Friday
Aug242018

Somewhere, “Dandy” Don is singing

The news came out today that Allen Weisselberg, Chief Financial Officer of the Trump organization, has been offered immunity from prosecution by the federal prosecutors of the Southern District of New York.

Sidebar one: Those of you old enough may remember when Monday Night Football was co-hosted by Howard Cosell and “Dandy” Don Meredith, former star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. (Meredith hated Cosell’s nickname for him, FYI) Meredith was known for his humor. When a game was in its last minutes, with one team irretrievably behind the other, he would start singing an old Willie Nelson song. “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. They say that all good things must end. Call it a night, the party’s over…”

Sidebar two: When prosecutors offer immunity to a witness, it comes in one of two flavors, use and transactional. Use immunity means that the testimony of the witness about a crime (or crimes) can’t be used against him. Any other evidence against him remains admissible. Transactional immunity means that the witness is protected from prosecution no matter where the evidence comes from. It is the get out of jail free card. Prosecutors prefer use immunity and defense lawyers prefer transactional immunity. The transactional type is rarely offered, and only when there is a much bigger fish than the witness who needs to be reeled in.

It looks like Weisselberg has been offered transactional immunity for his testimony. (Update: there is now debate in the news as to whether he got use or transactional immunity. In terms of the risk to Trump and Co, there isn't much difference. Apparently federal prosecution tends towards use immunity.) As CFO of the Trump organization, there is only one person above him in the hierarchy, Donald J. Trump himself.

Weisselberg has been with the Trump organization since Trump’s father still ran it, back in the 1980s. Any and every Trump financial transaction since that time has gone through his hands. He knows everything and he has participated in everything directly. He’s the one who directed the Trump organization accounting people to transfer money to Michael Cohen’s account for the hush money payoffs to Stephanie Clifford and Karen McDougal.

Weisselberg prepared Trump’s tax returns, oversaw his purchases, managed his loans, and generally managed all the details of running Trump’s enterprises. He was also a trustee and manager of the Trump Foundation, which is under investigation by New York State charity regulatory authorities for fraud.

Informed speculation:

Fact: Trump’s fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen entered a guilty plea on multiple felony counts without an explicit deal trading testimony for leniency. This is unusual. One of the felonies directly involved Weisselberg, as I mentioned above.

Fact: Investigators raided Cohen’s house under warrant and obtained millions of pieces of evidence, including paper documents, emails, text messages, and recordings of conversations between Cohen and other principals of the investigation.

Speculation: Cohen pleaded guilty with no conditions because there was so much documentary evidence that he had no leverage to bargain with. He just has to hope for a few crumbs of mercy from prosecutors. Undoubtedly the name Weisselberg appears in many of those documents and recordings. Weisselberg knew this as soon as the news of the Cohen raid came out, and realized that the jig was up. When prosecutors approached him, he made what is known as a proffer, a bid for immunity in exchange for testimony. Weisselberg’s proffer has to have been one of the most extensive since Sammy “The Bull” Gravano turned on John Gotti. It must involve decades of illegal transactions.

The probability is that there are both federal and state charges to be pursued. State crimes cannot be pardoned by Trump, so Michael Cohen, Eric Trump, Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Ivanka could all be beyond presidential help. For that matter, Trump himself.

David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer and protector of Trump’s sexual misdeeds, also received assurances of immunity in return for testimony, but that’s almost an afterthought. Weisselberg, Cohen, and Cohen’s stash of evidence are the keys to the kingdom. There’s nothing in between the Trump family and criminal convictions except time.

 

Wednesday
May092018

$2,099.20 per Gigabyte

This one has a relationship to the political bullshit tornado we all find ourselves in, but it is personal as well.

I was prompted to write this by a section of the Slate Money podcast discussing the latest attempt by the wireless phone companies T-Mobile and Sprint to combine. They have been trying out various acquisition schemes on the regulators and financiers for the past decade. One of the main objections to this would be the reduction of the wireless players to three, Verizon, AT&T, and the Sprint/T-Mobile combo, thus reducing competition.

Another motivation is the recent revelation that in 2017 AT&T dumped $200,000 into the coffers of Essential Consulting, a shell company run by Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen. As far as anyone can tell, Essential was brought into existence to handle the money to pay off Stormy Daniels. Supposedly a real estate consulting firm, it had no employees, no offices, no website, and essentially no activity except the suspicious transfers of six-figure sums from Russian oligarchs and large corporations and to Ms. Daniels and Cohen himself. AT&T was trying for its own merger at the time the money was transferred, in four $50k chunks.

Unrelated to my wireless thesis, but still interesting, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis made four payments of $99,980 to Essential just before Trump had a dinner meeting with the CEO of Novartis at the Davos conference in January 2018. Which is not suspicious at all. Here’s the executive summary of the report.

Back to wireless service and monopolistic practices.

I have wireless phone service from Verizon. I pay $35 a month for two gigabytes of data. This is extortionate, considering all the other fees I pay them, and compared to prices available in Europe and the UK. On the eastern side of the Atlantic there is no such thing as a locked phone. If you want service in the UK you can walk into any corner shop, buy a SIM card to stick in your phone, and get a gigabyte and a thousand minutes for the equivalent of about $12.50. That’s it. No other fees. You can buy more time and data for a similar price. If you don’t like the service you can walk into a shop, buy a SIM for a different service provider, stick it in the phone, and pitch the old one in the trash. Just like that, with no screwing around.

But that’s not the worst part of our American wireless duopoly (AT&T/Verizon). I do a lot of traveling up to near the Canadian border. Where I go the best wireless reception is from towers in Canada. As I drive near to the border my phone beeps and I get a message from Verizon. It informs me that I am now on Canadian roaming (even though I haven’t crossed the border) and that data will now cost $2.05 per megabyte. $2.05 doesn’t sound so bad until you multiply it by 1024 to get the price per gigabyte, which is $2,099.20. So, picking up a Canadian cell tower has increased my price per gigabyte from $17.50 to $2,099.20. I have spoken with a Verizon customer service representative, who unsurprisingly was at a loss to explain why radio waves increased in price by a factor of 120 when they crossed the line.

Oh, but Verizon has a solution. You can sign up for their Canadian roaming plan. It works like this: Once signed up, if you use your phone in Canadian cell range you get charged a $5 fee for 24 hours. You get to use your regular minutes and data at the regular price. If you dial your phone at 9:04 one morning you have until 9:04 the next morning before another $5 charge is applied.

On a simple monthly basis this would be like paying an extra $150 for my cellular service, which is still robbery. If you consider the possibility of using some tiny amount of data in a day, the cost per gigabyte could be well over $2,099.20.

AT&T has similar plans and pricing, in case you are wondering.

The existence of the Canadian roaming plan raises the obvious question of why Verizon charges $2,099.20 per gigabyte when it also seems able to afford roughly 1/20th of that under the roaming plan.

Of course, the answer is, “Because they can.” The FCC is essentially a captured agency, the antitrust division of the Department of Justice is a joke, and Verizon and AT&T control 70% of the wireless market between them. Verizon is ready and willing to gouge the unprepared and then gouge them again for a lesser amount once they realize they have been had. It’s not going to change until the big wireless carriers are regulated like the near-monopolies they are.

Wednesday
Feb212018

S-7-170

I have been thinking a lot about guns and gun control. I’ve been thinking about this subject for years, but more so lately. With the energy for change brought on by the teenagers of Parkland Florida I thought I’d share an idea.

There is talk of reinstating the assault weapons ban. I am not all in on that, for a number of reasons.

First, an assault weapons ban leaves out pistols, a category of firearms that accounts for ten times more killings than rifles and shotguns combined. Semiautomatic pistols have eclipsed revolvers as the crime handgun of choice.

Second, the very term “assault weapon” or “assault rifle” is a technically vague term. I could point to semiautomatic rifles that are functionally the same as what we might call an assault rifle, but due to irrelevant details aren’t included in that category.

Third, even with the momentum behind the movement at the moment, an absolute ban has a near impossible road to enactment. The NRA has spent decades disseminating effective propaganda, and American public opinion has shifted in their favor. An absolute ban gets a 67% approval rating in the most recent Pew poll, but would be a non-starter in Congress.

I’d like to propose a definition and a procedure that would address most of the concerns and risks we now face, without enacting a de jure ban.

Undergirding this proposal would be the passage of a federal law requiring universal background checks for any firearm transfers. This has a real chance of passage, at least after the 2018 midterms. It got an approval rating of 97% percent in a recent poll, even among gun owners. Even NRA members approve of it, with about 85% support. Without universal background checks any other laws would be pointless.

First, the definition: S-7-170. This refers to the three factors that make military style semiautomatic rifles and semiautomatic pistols uniquely dangerous:

Semiautomatic mechanism. This allows the shooter to fire as fast as he can move his finger on the trigger.

High capacity magazine. Aftermarket magazines are available for most semiautomatic firearms that allow upwards of 100 shots without reloading. Twenty and thirty round magazines are common, and available even for handguns. Jared Laughner, who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 12 others, used a pistol with an extended magazine.

High powered cartridge. The lethality of a firearm, accuracy and rate of fire aside, is defined by muzzle energy. That is, the amount of force that can be imparted by the bullet at the time it leaves the firearm, generally expressed in foot-pounds. That can mean a large bullet travelling relatively slowly, or as with an AR-15 firing a 5.56mm round, a small bullet travelling extremely fast.

S-7-170 specifies a firearm that has a semiautomatic action, can fire 7 shots or more without reloading, and fires a cartridge having more than 170 foot pounds of muzzle energy. The semiautomatic part needs no explanation, but here’s the reasoning behind the 7-170.

There are semiautomatic hunting rifles that have internal (non-removable) magazines that hold five or six cartridges. After firing those, the hunter has to push cartridges one by one into the rifle from the top. That takes time. It wouldn’t be the weapon of choice for a mass shooter, or even your average criminal. If even these semiautomatic firearms were severely restricted there would be resistance from the hunting community, which otherwise might be willing to put up with a law aimed at high capacity firearms.

There is a small cartridge commonly used for target shooting called a 22 rimfire. It comes in “short”, “long”, and “long rifle.” It could be deadly if used with absolute precision, but again, it wouldn’t be the cartridge of choice for someone bent on mayhem. It is the lowest powered cartridge on the market, with the highest powered version I have seen having 168 foot pounds of muzzle energy. (By comparison, a 5.56 round from an AR-15 has a muzzle energy of 1200-1600 ft. lb.) Again, there would be a geometric increase in resistance to legislation, and some effective talking points against it, if the 22 rimfire was scooped up in restrictions.

So we’ve defined a type of firearm that includes high powered semiautomatic handguns and rifles with high capacity magazines. Now what do we do about it?

We do essentially what the Canadians do. You can own a semiautomatic firearm in Canada, but you need to undergo the moral equivalent of a colonoscopy to do so.

First, you need to take a certified firearms safety course. This is offered by various government agencies and private organizations throughout Canada. We could offer the same courses through state fish and game departments that already offer hunter safety courses, and through local hunting and shooting clubs.

Second, you have to pass a test of your firearms safety knowledge.

Third, having passed the test, you have to apply for a Possession and Acquisition License. This involves filling out an application form and getting an extensive background check. Any history of violence disqualifies you. There are some interesting features to the Canadian PAL application.

You have to list your present spouse or domestic partner, and that partner has to sign the form. If your spouse/partner doesn’t sign the form, the Chief Firearms Officer of your province will notify that person. You also have to list any former spouse/partner you had in the past two years. Again, they will be notified if you don’t have their signature.

You have to have someone provide a signature on the photograph you submit and verify that it is actually you.

You need to provide two personal references (with address and phone number) other than a spouse or domestic partner. They each have to sign off on this statement:

“I declare that I have known the applicant for three (3) years or more. I have read the information supplied by the applicant on this application. To the best of my knowledge and belief, I find it to be accurate and I know of no reason why, in the interest of safety of the applicant or any other person, the applicant should not be given a license to possess and acquire firearms.” Just above that statement is the note, “If you have any safety concerns about this application, please call 1 800 731-4000.” The same sentence appears above the signature lines for the current and former domestic partners. This is useful for avoiding that awkward situation when a somewhat scary acquaintance asks you to sign for them.

I seriously doubt that Nikolas Cruz (Parkland), Laughner (Giffords), and Holmes (Aurora) would have been able to pass this barrier, just to name three. Face it, if you can’t find two people on the whole planet who will say “He’s sane,” then you shouldn’t own a sharp fork, much less a firearm.

The PAL can be renewed online every five years. There is a 45 day processing period for an initial PAL application and then a 28 day waiting period before the first purchase.

Restricted Firearms need to be registered to an individual and that registration needs to be updated when a firearm is transferred to another person by sale, barter, or gift. They can only be transferred to another person with a Restricted PAL.

Another Canadian requirement for Restricted Firearms is that they be stored unloaded in a locked container. (Unrestricted firearms need at least a trigger or action lock.)

All together, these requirements would put a serious damper on sales of S-7-170 firearms. They would make it a lot harder for straw-man purchasers to operate and would discourage the casual “why not?” purchaser. Mentally unstable or habitually violent people would be at least seriously hindered and most likely stopped. At the same time, responsible, law abiding individuals with the intellect and patience to make it through the class/test/application/waiting period (and spouses and friends who respect them) would be able to purchase and possess such a firearm. Second Amendment misinterpreters (that’s another argument) can relax.

The proof of this procedure can be seen in the Canadian crime statistics. Canada has a gun related death rate of 1.97 (per 100,000 people), compared to the U.S. rate of 10.54. It’s also interesting to note that the accidental (gun) death rate in Canada is 0.05, less than a third of our 0.18 rate. Those safety courses, hm? Canada still has 30 guns per 100 people (U.S.: 101), so it’s not as if people can’t get firearms at all.

A Canadian style S-7-170 law would pass constitutional muster even with a conservative Supreme Court. It would address the specifics of firearm lethality in a way that the term “assault rifle” won’t. Backed by universal background check it could save tens of thousands of lives every year.

An afterthought: If you like this idea, you should forward it to your friends, and definitely to your elected representatives. Tweet it, Facebook it, hashtag it #S-7-170.